Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Go For It

Shyness, hesitation, and fear are not things that have ever helped any musician. It is far more rewarding to simply go for it, having no sense of shame. Don't be attached to an image of this great horn player that you want everyone to see. Wanting to show an image makes your fearful of anything that could destroy that image, including missed notes. This can make you hesitant in high or difficult passages, and can lead to negative feelings whenever you miss. You should play without shame and with no apologies. You are the player you are, and you will get nowhere wanting to portray anything different.

Having an attitude of "go for it" is much more relaxing, rewarding, and true to yourself. And I do believe that it actually makes for better playing. As far as technical development, going for it allows you to experiment with all levels of air speed, air velocity, embouchure size, and general body operations much more fully than if you were fearful. It can actually help you get better, faster. If you are fearful, you are always putting less of everything into the equation, and are not testing or learning anything. Going for it makes the learning process much more positive, and music-making much more enjoyable.

Uncomplicating Your Problems

I'm sure many of you have heard this before, and it certainly isn't my original idea, but it is something that I know that works from experience. As an alternative to analyzing what our bodies are doing to solve our problems, we can instead focus on our sound and the problems may fix themselves.

When you play your part in band or orchestra, take pride in it. Be absorbed in your sound and strive to make every note with a great tone and attack (but not too absorbed that you don't listen to others). The strategy is that if we do end up creating a great sound, it means we are doing things right. It is a way to bypass the risk of paralysis by analysis.

In order to best do this, you have to be a little prideful in your head when you play. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you don't let the pride affect others. Even the best athletes and musicians say that when they are in a high-pressure situation, the best mindset is one where you know you are the best out of all the others. This mindset allows them to perform at their very best as a result of a mental confidence. We can carry this to our own playing, and it can certainly be applied when we are focusing on our sound.

Being prideful in general is not what I am advocating. Arrogance and ego-centrism are bad qualities to have. But I do advocate a more secret, inner pride that makes for the best mental state of a performer. This is what you should feel while you play your part and focus on your sound.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rhythm: a rare gift

In my experience with collegiate large ensembles, the common area of musicianship to be lacking in is rhythm.

Rhythm is about discipline and focus. You have to play the pitches exactly where they are to be played, regardless of any impulses you have otherwise. This sounds like a no-brainer, but we've all had the experience of reading a rhythm, understanding it, and still playing it wrong because we aren't paying attention to what we are doing.

Rhythm is also augmented by listening to other parts around you. As an ensemble, we all move together through a crafted, intricate gauntlet of attacks and durations. Part of achieving good rhythm is the ability to follow the ensemble or another player.

Rhythm is felt. In band music especially, whenever we have lots of odd-meter shifts, plenty of tied notes, and triplets/duplets/sextuplets, I also feel like the music is a sort of dance. When I run through the passage in my head, my body just kind of moves by itself according to the impulse. I think even the most strange rhythms can be felt naturally. So when you figure out a strange rhythm, try to sing it in your head as a natural-sounding melody. This can help the passage to interface with your brain a little better.

So four points on rhythm: discipline, focus, listen to the ensemble, and feel the rhythms.

Mindful Music

At my undergrad institution, I rarely saw fellow musicians listening to classical music. Many of them didn't seem to even like it all that much. Here at Iowa, things are a little different. But today I will write very briefly about the value of classical music.

From the perspective of today's youth, classical music in general is not as immediate as pop music. Lyrics and catchy melodies and progressions grab your attention and require little effort to enjoy. Consequently, music nowadays is often listened to when doing something else like studying, surfing the internet, or talking on the phone. This is fine, but just because classical music requires a little more mindfulness is no excuse to zone out after hearing it for 20 seconds.

I will not command you to listen to classical music simply because it is your duty as a classical musician, but rather because I insist that there is some great value there. There are things that classical music can do that pop cannot. Classical music can run, skitter, shudder, jump, scream, hop, fall, fly, whimper, or even make no sound at all. For me personally, I've only gotten goosebumps from classical pieces, I have yet to get them from a pop song.

Even us hornists are a little guilty of only listening to horn music and not the rest of the stuff out there. Go listen to a Bartok string quartet, a Chopin etude, a Bach fugue, or a Debussy prelude! There's some great stuff out there, and almost all of it can be heard on YouTube...