Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Small Slice of Humble Pie

So last week I had a student playing rather mechanically, lacking the depth and big picture phrasing that I was hoping for. I of course went through every method of training in the book, trying to draw the much-vaunted “story” out of the music. We discussed all sorts of creative thoughts, abstract and concrete. Nothing, nada, zilch. What finally worked? I printed out a picture of a burrito. A freaking burrito. Dude was hungry, and his eyes on the prize suddenly transformed him into Pavarotti. He played a gorgeous phrase without envisioning a single unicorn. Consider me pedagogically humbled.

Basic communication is something of which everyone is capable, until we train it out of ourselves. It’s only partly a gross generalization that musicians are socially stunted, as we look at the man behind the curtain, figure out the workings, and relearn how to “properly” express emotion. I find it ironic that by doing so we often disconnect ourselves from others. Many musicians I know hold themselves apart from mainstream society, heroically labeling themselves as misfits or enlightened or enlightened misfits.

Now, as a tuba player, I have a built in failsafe. You won’t find orchestra season brochure covers with pictures of tubas and roses. The roses would be dead and wilted, and instruments that can and do crush small children aren’t really romanticized. A recent article published about the theft of tubas pointed out that the tuba isn’t a sexy instrument. WHAT??? Er, oh yeah. 

For tubists, our biggest risk is the following:

What is my point, young pedagogues and performers? When trying to communicate with people, understand them, consider them, and by no means expect them to come to you. No matter how brilliant your ideas are, don't just assume they are universal; you’ll be a better musician/communicator if you prioritize rejoining the human race as a pupil rather than an instructor. I think I learned more driving a bus of drunks at 3 am (story for another time) about humans than any number of hours with a tuba in a practice room—go figure.

So keep the ivory tower, the cathedrals, the ultimate expression of human triumph, etc etc. But don’t forget the Mexican food. Even enlightened misfits have to eat.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Update from the road

Hi everyone,

We're in the middle of our of our Louisiana/Mississippi tour, and things are going really well!  This tour was a special treat for me because I got to introduce my Mirari friends to the other half of my life, my terrific colleagues and students at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.   (Not to mention not having to travel to get to the beginning of a tour---can't beat that for convenience!)   We spent all day Monday at ULM, doing some lessons in the morning with brass students, then working with quintets and talking about music business in the afternoon.   I've been so incredibly proud of the players in the student quintets--they have come such a long way in a short time to working on some tough repertoire like the Cheetham Scherzo and part of Eric Ewazen's Colchester Fantasy.  It's a great honor to get to work with talented and engaged musicians such as yourselves!  And thanks to my friend and colleague James Boldin for the nice writeup in his HornWorld Blog---definitely check it out if you haven't already.

Tuesday we changed gears quite a bit and headed out to Elm Grove Middle School in Bossier City (outside of Shreveport).  We spent all day playing for and working with Steve Turner's sixth grade students.   These types of shows are so much fun to do because it seems like the students have an inexhaustible well of questions to ask (including asking Sarah in THREE straight classes, "How do you tongue so fast?")   Yesterday, we did another residency at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.   Jessie held an inspiring workshop on Fearless Performance for the entire school, and gave all kinds of great information on enhancing the mental/emotional/spiritual side of your playing and how it can carry over to the rest of your life.   Later on we did masterclasses and again heard some really great playing.  It was a real treat getting to sit in on the ULL Faculty Brass Quintet rehearsal as well as hang out after our concert.   I'm really glad to meet so many new friends there, especially since I live so close by!  Thanks to Paul Morton for setting up the whole thing.  

In any case, we have to be on the road heading to Cecilia, LA today and Ocean Springs & Vancleave, MS tomorrow.  I have 13 minutes to pack up, check out of the hotel, and load the car!  

See you next time,

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Finding the Balance

YAY!  This is my first blog entry!

In planning a music appreciation class last semester on opera, I came across a great video of Henry Purcell's Dido's Lament (When I am Laid in Earth).  It was a short interview with Philip Sheppard discussing his experience with Jeff Buckley at the Meltdown Festival in 1995.  I was incredibly inspired by Sheppard's thoughts and realizations about music and music making through this experience.

I have always known I was going to be a musician.  Music has always been my life.  Most of my activities are centered around music and my career is music.  Music makes me happy so, I choose to fill almost every second of everyday with music.  When I graduated from high school I went to the Crane School of Music to be a music student.  I took all sorts of classes, lessons, was in ensembles, taught, etc.  I then went on to grad school for a Masters and a Doctorate and took more classes, lessons, etc.  I was a perpetual student and pretty successful at it, too.  Always learning and studying how to be a good musician.  But, somewhere along the way I realized I had lost something that was pivotal to my success in becoming a great musician.  I had gotten so caught up in becoming a great student and fulfilling all my coursework and other obligations, I had forgotten one important thing, why did I go into music?

Hearing Philip Sheppard describe his experience working with Jeff Buckley struck a chord with me.  Is it all about what you've learned?  Is being a student and graduate of music studies the only course you need to become successful in the art and business of music?  Hearing the haunting, melancholy voice of Jeff Buckley was a sure answer.  No.

I had worked so hard to make sure I had all the information I needed to be great.  I spent hours in practice rooms and libraries. What I had lost along the way was remembering why I choose music.  What I felt when I heard the horns in E.T. (the movie), Mahler's Adagietto (4th mvmt to Symphony No. 5), the Kyrie from Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass, sitting around our family piano singing I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, sitting in the pews of a dark cathedral holding a candle and being transported by the ethereal voices of the choir, hearing my own voice as a musician, were the things with which I had lost touch.

When working with students, I have them write down the piece on which they are working.  Then, I have them assemble a list of things that an optimal performance of the this piece would include.  When making these lists (including the ones I make for myself) 95% of the items are descriptors of beauty, inspiration, communication and connecting with listeners.  In creating these lists, I have dusted off the feeling I have felt ever since I can remember when listening and being a part of music.  I have realized that being a great musician means 50% learned information and 50% feel.

I've never walked away from a concert saying, WOW, they can really play great 16th notes or they keep really great time.  Although these things are essential and required for great music making, if we loose touch with the things music can allow us the space and safety to feel, what's left?

Philip Sheppard said that even though he only spent about a half an hour with Jeff Buckley he thinks of him almost every day.  Isn't that one of the things we all cherish about music?  It's ability to attach itself to the soundboard or soundtrack of our lives.  Being a great musician means knowing your facts and technique.  It also means coloring those facts and techniques with the art of being human.  Feeling.