30 October 2007

Recital Reflections

Please excuse the uncharacteristically diaristic blog entry that follows. If nothing else, I'm sure there are a few fellow brass players out there who can relate.

As a college student, the recital (graded or not) was always kind of the ultimate event. Students would essentially plan their entire semesters or even school years around their recitals, and in the weeks and days leading up to the big event, it was almost as if nothing else mattered. This was not infrequently the result of prodding by an ambitious or belligerent teacher, who wanted everything done yesterday (of both the musical and logistical type), and hence placed a lot of undue pressure on the student. It always seemed to me that shame played a large role in the fiasco. It was a toss up whether a poor performance would be a greater blow to the relationship with one's teacher, or to one's social standing within the music department. There was even a certain amount of shaming about recital attendance, usually under the blanket catchphrase of "supporting" your peers/friends/teachers.

I could not be happier to be out from underneath all of these burdens, all of which are small but crucial reasons why I don't see myself earning another music degree in the near future. Last weekend marked my first appearance ever in a non-academic, freelance recital that was put on for all of the right reasons and none of the wrong ones. Suffice it to say that this experience matches up closely with most all of my other post-collegiate musical experiences: while eliminating all of the social and political ills that permeate the academic atmosphere, I have found it difficult to perform up to the level that my collegiate performances would lead one to expect.

For the longest time, school seemed like more of a burden than a means to an end. My chops were always in excellent shape because I was required to play so much each day, both in rehearsal and in individual preparation for performances, and yet I was never allowed to spend that time working on what I thought was important rather than what my required ensemble and recital participation dictated I use it for. That was the single biggest factor in deciding to put off graduate school indefinitely, but it has only half worked out: while I have addressed many of those issues that were pushed aside during college, I simply have not been able to play for as many hours each day as I did before, and my overall conditioning is not what it could be. This time has not, as many predict for those entering the "real world," gone entirely to non-musical day jobs and other "practical considerations" of "real life," but also largely to composing, writing, and teaching, all things which also got cut short by the performance degree curriculum. This, however, has led me to solidify a somewhat different self-image than I had in school: rather than my creativity be subservient to my performing endeavors, I'm feeling increasingly drawn to using my capacities as a performer moreso to serve my creative side rather than for their own sake, as was the case before. I'm afraid this means stunting my growth as a performer ever so slightly, but I think it was probably inevitable anyway.

Returning to academic recital preparation for a moment, my preparation for this event was nothing of the sort. I was even denied the day off from my non-musical day job, which meant waking up to an alarm, warming up early in the day, not playing all afternoon, and then going straight from work to the recital, all heresies of a sort when it comes to academic recital preparation. I had found out the hard way several times over the last few years that without the required academic chop-busting every day of the week, the "chop cycle" I used to rely on to have an automatic good day (i.e. heavy practice through two days before the event, and a very light routine the day before) is no longer reliable, and hence, I don't really know what I am going to get when I show up. In the end, I played okay, but could have played better. I was a little more nervous than I should have been simply on account of the uncertainty. All in all, however, the event was immensely more enjoyable than an academic recital: with no arbitrary repertoire constraints, the program was decidedly modern, with the earliest piece dating from the 1940's; and despite the comparatively sparse attendance, it was far more fulfilling to play for 20 people who showed up out of their own free will than it ever was to play for 100 sleep-starved 19 year-olds who would rather be back in their dorm room playing X-Box.

The point I've been working up to is this: in the end, if one cannot pull off an important musical performance without putting every other conceivable aspect of one's life on hold, perhaps one is not cut out to be a musician. Forgive the gratuitous sports reference, but I was reminded of this point listening to Tim McCarver's analysis preceding Game 7 of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Indians a couple of weeks ago. He pointed out that managers must manage differently in a Game 7 as opposed to any other game, throwing out much conventional wisdom, and being willing to try just about anything if necessitated by the circumstances. Professors and students alike seem to approach senior recitals the same way, making scheduling, diet, social, and academic accommodations in an attempt to maximize performance as if for those couple of days, absolutely nothing else matters. In the end, this is not what I feel like I signed up for when I decided to try to hack it as a musician. Even for professionals, music should be an integral parts of life rather than an irrational obsession or undue burden. In light of this, it seems to me that the seed for burnout is planted in music students from a very early stage. I am only part of the way towards recovering, but I think that with the recital being the ultimate example of this throughout my training, it has been therapeutic to finally fit it into life rather than fit life into it.

23 October 2007


20 October 2007

More Cutesy Philosophy

For lack of having anything more substantive to present here for the last few weeks, here are a couple of unrelated ideas that have been bouncing around my head recently:

On Technique
Technique is like money in that we tend to focus on its ability to corrupt rather than the good things it can enable a person to do. As such, there really isn't any argument to be made in favor of discouraging the acquisition of either, assuming it can be done ethically; it's a person's actions after this has been accomplished that say a lot more about them. As I've said before, that the possession of great technique might corrupt a musician probably has at least as much to do with something that was wrong with them beforehand as with any intrinsic properties of what they might later acquire. The tasteless virtuoso has an analog in the materialistic tycoon.

On Preservation
Recording has changed the nature of aural traditions in music. Imagine if Charlie Parker's or John Coltrane's influence had been limited to those who had heard them in person! I find this interesting to ponder only because it points towards a possible element of hypocrisy among the most conservative of jazz commentators. These commentators are the most likely to advocate a neo-traditional, highly imitative (and, in practice, artistically stagnant) approach; but I have also on multiple occasions read and heard the opinion that the music was better off when recording technology limited each tune to 3 minutes, hence precluding the epic (they would say "self-indulgent") improvisations that became commonplace shortly thereafter. I even occasionally run into someone who attacks the value of recording altogether. Nonetheless, the whole dynamic of imitation-versus-creation would be vastly different if we learned only from other living players; rendering "the greats" inaccessible to subsequent generations might actually ensure more rather than less diversity. It seems to me that the advent of recording is largely responsible for this particular brand of musical conservatism (classical music had its own brand before recording because the music was also written down).

02 October 2007

Atonal Ear Training

When I work with my students on intervals, I use the "atonal" system where you count the number of half steps rather than the traditional "tonal" system. In other words, a major third would be a 4, a perfect fifth would be a 7, etc. What I want to know is if anyone else has experience using this system with raw beginners. Purely out of habit, I tend to start with 1's and 2's (major and minor seconds), then add 3's and 4's (major and minor thirds) and so on, hence still kind of following the tonal system even though the terminology is different. Has anyone tried starting with 0's and 12's (unisons and octaves), then 1's and 11's (minor seconds and major sevenths), then 2's and 10's (major seconds and minor sevenths), and so on? I'm wondering whether it might not make more sense to proceed this way, by pairing intervals that are inversions of each other and hence sound more alike. Has anyone tried this?