Friday, September 21, 2007

It Happens Before the Notes

Great music starts long before it is ever heard. It is prepared inwardly well before any notes are sounded. It doesn't just happen if we're lucky, or materialize out of a vacuum. Something must first be brewing and stirring inside the musician, composer, performer. That is what is going to determine what kind of product will be produced. Something has to be actively wrestled with before the product is ready for performance.

The challenge that is ever before us is to maintain the quality and quantity of musical input that feeds the output. The reservoir must stay filled. Talent alone will not match the requirements over time. Talent, good instincts plus a steady diet of great music and the practice of it will work. Call it the ability to maintain motivation, the drive to express what is passionately felt, and the perseverance to refine it all for future performances.

What's happening?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Taming the Will

Recently finding my old trumpet lesson assignment books from grade school, I noticed a painful pattern. My teacher had to write down the same things week after week. Despite my cocky attitude there was much evidence of repeated stupidity! I proudly insisted on playing the way I wanted without fully submitting to the very instruction that would have helped me. I did appear to be listening, but figured I could do it my own way. Every bit of advice received had to find its way through my filter of pride and independence.

There it was week after week: "Mirror work! Fix your corners. Try to relax on the upper notes. Remember to breathe enough, and, easy on the lips! The air must come through them or we won't have a sound!" One note in all caps said "Think about what we talked about in the lesson! (dummy) Higher notes should be free and not stuffed." How patient my teacher was! Actually a good spanking might have jolted me out of my fog and been the best lesson I ever had!

All students have talent. It is the "untalented" part that must be broken, like a wild horse, and systematically trained. Unbridled talent has a short ride, and soon must yield to the more disciplined competitors. Remember the impatient jack rabbit who eventually lost to the persistent tortoise?

Another teacher drew a diagram for me. "Maybe he'll get it", he thought."GREAT PLAYING = BLOW + BRAINS". You have pretty good "BLOW" he said, in so many words, but you'll get a lot farther if you use both. I got the message: work on the BRAINS part! And that's the problem. Actually it's not a brain problem, but a will problem. Proverbs warns that it is a wise son who receives instruction, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

More than a Musician

The loss of one of the great singers of all time says it all, almost. Luciano Pavarotti dead at 71. The sound of that voice, the passion, strength and all that has been well said about him for decades, is over. If all that he left was his fabulous musical talent, that would have been enough. But what also endeared him to audiences, musical and non, was who he was.

It is hard to imagine him having enemies. Who could not like him? Even when sharing the solo stage with other singers, he seemed at ease with that. He seemed to be in a select group of musicians comfortable and likable on late night TV. Call it personality, genuineness, absence of self-absorption, interest in and love for others. He was also committed to sharing his gifts, coaching and mentoring other singers.

Long after our notes have evaporated, our reputation lingers. Life is more than the concert stage - a lesson often overlooked. It appeared that his life was bigger than his musical talent. Because of that, he is much loved, greatly admired, and will continue to be sadly missed.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

When Inspiration Runs Dry

"They should have heard me last night! I could play anything, it was so easy. Now, a day later, what happened?" Such is life in music performance. Hear me today, for tomorrow it might be gone, or so it seems. Some days the chops feel great. On others it's like nothing works. Unfortunately there seems to be more of the latter.

Many college trumpet majors on their best days could compete admirably with the best in the business. However, they are not prepared to deal with those "uninspiring times." Consistency is a mark of successful players. How good are you when you don't feel like producing? That is the test. We must earn our pay on bad days as well as good ones. The big trick is learning how to successfully manage those dog days.

How are the most successful teachers preparing their students for this? The answer seems to lie in consistent preparation of basics - executing proper mechanics whether high with inspiration, or dry with none of it. Technique is technique. If it is energy-charged, fine. If not, it still gets the job done and earns the paycheck.

Practice must be organized and consistent even when motivation levels fluctuate. We must learn to produce daily, not only when the stars are aligned for us. The best players shine all the time, obstacles or none, inspired or not. We must be able to fool the audience every night. Getting all the notes all the time is the starting point. If you're inspired, fantastic. If not, it must still sound fantastic.

Preparation for this must happen every time we pick up the trumpet. How can I efficiently produce with the highest accuracy? Nothing should be wasted. Everything counts. I should be able to sound great whether I just got back from hearing the Chicago Symphony, or attending a funeral.

Inspiration or non, is not the question. Anyone can get inspired. The answer is in the level of preparation and the commitment to discipline the daily mechanics. The better equipped we are with these basics of playing, the more successful we will be, and the less it will matter, when inspiration runs dry.