Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Tuning Slide - Keeping the Soul in the Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Music in the soul
can be heard by the universe.
― Lao Tzu

We went to another "big name" concert last weekend, the second in a month. This time it was country music star and daughter of Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash. No, there were no trumpets with her but I spent a lot of time being mindful of her performance and what I can learn from it about performing and playing trumpet.Some were additions to what I saw and experienced with Herb Alpert in the previous concert. Others were new. So here goes...

Overarching the whole experience was the awareness that these people play this music day after day. How in the world can they keep the music alive in countless performances? How can they make it feel as fresh for this night as they did 20 or 30 concerts ago? Hence the title of this post reflects the question of keeping the "soul" in the music for every performance.

Rosanne did it beautifully. The power behind her singing was as soulful as anyone. The words to her songs took the music to new depths - and vice versa. So, in a sense, one way to keep the music alive is the way you plan the show.

Cash is doing something unusual on this tour. She is performing her most recent album, The River and the Thread, in full and as recorded on the CD. She gave the background of the album and thoughts about each song, putting it into context and giving us a glimpse of her writing. It took about an hour or so and was the first half of the concert. I would say it was one of the more remarkable concert experiences I have ever witnessed. She never lost her soul. She connected with the audience and brought us into her world.

How do I do that when in performance? How does my brass quintet, for example, allow the audience to participate as more than a passive listener? Even though they are there for the music, what else can we bring to them. Both Cash and Alpert at the earlier concert do that through their interactions with the audience. Alpert took questions and responded to people's interest; Cash took us behind the music to allow the meaning of the songs touch us differently.

In our quintet or big band, I take the time between songs, if it isn't a dance with the big band, to tell the stories of the songs. I put them into context, their history, explain why we play them or perhaps how they showcase a quintet or big band. Some of that is covering for music changes, but it is also to bring the audience, metaphorically on stage with us. But it is also about my keeping my focus on the music's soul. I am reminding myself of the music's inner life, our inner lives as musicians, and why we are doing what we are doing.

On stage interactions are another set of issues for bands in performance. At the Cash concert I overheard two different responses to what was happening on stage. First was one person commenting that they enjoyed watching the musicians during the songs- what they are doing, different tricks and movements, how they are responding to the music. You will see how the drummer exaggerates certain movements to give a different emphasis, the keyboardist fiddling with the controls getting just the right sound, the guitarists closing their eyes and letting the music flow from their fingers.

For the audience that part of the show is just as real as the person doing the lead. If the band is not engaged, is just going through the motions and playing the notes, the overall experience will be diminished.

That was the second response I heard about the Cash show- the band seemed tired, they weren't as alive as Cash herself. I'm not entirely sure I saw that as much as the person I was talking to did. I wondered if some of the group just knew they weren't the stars so they tried to stay in the background? It didn't seem to me to diminish their performance.

But it does raise issues for any of us as performing musicians.

What do you do in your band when another person or section is soloing? Are you engaged or are you sitting or standing there looking bored? Do you give the impression that when it is not centered on you or your part that it isn't worth paying attention to? That can happen so easily since we are concerned about the next part or the water gurgling in the horn. Be aware, though, of how the audience responds to that as well.

We play music for a reason- it is a soul experience. We do it because we are moved by  it. In the end it will come to some performance. We are charged, at that point as performing musicians to communicate to the audience that soul experience. Whether you are the lead trumpet soaring on a solo or the 4th section musician doing little more than "oom pahs" your part is important- as is your interactions with the music. Your soul is part of the whole. Feel it and live it through the horn and your engagement with the rest of the band.

Again, as it seems to always be, the connection to life is hopefully obvious. How do you relate to the world around you? Do you engage or do you go through life with a sense of disinterest if it isn't centered on you? What do you have to offer in even the smallest ways to the soul of the situation?

Find your soul and then let it be lived.

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