Wednesday, December 13, 2017

3.25- The Tuning Slide- The Unexpected

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.
— J. R. R. Tolkein

This month’s theme is “The Journey” of being a trumpet player, musician, and human being. Last week we talked about that all important “first step” that gets us moving. This week we continue with two quotes from the board at the end of Trumpet Workshop this past summer:

✓ Be comfortable being uncomfortable [Expect the unexpected]
✓ Always have a relaxed breath. Warm, moist air

Don’t worry, they are not as disconnected as they seem. They are two more essential aspects of the journey you are on. As Bilbo used to say any journey is a dangerous business. When we truly set out on a new journey of any kind- outer or inner- we do not know what’s ahead or where it will take us. We plan and practice, gather resources and support. We step out the door and we meet a “black swan.”

What? You’ve never seen a black swan? Here’s Wikipedia talking about it. Black swan

is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying which presumed black swans did not exist, but the saying was rewritten after black swans were discovered in the wild.

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:
• The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.
• The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).
• The psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event's massive role in historical affairs.

In other words, black swans are the next-to-impossible-to-predict events that have HUGE impacts on life. Looking back we can rationalize them, but that never helps us predict what the next “black swan” event might be in our lives. Whether it is the 9/11 attacks, the wildfires in California, or Superstorm Sandy, the BIG events that have the greatest impact on people’s lives are often unforeseen and unpredictable. They happen and change the world. We will often look back and say “we should have known that!” but in reality if we could have we would have.

We can respond to this situation in different ways in our lives. First, we can live in terror and fear of the next black swan event. That will always be an existential, unconnected, free-floating fear that can never be pinned down or done away with. By definition we can’t know what the next big event will be. To live in that constant state of uncertainty is not any way to live.

Second, we can live with a carefree, not-give-a-crap attitude, rushing headlong into whatever is ahead. Life is a gamble for all of us. You can get the most toys, but in the end we all die. This may have a lot of adrenaline-pumping action; it may move us to do some brave and courageous or dumb and dangerous things. The result may very well be a toss-up.

Third, we can combine the two with that wonderful first quote and description. If you always expect everything to go smoothly and the way you want things to go, you will be disappointed. In spite of things like the “law of attraction” and certain ways some of us pray at times, we don’t always get what we want. That will make us uncomfortable! Can I put up with discomfort? Do I see discomfort as an enemy or a sign of what needs to be done?

I have talked a number of times about the process I continually go through as a learning, growing musician. I reach a point- usually quite unexpected- when things don’t just feel right. I may have a lousy performance where even that good old 2nd line G comes out like mud. Or I find my endurance slipping for no apparent reason. Maybe there’s a new piece that doesn’t look that hard that just doesn’t want to fall under my fingers.

I become quite uncomfortable at those times. Have I reached the end of my line? Is this as good as it gets? Was I being too comfortable with where I was and not expanding the envelope? I can easily be tempted at that point to cut back, even give in. I rationalize- well, after all, I am nearly 70 years old. I can’t expect to continue to improve like I would if I were 30 or 40. Then the picture of me with Doc Severinsen pops up on my phone and I give that idea up.

Is it okay to be uncomfortable? Sure it is. Usually it means I am at a turning or growing point. I look for adjustments I can make- perhaps work on some different exercises in my daily routine or pull back on some of my intensity to do everything right away. If I am expecting the unexpected, it shouldn’t bring me to a halt. If I have learned anything in these past 3 years of expanded trumpet playing and growth in musicianship, it is that the journey is real and is never in a straight line!

Which brings me to the second quote above about relaxed breath and warm moist air. Yes, that is how we are to play our horns. Doc calls it a balance between tension on the side muscles and relaxed on the center. If every time I pick up the horn I am tense and dry, nothing good will come out. Relax. Breathe calmly. As Bill Bergren rightly describes it- “Say ‘M’ and then breathe gently like cooling a cup of coffee.” How do we learn how to do that if we are always tense.

In a recent concert we were playing the beautiful, slow piece “Ashokan Farewell.” I realized in one of the rehearsals that I was tensed up so as not to over-blow or lose any tone by playing too loudly. Self Two caught that Self One was uptight. Self Two simply said, “I can handle this. I do it all the time in the practice room.” Self Two was right, of course. I am never tense like that in my practicing. I may lose endurance, etc. but it is not usually due to tenseness. That comes when I am afraid of—(among other things) the unexpected.

Take that relaxed, warming breath. Put the trumpet to the lips- and play.

Live with awareness of the unexpected- not in fear of what might happen but in order to go with it when it happens. Live with the breath- in and out in a simple rhythm. (Remember rhythm? It’s one of the foundations of all music.) Stay warm, stay relaxed, stay quietly focused. When we learn how to do that in our practice room, we will move closer to being able to do it in performance. When we can do it in performance, we can relax some more and learn how to do that when we are doing other things.

It is one of the secrets of our life’s journey. Go with it, as Bilbo used to say, “you don’t know where you might be swept off to.”

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