Thursday, March 02, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.26- Watching and Listening

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Sometime it is just neat to be in the audience when music is being made. Part of the discipline of being a musician is to go and hear others playing in performance. I have had a number of opportunities to do that over the past few months and have come away with some insights that I hope I can apply to my own public performance. In particular I have had the time to hear some types of music that I don’t personally play. When I go to a concert where I am hearing different types of music, I kind of mentally prepare myself with five questions. These help me focus on the music, not so much from a technical aspect but from the perspective of a music fan. These questions:
  • What’s familiar?
  • What’s different?
  • What’s new and interesting?
  • What do I like about it?
What can help me in my own playing and performance?

The most interesting concert for me was the Russian String Orchestra in a relatively small (500 seat) venue. It wasn’t quite like sitting by the stage in a club environment, but it was close. I very seldom get to hear strings in person. And even less do I get to hear “just strings” in person. Strings have a unique and wondrous sound in an orchestral setting. I can still remember the first time I heard an orchestra in person. I was 22 and just about to graduate from college. I spent the summer in Austria and there I heard a chamber orchestra perform in a local cathedral. I was swept away. The sound of such an ensemble is hard to match.

The Russian String Orchestra consists of 16 string players, violin to double bass. My first thought was, “Gee, that’s about how many we have in our big band.” But there wasn’t a trumpet, trombone, saxophone - or amplifier- in sight. Which is the first thing that caught me up short; this is a 100% acoustic performance. There’s no manipulation of the sound, what is there is what you hear. It is not a “large” sound, but it does get through. It has an amazing range of dynamics. The quiet subtlety of a pianissimo section is almost breathtaking in its simplicity- and wonder. That they can easily move from that to a fortissimo that brings thunderstorms to mind is even more amazing. The ability to have that kind of control over one’s instrument is almost miraculous.

Which is the first thing I took away from the concert. The hours of practice it takes to be that controlled in your music is critical, as I have talked about before. But to hear the results of that practice shows what a great gift it can be to the audience. Trumpet players aren’t traditionally known for their subtlety. Maybe it is worth working on that. Yes, it is difficult in a big band of brass and woodwinds to get that, but the result- for the audience- is priceless. Music is not just blasting away or developing high screaming notes or even a fast chromatic run. The silence between the notes may be just as important, which is where the subtlety can be born.

The concert itself was purely “classical” string music-style. No pop numbers adapted for strings. It was the real deal. And, no surprise, it used all the same notes that every other band I play in uses. The rich variety of music available to us to hear and play is remarkable. On top of that, it also follows many of the same rules that I have been working on with my jazz improvisational learning, and most certainly what I find in Arban’s, Clarke, or Charlier etudes.

The second thing I did was I listened more closely to get the groove of the music. I could pick out certain musical progressions that I am trying to become intimate with- variations on the ii-V7-I cadence found in so many jazz and popular numbers were there. So was the eight-bar phrasing at times, giving me the movement I could flow with. Hearing the music being moved around the different instruments, allowing each section and, on one piece, each member, to show off their virtuosity was entrancing. I moved with the music- and it became even more alive.

Again, how much work goes into that? These musicians were more than proficient- they were professionally expert! Part of what they have done is to learn the music, feel the rhythm, and then allow the music to transfer through them and their instrument to their fellow musicians and to the audience. That is back to the control of their instrument (remember self one) allowing the natural development of the music to intuitively come out (remember self two.) But what I took away for me, beyond the practice and “Inner Game” thoughts, is again those three things we have talked about before:
1. Every time you play you have a great- not a good- sound.
2. You have great- not good- rhythm.
3. You have great- not good- ears to hear the sound.
All three of those came together with what I was hearing.

The third thing that I have learned to watch when musicians are performing is how do they look? Are they just doing a job, or are they interested, engaged, even excited. I had seen that in a concert of Irish music and dancing the week before. Those young people were remarkable in their raw energy and their ability to harness it for the show. They were not polished like, say, Riverdance. But they were every bit as good. They were excited by the performance and the engagement with us the audience.

I saw that same kind of excitement with the Russian Strings. They were having fun. Being in such a small venue I could easily watch their faces, their eyes, the movement of their bodies. I saw them look across the orchestra and smile when someone did a great job. I watched them lean into the music and get ready for the next section that was important to them personally. I saw the little communications that passed information from one to the other. They were intensely involved in the music, they liked the music, and they were excited to be able to play it.

Part of that comes from their incredible intimacy with the music and the way they have learned to listen and work with each other. They may all be highly skilled, but they clearly know at this point in their careers that they need each other. I hope they never lose that. Part of it, too, is that they, like the Irish group the week before, truly like what they are doing. They get that from their conductor. He loved directing the music; he loved the opportunities this orchestra gives young people; he is excited by sharing it with us in the audience, even when the microphone didn’t work as well as he wanted it to. He was contagious- the orchestra caught it. The orchestra was contagious- and we caught it.

It was a great evening of music. But it was also a great evening of learning for me and a reminder of why I do what I do with my music. Yes, it feels great to be able to build my chops and, for example, move through 12 major scales with little effort, or (Mr. Baca, Steve, and Warren take note) regularly hitting that high “C” and “D”. But if that is all I do, it will be nothing more than a selfish endeavor. It is in the performance that the true magic of music does its work. Therefore:
  • Deliberate practice to be able to give better performances. Develop the breadth and subtlety of the music.
  • Maintain the interest in finding new ways to be excited by what I am doing.
  • Stay engaged with the music and the groove in performance so it can fit together.
  • Put all these together on the bandstand or concert stage.
  • Be contagious and let the audience catch it.

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