|Weekly Reflections on Life and Music|
This past week was a week of music to listen to. We were visiting friends in Pennsylvania and had the opportunity to attend three musical events with them- two Christmas Vesper services and one orchestral concert. The one vespers was one I myself had participated in over 40 years ago as a scripture reader. It is for me the paradigm of a Christmas Eve-type vespers service in my own faith tradition. The congregational hymns resonate deeply in my own spiritual life. But more than that the whole vespers expresses a deep connection with tradition.
That was also true in the second Christmas vesper service at another nearby university. They have the same long-standing tradition of particular songs and musical accompaniment. I had never been to that particular vespers before. But it, too, resonated deeply being performed in a wonderful imitation Gothic structure built in the late 1800s. Like all such religious buildings they can be called, as this church once was, a “sermon in stone.”
These vespers services underscored the importance of tradition in music. Even when we are writing new compositions or improvising a jazz solo we are part of a tradition. We stand in an incredible line of musicians and music lovers. We are not alone- and don’t need to be alone. We are part of something far greater than ourselves which moves us.
The orchestral concert was truly an event. It was the Lehigh University Philharmonic doing Mahler’s 6th! It was in the performance hall with 100+ musicians on stage and a sound that is as good as any. When doing Mahler, one needs to be in shape. When one listens to Mahler, one must also be in shape. (The Mahler was the middle day of the three events, bookended on Friday and Sunday by the two vespers services.) For a musician being in the audience was nothing short of heavenly. The opportunity to hear so many different styles of instrumental, orchestral, and choral music in such a short time is priceless. Placing them in historic places or fine examples of musical venues makes it even more so.
Before talking about what I learned, I need to make one idea very clear. To me, listening to music is NOT a passive experience. Music is never a spectator sport. I move to the beat, I direct the sounds, I allow my eyes to close and just let the sounds envelope me. It is impossible for me to be passive. (My wife often insists on holding my hand during a concert to at least keep me in some sense of control. It doesn’t often work well.) Music is not meant to be something that is just there. It is the world and the word turned into movement; it is the frequency of life vibrating. How can I not move with it?
What then did I learn from this marathon music weekend? To be honest, nothing unique. Instead what I learned was a reinforcement of much of what this whole Tuning Slide blog has been about for the last year and a half. There are things that we musicians need to remember when attending a concert or musical event. They are very simple, but profound in their depth. As you sit in such an event:
• Let the music flow.
Don’t try to control what you are hearing. Don’t work on figuring out the “wow!” moments. Just let them happen as they will. If it helps to close your eyes from time to time to feel the flow, do it. But pay attention to where and how it is flowing. No, I can’t explain it any better than that. Pay attention to the dynamics and the way one part flows into the next. Any well-planned and -performed concert will flow. Music will, too.
• Watch the musicians
There were a couple very powerful musicians in the philharmonic that lived the music as they were playing it. They wanted to make sure the music moved the way they wanted us to hear it. You could see it on their faces; the way the one played the oboe was almost magical; the principal trumpet and horn players were coaxing every ounce of themselves out of their horns; the lead violinist put his whole body into every important moment. The singers were harder to discern in the darkened churches, but the smiles and wonder in their voices was spectacular even when I couldn’t see them.
• Listen to the emotions
Putting the flow together with the musicians you get emotion. The emotion the musicians are playing with- and the emotion in the original music. Both vespers services ended with what, for them, are traditional pieces. Yet they sounded like they were being sung for the first time. The musicians in the Mahler, guided by a very skilled conductor, phrased every up and down of emotion. It was a joy in all these instances to allow those emotions to well up within me.
• Expect the soul to be moved
Don’t ever go into a concert expecting nothing to happen. Expect to be moved; be open to it. Sure, it doesn’t always work that way, but the chances are a great deal better that it will of you go in with your soul or spirit primed to be moved.These are for us as audience members. But we are also musicians ourselves.
As a musician, this week reminded me of the order of things that we heard about at the Trumpet Workshop.
1. The music is firstCombing these with the four things I mentioned above to be prepared for when you attend a concert, here is what it means when you are the musician performing for that audience out there.
2. The other musicians are second.
3. The audience is third
4. You and fourth.
• As a musician always respect the music. It’s not about you!
The music, in and of itself has power and demands respect. It can be Mahler, an old plainsong, a hymn written in the 1700s, or a prelude composed specifically for this event. Respect it. It has its own life and power. Don’t get in the way.• Be humble. It’s not about you!
Yes, I know. Trumpet players are not known for their humility. All the more reason to remember this. The music is not about any one of us individually. You and I are part of an ensemble. We play together to evoke the emotions that are already there in the music. We are there to tap into the power of those notes working together and then share it. If I get so excited or overwhelmed by my own part or my own greatness, it all gets lost.• Study the parts. Learn them as if they are friends. Commit yourself to them.
One of the students in the philharmonic was asked how much time they devoted to learning the Mahler. He said they practiced 3 1/2 hours per week for 3 1/2 months. That is over 50 hours of rehearsal time- not including the time the musicians worked on it by themselves. That is when and how a piece comes together. It is not magic or rocket science or even just having a bunch of really talented musicians. It’s hard work for hour upon hour, week upon week. In so doing they learned what Mahler may have been trying to communicate. Then they shared it with us.• Stay focused.
Be aware that you are a conduit for the spirit of the music to reach others. They are depending on you to do that. That’s why the audience is there. It is for them. It is your opportunity to give them your best- individually and as a group. It is your sharing the wonder of the music- paying it forward.Think on these things at your next performance. Large or small, it will make it a better experience for you and your audience. Enjoy your music as much as you enjoy music played by others.
If you are interested, here are links to previous performances of the two vesper services on YouTube.
Moravian College Vespers (2014)
Lehigh University Vespers closing (2015)