Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Tuning Slide: 2.13- Nothing New- All is New

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
-Ecclesiastes 1:9

Many have seen quotes like this one from the preacher in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes as profoundly depressing. Day by day goes by and there is really nothing new. It’s the same old same old day in and day out. But let me suggest that there is another way of looking at it, a way that gets me back to basics and exploring. In the end it will turn into a couple of “new” things:

First, that I can learn from how things were done before. People have been doing what I am doing- how did they grow and learn. That of course is the idea of having mentors, teachers, people to inspire and guide us in what we are doing. It means that there may very well be wisdom in what has gone before. Most of us as trumpet players have been using the Arban’s method for years. It was first published around 1859- and is still in print! Charlier, Concone, and others have built on it, but it is still as good as it gets. Nothing new under the sun- just look at Arban.

Second, the preacher of Ecclesiastes can also be saying that if we keep aware of the things around us, we will find something, that for us, is new. Yes, I realize I am reading into the text, not reading from it. But if I know darn well that even if there is nothing new under the sun, I sure haven’t learned, seen, or done it all yet. For me, it could be as new as this morning.

It can be so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that once we have learned something, we can move beyond it- we don’t have to keep on working on it. That would be a profound danger for any of us in life- but certainly a potentially musically fatal error as musicians. Reading the stories of people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Johann Sebastian Bach seems to show that these great musicians never stopped learning and growing. They were constantly exploring what was already there, it’s just that perhaps no one had ever seen it quite that way before. I would describe that to some extent as having a “beginner’s mind.” There is a Zen Buddhist idea known as “shoshin” - beginner’s mind. According to Wikipedia
it refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. (
Having that beginner’s mind is one of those essentials of growing in our trumpet skills. In earlier posts about practicing I talked about planning as one of the things that sets deliberate (and effective) practice apart from just playing the horn. Let me be clear, I have great difficulty with planning of this sort. I tend to want to move along, not get stuck in “boredom” of practicing too much on one thing. I have been working on this aspect of my musical growth these past 18 months. I am beginning to see the results. (By the way, patience will be one of my topics some week. When I get around to it.) Not just because it has forced me to plan ahead and work on things that are more difficult- an obvious need, but because it has made me look at what is important- and then focus on it. With this all in mind, then, I wondered what one of our Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop leaders would add to this. So I emailed Bill Bergren two questions:

What makes a good plan?
What should be in every trumpet player’s plan?

His answer came as no surprise, but rather an important reminder that even when there’s nothing new under the sun, there’s always the need to be reminded of what is important. He sent me four pillars of what should be in every trumpet player’s plan. The first two:
FUNDAMENTALS! 75% The majority of your practice time, 75%, should be spent on fundamentals. If you can play the instrument, you can focus on the musical aspects. This includes routine, scales, method/etude books.
 MUSIC! 25% If you are practicing fundamentals in a musical manner, playing actual music should be easy.
Yep. No surprise. Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. Three things stood out this year in a different way for me when Bill reminded me of these two pillars.

1) These help me play the instrument so that
2) I can learn to play the fundamentals in a musical manner, and
3) This helps me play music musically.

Because there is nothing new under the sun, what I will find in some musical piece for band, quintet, etc. will include what I have practiced in the etudes. I remembered on one of the pieces the community band played last summer that it felt like a Getchell or Arban’s exercise. It made it a lot easier to learn the piece.

I know it sounds strange to think of playing something like an Arban’s exercise “musically.” We don’t think that way when we are looking at the notes and figuring out how to play it. That is why it is important to “read” the piece and then “sing” it first. (Another of Bill Bergren’s points from Shell Lake.) Take the time to see and hear the music in the piece so that the music and not just the notes can come out.

It is important to see the etudes we practice as part of the fundamentals. According to Merriam-Webster, etude is defined as:
1. a piece of music for the practice of a point of technique
2. a composition built on a technical motive but played for its artistic value (Emphasis added)
The word “etude” comes from the French for study. Those etudes from Charlier, Getchell, etc. are meant to be musical so that we can learn techniques- fundamentals. One of my other mentors, Paul Stodolka, also from Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop, commented to me once that when he is finding himself off-center and needing to focus, he goes back to the etudes. It always works.

Bill listed two other pillars that should be part of every trumpet player’s plan. These two he said should be separate from the regular practice time:
LISTENING! ----You need to set aside time every day to listen to good music. It doesn't have to be trumpet players.

IMPROVISATION! Improvisation is important for ALL players.
A year ago I would have responded, “Yes, but…” to the second of those pillars. Not because I didn’t think it was important, but, well, it just kind of didn’t fit into what I was thinking. In reality I was afraid of it! It meant a degree of familiarity with the horn- and music- that I didn’t think I could have. Not that I didn’t want to learn to improvise, I was just intimidated by it. So what did I do? I followed Bill’s advice and went back to fundamentals. I learned the 12 major scales. Then I memorized Clarke #2 and one of the exercises doing thirds around the Circle of 4ths. Basic stuff. I worked on trying to play them musically, not just notes being translated from ink to air. It had to move from air to sound to music. I also listened to music. I always do that, but I became far more intentional about what I listened to. I began to concentrate on some specific pieces that had some good- but not complicated- improvisation. That was my plan. It worked.

And what fun it has become.

Next week I’ll take a look at what this can mean if we dig even more deeply a allow the beginner’s mind to be at work. As always, it will help us be better musicians and be better at living.
And THANKS, BILL, for the thoughts!

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