In my clarinet practicing, I’ve been working on Andre Messager’s Solo de Concours. As is the case for most works on YouTube, there are many recordings with many different interpretations--some faster, some slower, some in between. The faster they go, the more detail tends to be lost. By its nature, music hangs in the air for only as long people continue to play. It’s like a journey with silence at the end. As I work on putting my own spin on the Messager, I wonder: should the journey be faster or more interesting. Fast can be interesting. Of course, the end of the music comes more quickly. But is it the shortest or most quickly told tale that we talk about time and time again? Tales with strange, unexpected happenings always catch in our memory the longest. So, I’ve decided to take more time telling this tale, and make it one worth telling.
On a recent Friday, I saw the boss of my band (who studied with one of the world’s top teachers for his instrument but doesn’t play much lately) pick up an instrument that had been sitting out and start playing Bach. He was obviously enjoying it very much--and (without him seeing me lurking in the background of the stage) seeing his joy reflexively brought a smile to my face. I felt a real sense of joy in seeing someone so happily playing (and rather well despite his significant time off the instrument!).
It made me think: shouldn’t we as classical musicians bring that same sense of joy to our performances? For most of us, it can become difficult to feel joy playing the same piece for the thousandth time or when working under joyless people. Yet, there must be some way for us to rekindle/ maintain that joy. Joy in the performers creates joy in the audience. As more audiences experience joy, there is more joy in society. Music works with all emotions, but shouldn’t our concerts ultimately bring joy to all participants, reinvigorating them in facing the ordeals of everyday life? Perhaps this is the ultimate mission of music (and the arts?): to remind ourselves and our audiences that life is worth living. The infectious joy of a musical performance is an antidote to nihilism. In order to share joy with others, we must first feel it stirring within our hearts. When was the last time you felt joy, that uplift in your heart where it’s hard to stand still? As musicians, our greatest gift to others is the song in our hearts.
I was giving a masterclass at a university one time, and I asked the students what problems they were facing. Most mentioned technical things--tonguing, for instance--while one student mentioned that he hated practicing. He just couldn’t find the motivation to practice, instead relying on inner talent apparently. I didn’t know how to answer him in that moment. I told him something vague, “That’s a common problem.”
My response should have been a clear and resounding, “Don’t become a professional musician.” (Of course, one could find non-performance related opportunities in the field.) As a performer in any genre, one must practice and rehearse. Professional classical music is really professional practicing--for every three hours we spend in rehearsal, we spend three days practicing (or more). We have to enjoy being on our instrument, most likely by ourselves. (Maybe some are lucky enough to be able to practice during rehearsals, but that tends to be unlikely.)
This is one of the very few common threads I hear again and again across genres and fields. It’s almost a golden rule for success: “enjoy the process” or “remain process-oriented.” For musicians, that means enjoy practicing and the preparation for events. For podcasters, it’s in interviewing and editing. For librarians, it’s the work getting the music on the stand. For composers and authors, it’s the writing. Of course, we get can ride on the super highs that come with great performances and achievements. At the end of the day, though, the real work in the arts is in the preparation for performances. The performances themselves are opportunities to enjoy the work that we’ve done. If you don’t enjoy the actual work of the field your in, it might be time to consider something else--something that gets you excited about the day-in-day-out work of it. Enjoying it every day isn’t mandatory, but doing it--because you know it will make you and perhaps the world a better place--is.
Earlier today, I was watching one of my favorite Youtubers in Japan. When I first started watching him several years ago, he had some interesting content but otherwise looked like the usual vlogger. After watching one of his more recent videos, I was thrilled to see how much the quality of his videos has improved. They look increasingly polished with more clearly structured episodes. This made me think that no matter what we do--whether within or without music, as a blogger, a Youtuber, or whatever--we all must go through the entry level phase. I’m reminded of games like World of Warcraft--where the first 90 levels are actually training for the end-game content. It’s only by iteratively working on things over time can we improve a particular skill. Our recitals will get better. Our blogs will improve. Our audio editing will become professional. It takes time, though, and the good news is that it’s hard to truly be behind. Maybe we’re not where we want to be, but we can improve every single day. After completing those agonizingly long and oftentimes tedious first 90 levels, we’re ready for the real game to begin.
I was practicing piano this morning, working on my Hanon exercises (as all of my piano friends retch reading this). I made several mistakes, as one does. Immediately before a particular one, there was a sense of uncertainty about where finger 3 switches in the pattern. I found myself particularly short-fused today. I could feel the frustration and even outright anger. But then, I realized that a mistake indicates an unasked question--in this case, “Where does finger 3 switch?”
I think this can be generalized to virtually all mistakes. There was something we didn’t remember. A body part didn’t do as ordered. We thought it was one thing, when actually it was another. These mistakes become an invitation to ask the question that we haven’t asked. In the moment, it can be incredibly frustrating to ask questions, even more so if the error is made in front of an audience. It’s also tempting to ask/ tell ourselves, Why did you do that, stupid? Although we ask it with invective, we ignore the most important part of the question: the answer, or more specifically the process, the explanation of answering the question. Of course, we did it for a reason. It’s a habit, the person tapping her foot off the beat distracted me, I’m tired. In asking and answering the question, we can then answer another question: What do I do about it? If we’re honest and if we keep exploring, we can find a solution to most of our problems. But we can’t find the solution to a problem if we don’t take the error as an invitation to ask, to wonder, and to explore. A repeated mistake is one where we haven't asked the appropriate question. With this mindset, I found myself getting less frustrated as I practiced.
In classical music, we spend very little time talking about leadership. We do spend virtually all of our time talking about technique and musicality. Yet, almost all of our work involves other people--from a recital (with collaborative pianist) to chamber music, to late Romantic orchestras. Even a solo recital has multiple moving parts with the stage and the audience. One can always tell the ensembles with excellent leadership...the musicians are happy and fulfilled, thrilled to perform for an audience. Most of us have had widely divergent experiences--professional music grants us the opportunity to experience the best and worst in leadership.
If we find ourselves as the one people are looking to (and if we are a founder, we necessarily are a leader), we must embrace that responsibility of leadership. In doing so, we have to put 1) the people and 2) the music above our own careers. We must reflect on and determine what is right--and make that our single goal. We must choose leadership and choose the more difficult route of persuading others to follow us, rather than forcing them because we handle their pay.
Leadership also doesn’t just happen in front of an ensemble. It can also be the last chair, the newest person. If we have a vision of something better and the intention to build the group up rather than yourself, we can inspire even the crustiest and most jaded of musicians.
To me, music lives in the abstract and soars in the why. While the what of technique can impress, moving life-changing performances only happen when music can take flight and soar in the why. Being a leader in music means tapping into the ensemble and the audience’s why. With stunning technique in great abundance, there is nothing more important in the modern field of music than helping others leap into that realm of why, the place where dreams live and a better world begins.
"Leadership is not a rank. It's a choice."
[*From here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCsaTsIhSDI but if you can’t stand the music in the background, he makes similar points here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReRcHdeUG9Y]
How do we know what to expect if we stay in the classical music field? We typically start as children, drawn to an instrument because a program needed more trumpets or because our dad played the cello, or because we like the sound of the flute. At some point, we discover we enjoy some aspect of it--or an authority figure mandates we stick with it. For whatever reason, we decide we want to major in music in college. Then, we run the gauntlet of music school, picking up gigs along the way. Now, we have to figure out a job. Orchestra jobs are tough to win. Military specialty bands are tough to win. Regular military band jobs are easier to win, but they involve dramatic changes in one’s lifestyle. We’re face with all sorts of tough choices. “What can we expect?” depends on asking ourselves what we want out of the field--and what we want to invest into it. We can’t know what will happen. Maybe we win a job, maybe we start an ensemble, maybe we leave the field. But we will never know until we get there--and maybe not until after the fact. We can enjoy the journey with all its problems, heartache, and high points--and perhaps only expect a journey.
The Japanese have a great word: “yoroshiku.” Its meaning doesn’t really translate to English, but basically it means something like, “Please be kind to me.” The response is usually the same, "Yoroshiku-please be kind to me, as well." In English, we never ask each other to be kind on a regular basis. In all the negativity that the classical world can be at times, it would be a nice reminder by telling each other “yoroshiku” before we perform for a lesson, a masterclass, a recital, or a concert. After all, one of the great things about the arts is that we’re all on the same team.
Our field is like most--it’s easy to become isolate from the broader world. How does music connect with the world at large? One way to see it differently or to remember is by talking with those outside of the music field. We can do this through online classes and by going out of our way to talk to nonmusicians. I once went to an all-science mixer and talked to strangers about how creativity is good for the lab--and music can be a gateway to greater creativity. (As an introvert, I found this exercise to be particularly challenging.)
[I have enrolled in Seth Godin’s The Bootstrapper’s Workshop, which is allowing me to talk to many people outside of the music field. If you’re up for a challenge, you can check it out at: https://thebootstrappersworkshop.com/. Nobody has paid me to mention this!]
There is a difference between beautiful and meaningful music. They often are found together. Beautiful music appeals to our sense of hearing and evokes great pleasure in the listener. Meaningful music speaks to them as a human, moves them, makes them feel something, and perhaps even causes them to change. In the Western classical tradition, we have lots of beautiful music. Meaningful music is more difficult to come by. It requires a program that’s customized to the audience, maybe even commissioned for that audience. It answers the question “Why are you playing this for us?” and, from the performer’s perspective, “Why am I playing this for them?” To me, meaningful music is the highest achievement in our field.