Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.24- The Magic in the Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I said last week that, as usual, Bill Bergren had opened a new thought pattern for me in my post on his teaching a non-trumpet player how to play. Here, again, is his response from last week:
Everything I did was in reaction to the student. It's all about understanding the concept then articulating/communicating in your own words and style. IMO this can't be expressed in the written word and is the reason Mr. Adam never wrote a book. Imagine the master in Zen In The Art of Archery writing a book on his methods. I don't think so.
I bolded the part I want to talk about this week. It is, in essence, a challenge to the written word as the sole way of learning how to do something. He mentioned an older book: Zen in the Art of Archery that was written in the early 1930s and updated in the late 1940s. It is the first of many books that have taken the teachings of Zen and applied them to any number of other activities. The classic from the 1970s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one of the more famous. Such books, to oversimplify them, are philosophical discussions based on or around particular subjects. They take “Zen” ideas and apply them to life.

Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the archery book:
[German philosophy professor Eugen] Herrigel has an accepting spirit towards and about unconscious control of outer activity Westerners heretofore considered wholly to be under conscious-waking control and direction. For example, a central idea in the book is how through years of practice, a physical activity becomes effortless both mentally and physically, as if our habit body executes complex and difficult movements without conscious control from the mind.

Herrigel describes Zen in archery as follows:
"(...) The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art (...)"
It is a short book and an easy read, unless you want to allow it to work on you. Then slow down and listen to it. I could do a number of posts on what I wrote down, but let me take a few ideas.

Part of what this boils down to is that learning “technique” is not always enough. For the archery master Herrigel studied under to have given him a step-by-step description of the way to become proficient at archery, would not have produced a master. For us to simply know that pressing a certain valve or combination of valves produces a certain note does not make a good trumpet player. The “inner game” books by Timothy Gallwey and others present the same ideas in a different form. But I want to stick with the “Zen” idea for this post to give a slightly different perspective from the inner game. This perspective may actually prod us further into being less conscious about our playing and more in-tune (intentional phrase!) with ourselves, our playing, and our fellow musicians.

So what might “Zen and the Art of Music” be like? I found this description from David Michael Wolff, founder and conductor of the Carolina Philharmonic with that very title:
Music has a certain magic to it, a magic infused with zen. If you start to see the energy underneath music instead of dwelling on the surface emotion, you see that lines of energy and rhythm guide the architecture… How can you work with the flow of energy instead of against it? Just as a great martial artist can defeat the opponent using his own energy, so a zen music master learns to bend musical energy to his will, or better, ride it effortlessly by bending himself to the will of music. -Link
Bend yourself as the musician to the will of music. But in order to do that you must also “see” the energy in the music and that there is a structure, an architecture to the energy and rhythm. Somewhat like the inner game except this clearly says that there is more to being a good musician than getting “self one” to be quite so “self two” can get in the flow. It is saying that together, self one and self two can get in the low with that is already in the music waiting to be released. Yes, self one will attempt to shoe-horn and pressure the music to fit its ideas, but sooner or later self two will say “Relax! Hear and feel the power underneath!

Personally I love the idea in this. I know there is “magic” in the music that is waiting for the musician to share it. The technical notes on the page or the strategies we learned in Arban’s or Clarke are the starting points, but they only work on the surface. They help us feel familiar with the technical aspects of playing, but if they don’t move us to hear the music energy, we will simply be playing the notes and not the music itself. I find that exciting. That means for me that in each piece of music I am working on, whether an etude in Charlier or an old band favorite for a concert, there is something more than meets the eye. We can call it the architecture, but that is made up of the rhythms and energy connecting with us.

Bach is one of the best examples in this for me. It is precise, almost mathematically correct. It is some of the most “logical” music ever written. But that isn’t why Bach’s music remains as unique as it is. Logic and precision can get pretty boring. If you hear the “metronome” in the performer’s head, you know the performer has missed the point of the music. But listen… there’s the amazing love of Anna Magdelena in the notes or the soaring craving for God that sings like heaven in Bach’s variations on what we know as “The Passion Chorale.” Yes, it can take technical skill (i.e. years of practice) to get that into a performance, but it’s the emotions that make it a real musical event.

How do we achieve this zen-like attitude?

Many of these are what you would expect.
You have to know your instrument, its feel, its balance in your hands, the way it centers your sound. Think playing the lead pipe along for this. That’s one of the ways we begin to connect with our instrument.

You have to build your strength or endurance. Think long tones centered and improving as you feel the center.

You have to breathe with your instrument and the music. Think long tones and the Clarke exercises.

You have to practice. Herrigel is told by the Master, “Don’t ask- practice.” There are aspects of practice that are important like singing the piece, playing it slow enough to know what the notes feel and sound like, recording yourself, listening to other recordings. All of these are not a prescription to zen and music, they are simply part of the practice. A classic zen idea is to realize that you will know it’s happening when it is time. Until then wait with patience- and keep practicing.

One way I have found that seems to be working for me is moving beyond simply playing scales to improvising on them. I have never been able to improvise, except when singing along with a song, alone, in my car. I am a jazz lover and am empowered by listening to it. Since Shell Lake’s Adult Big Band Workshop two years ago I have been moving toward experiencing what improvising is life. I went through the technical stuff of scales- major, seventh, and minor. They began to feel familiar under my fingers. I was accomplishing several of the things I mentioned above- the instrument, endurance, breathing- technical skills. I just kept practicing. I had difficulty playing with the Aebersold CDs, so I stopped trying. It wasn’t time. I did slightly better with the iReal Pro app on my iPhone, but still struggled.

Then, one day, it was time. As I finished playing through my scales one afternoon I decided to play around with the scale. I started improvising. By ear. (It’s amazing how much faster we can play a scale or a riff if we don’t have to look at the music. I was flabbergasted!) I played with scales and chord arpeggios. I then added a structure of rhythm. Finally I started adding structure of chord changes. I started working on 8- and 16-bar blues changes, then some ii-V7-I changes. I started playing them in different keys. I wanted to look in a mirror to make sure that it was still me playing the horn. The freedom that gave me was nothing short of miraculous. I started composing melodies across the changes. Sure, they were very elementary and quite dull, but I was doing something different.

I was experiencing the zen.

I then started applying all this to a song I have been wanting to arrange for our quintet- the folk song Sloop John B. I worked it out by ear, then I started playing with it, checking different rhythms and chord changes, descants and the like. All by ear. I began to experience the zen of this song. I then heard new things that I could play and ways to truly move beyond simple improvisation to some slightly more interesting variations. As I did this the power and energy of the song became apparent. I could feel it in my horn and embouchure. (I know that anyone who loves technical stuff will probably give up at this point. That’s okay. It is working for me!)

Each time I play through the song now, I get a different insight into its structure and energy. I am almost ready to be getting the composing part going. Because I know the music, the song’s zen, it will be more interesting than if I had simply done some technical study and fit that to the song.

Be careful, of course, that you don't get into some bad habits. It could be easy to get used to doing things some incorrect ways. More on that in another post. For this week, Zen works. Go with the musical flow- it's energy and rhythm, its architecture and texture.

Bill, as usual, you’ve done it again.

And as usual, thanks.

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