Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Tuning Slide: 2.4- What's Number One?

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Why do we do what we do as musicians?

Somewhere at some time in the past- distant for some, more recent for others- music made us stop and pay attention. Most likely it happened when we heard something in music and our world changed.

Mine was in junior high music class. The teacher told us to listen to his piece of music and tell what we hear. The needle dropped and I heard cars and people and the noise of a city through a series of notes and instrumentation that I later learned were iconic. When a few moments passed she stopped and asked us what we heard. I tended to be shy and didn’t raise my hand in class very much at that point so I remained silent.

She looked around the room. I don’t remember if anyone else said anything. I do remember her telling us the name of the piece.

An American in Paris by George Gershwin. I had heard correctly. The music was alive and real.

Several years earlier I had taken piano lessons for a year but had never stayed with it. I liked making music, or at least trying to. But I wasn’t hooked. Around the same time as the American in Paris experience I started playing trumpet after much badgering of parents who expected it would be a repeat of the piano. Fortunately it wasn’t. Again because something happened. I don’t know what it was in this instance. I do know that music became a central part of my life. It was September 1961, 55 years ago. Music is even more central today than it ever was- both listening and playing.

As a performing musician of various skill levels and involvement over these 55 years I can honestly say I have never wanted to quit. There were fallow periods when I didn’t play much if at all. But it was never far away. My brain kept yearning, even if it was just at Christmas and Easter, or singing along with the radio.

Music is always number one!

Maria Popova wrote about this aspect of music for performing musicians on her web site, Brain Pickings.
“Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating,” musician Glenn Kurtz wrote in his sublime meditation on the pleasures of practicing, adding: “My attention warms and sharpens… Making music changes my body.” Kurtz’s experience, it turns out, is more than mere lyricism — music does change the body’s most important organ, and changes it more profoundly than any other intellectual, creative, or physical endeavor. (Kurtz, Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music)
Then, quoting TED-Ed author Anita Collins, Popova leads us to an insight about how powerful music playing is:
Playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout… Playing an instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once — especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices. And, as in any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities… Playing music has been found to increase the volume and activity in the brain’s corpus callosum — the bridge between the two hemispheres — allowing messages to get across the brain faster and through more diverse routes. This may allow musicians to solve problems more effectively and creatively, in both academic and social settings.
My guess is that at that somewhere moment in time our brains were filled with neurotransmitters and emotions and our mid-brain knew that it was good! Even when it got boring, we kept at it because it has been good and we knew it. The more we worked at it, the more we practiced, the stronger our brains became (that full-body workout of the brain!). It is dangerous to say, but in that our brain was hijacked. We can never be the same again.

That’s what got us going- and even keeps us going. It sounds like making music, then is all about us- the musician. And not anyone else. Just us. We do it to please ourselves. Which will get us nowhere. One of those seemingly insignificant statements that float about the room at the Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop points this out.

No matter what:
• The music is number one. It is first and foremost,
• Fellow musicians are second,
• The audience is third, and
• You are fourth.

Let’s take a quick look at each and see how this falls into place.

✓ The music is first.
The music has to be there and, let’s be honest, it has to sound good. It has to have that element of the notes rubbing together that Kurtz is quoted as writing above. The instrument shivers with delight when all those things come together. We strive for that moment. We want that moment to happen every time we pick up our instrument, even when playing those seemingly endless long tones and scales. If Clarke #2 has never done that for you, try it next time you play it. That’s what hooked us in the first place- the music.

Unlike a substance addiction where you can never get back to that first “high”, with continuing practice and dedication you can go beyond that first musical hook to even greater heights and depths. The first time I played Clarke #2 starting on the high G at the top of the staff was a moment as fulfilling and exciting as when I first played “The Saints” 55 years ago. It is the music that perpetuates itself in us, fulfills us, and helps us move to the next stage of our performance ability. We want to make the music and we want to make better music.

✓ Fellow musicians are second.
But we can’t do it alone all the time. Music is a communal act. It is done with others. Even the greatest soloists in any musical genre cannot maintain a solo act with no supporting musicians. In saying that our fellow musicians we play with are second means that we are building a community of people working together to make music. The music lives when it involves others. The music lives when we make the music WITH others. The tone and color change; the rhythm can be different. Even if we are playing in unison, it is more than one person. Plus, as we have no doubt discovered many times, our part sounds different when played with the rest of the parts. Hitting that top of the staff F is a lot easier when it is in a major chord than when it is rubbing against some minor dis-chord.

✓ The audience is third.
And yes, we have to play FOR someone else. I think I knew that way back in my early days. I would dream of planning and performing a concert for my family. What would be the order? What do I need to work on? What will please them? Some of that may have been a way of atoning for all the “bad” sounds they had to endure, but it was also a natural extension of the music’s communal aspect. The music had a long way to go, but they seemed to enjoy what I did, if only because I was doing it for them. That group sitting out there in the auditorium or concert hall wants the music we have to offer. Bruce Springsteen was talking on TV the other night about the magic that happens in concert. The interaction between us and our audience is critical for good music. Sure, we can play exceptionally well without that feedback, but the chemistry of performers and audience is exciting and energizing.

✓ I am fourth.
In other words, in the end it is not about me.

Yes, playing music moves us. Yes, playing music does all kinds of healthy things for us, the musicians. Yes, music makes us better people. But in the end it is not about us. It is about #1- the music. The music does not primarily serve us and our needs as the musician.
  • We serve the music.
  • We support our fellow musicians.
  • We present our offering of music to the audience.
  • We are moved, filled, energized, and carried to further service.

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