|Weekly Reflections on Life and Music|
following you right on up until you die.
— Paul Simon
I have talked before about the impact of music on musicians- or at least on this musician. It has been known to happen in a rehearsal that I get so caught up in allowing the music to flow around and through me that I lose my place. That happens especially in concert band music since there are more than a few times in any concert when the trumpets are resting and other interesting things are happening around the band.
One thought when playing a more famous and familiar piece from some well-known composer is the honor I am having by playing the piece. My part may be as simple as some moving accompaniment line that few will hear separate from the whole or it could be the wondrous melody line played by the whole section. It doesn’t matter- it is still participating in something that has been around for years or centuries and here I am in that same line of musicians privileged to be able to play it.
One particular concert I remember was one where the director chose a complete concert of numbers by George Gershwin. I have been in love with his music since 9th grade when in music appreciation class the teacher played the opening of "American in Paris". From the moment I heard the “traffic noise” and the mood of the crowds in the street, I was hooked. Over the years I have played a number of arrangements of his works. A whole concert with selections was almost more than I could bear.
“I am playing Gershwin,” would go through my mind as we rehearsed. “This is immortal music,” was my next thought. I was in awe and the music flowed. That concert was one of the more enduring memories I have of playing music. To be able to actually be part of making the music was in itself a significant life moment. I probably am still working from the store of endorphins from that one concert alone. It went far beyond just playing music, it was experiencing the music from within.
I love going to concerts as a listener. It can anywhere from bluegrass to blues, Mozart to Mahler. It can be ensembles or wind bands or brass bands. At one concert last week I was being moved by the music and, as I am often led to do, I closed my eyes. My wife thought I was falling asleep and nudged me. I later explained to her that when music like that is at work I will close my eyes so I can shut out the extraneous “noise” and sensory input from vision. I need to allow the music to do what only music an do. I describe it in four words.
• Music Moves.
Music is not static. It doesn’t just sit there. Even when I am practicing and playing long tones, no note ever remains still. I visualize it leaving me as I hold that “whisper G” and heading out the bell. Music is sound, of course, which means it is made up of waves, moving waves. The music is coming at you- or if I’m playing- moving away from me. When it doesn’t seem to move, when it might be blah or nondescript we can often say that the music didn’t “move me.” But most of the time there is, I believe, a sensory but unconscious awareness that music is movement. But it is, I believe, a special movement that our brains are made to pick up as unique and important.
• Music Flows.
What that movement is can be called “flow.” We use that word to describe a state of being that we can experience. We can be “in the flow” as psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called that special state of being energized and focused resulting in creativity, enhanced learning, peak performance, and life happiness. I believe there is a correlational and causal relationship between music and “flow” because it can often be a flowing movement. Some compositions naturally do not “flow”, or more to the point may actually interrupt flow for good reasons. But even a martial march often gives a flow to the movement forward. As a result of that movement of flow, I often sense that the music is surrounding me, moving past me, circling back and coming toward me again.
This may be why when a band is playing in a “dull” room where the sound is lost and never seems to come back, you lose the sense of flow. The music seems to leave the end of the horn and kind of drop somewhere out there. Sure it is still music and it can, I am sure, have an impact. But in the right place at the right time with the right movement, music is an unstoppable force.
• Music Infuses.
Simply put, this means that music gets inside us, into what I could call our psyche, our soul, our spirit. It is not just something outside of us, it becomes part of us. Even people who may be “tone deaf” or can’t carry a tune in a bucket can still have this happen. When the movement of music connects with the energy within us, they interact in either harmony or discord. Sometimes the music provides the discord, sometimes our lives produce it. But in that interaction, the music as waves become part of the energy of our lives. Some of that may be in the production of the hormone oxytocin- the feel-good hormone- that can help improve our sense of well-being. This is far beyond the limits of what I am talking about, but they are in some ways interconnected.
• Music Transforms.
Finally, through the movement, the flow, the infusing spirit and release of oxytocin, music transforms us. This may be why music is often seen and utilized by protest movements to energize their supporters and by the powers-that-be to combat such movements. The transformation of music as an expression of emotions, desires, anger, or hope is often irresistible. Musicologist Ted Gioia, famous for many great writings on jazz, has a recent book simply called Music that explores this from our primitive pre-historic music to contemporary movements.
I have discovered that when I play music these same things can happen to me. I am never the same when I am doing practicing. I am never the same when I am done playing a concert or another gig. When practicing I am learning to experience the movement and flow, the infusion and transformation in my own life and how to join with it in my playing. When I am rehearsing with a group, I am finding the ways that we as a group can move and flow and together, interacting with each other in some kind of synchronization so we can perform it for others. Finally, when I am performing I am taking what I have learned and experienced in the practice room and rehearsal hall and giving it as a gift from me to the audience.
So, my advice- pay attention whenever you are making music, even if the music is on the radio or coming from your computer speakers. Pay attention and, at times, you will discover that you are part of this amazing transformation that music provides.