This has become my new favorite word. It concisely explains the last two weeks of my life. Its exact definition is “to become accustomed to a new climate or to new conditions”.
Moving into a new house.
Stocking the fridge.
Meeting the neighbors.
Music theory and music history entrance exams (PASSED!)
Going to the farmer’s market.
Meeting students, colleagues, and instructors.
Buying a parking pass (Did it really need to be $300?)
Exploring Tiffany’s. (That’s for all of you familiar with Kalamazoo)
While my whirlwind summer was in a constant state of flux, being in Kalamazoo has become a somewhat longer-term environment. Now that I’ve gotten through the first phase of this “transition phase”, things should begin to slow down, right?
Of course, being a musician means that change is continuous. Gigs come and go. Ensemble members and colleagues switch in and out. Students develop and grow. Even the linchpin by which our professional and personal lives revolves around, our relationship with our instruments, is a sort of paradox. The goal is to strive for the highest level consistently. Practicing is the foundation of everything we do, and yet at the same time, its essence is “to change” ourselves.
The members of the Avalon String Quartet once told me the origin of their group’s name. In Arthurian legend, Avalon is the island at the center of a mystic lake. Excalibur was forged upon its grounds. Moreover, Avalon is a self-sustaining land in which the fields require no plowing and the orchards no tending. Because of this the island is protected by magic. As you paddle across foggy waters you can see the island obscured in the distance. However, the closer the island appears the farther from it you actually are. Herein lies the ideal: We see a goal, yet closer we come to realizing it, the clearer we understand that we are farther from it than ever before.
There is no point in the musical life, or life in any profession, in which everything becomes “self-sustaining”. If you aren’t moving forward then you are falling behind. Perhaps the term “acclimated” is in-itself a fallacy, or at least, more nuanced than it appears to be...
Last week I played two weddings and three church services. It was the grand finish to a summer of prosperous gigging in both financial terms and performance opportunities.
I’ve performed for my fair share of sacred and secular services over the years. Depending on the context of the gig, many musicians, including myself, will assume a certain attitude. Some gigs, like degree recitals and paid solo performances, seem to rank higher on the “importance scale” than orchestral subbing, weddings, and church gigs, and background music. The truth of the matter is, sometime we decide to go-big-or-go-home (my personal favorite is the risky “YOLO-shift”) and sometimes we decide to phone it in.
But is there something inherently flawed with this pattern of thinking? What is it that influences how a musician treats their performance? Money? Prestige? Or perhaps it would benefit us to aspire to different virtues?
Consider the following hypothetical scenario. I am playing the Pachelbel Canon in D with an ad hoc string quartet for an outdoor wedding in which I am not even being paid because I am doing it as a favor for a friend. For richer or poorer, what exactly am I committed to and how do I decide how “good” my performance has to be? Are there constants that are unaffected regardless of the conditions of this situation?
Like any committed relationship, being a musician requires R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
1) Respect the Music: Whether we think Pachelbel’s Cannon of Dread is the worst piece on the planet or it’s the best thing since sliced bread, we should respect “music”. Its not about our own personal taste but it is about honoring art. We commit ourselves to expressing music at some level if we choose to take the instrument out of the case and play for other people.
2) Respect Your Fellow Musicians: Let’s face it. When you play with others in a chamber setting, someone’s gunna be better than you and someone is gunna be worse than you. Whether we are out-gunned or playing circles around the rest of the quartet, we should try our best. We commit ourselves to equal-treatment of our colleagues.
3) Respect the Audience: I’ve known a number of musicians who justify their lack of effort by saying “nobody out there knows the difference, they’re all ignorant anyways so they won’t know the difference”. Is this not an ignorant view in-and-of-itself? We never know who’s listening in the back row: a retired music teacher, a promising young student, or even another professional. Even if your audience is completely deaf, play your heart out because in the end, you’re listening to you too.
4) Respect Your Own Personal Integrity: If for no other selfish-serving reason, we should do our best for ourselves. Does it really make much sense to, on the one hand say, “I want to be a great musician”, and on the other hand say, “but only in these circumstances and at these times”. Ask any accomplished artist and I’m sure they’ll say that excellence demands consistency. Bruce Lee once remarked on this phenomenon.
“If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
Being able to play to our fullest capacity every day of our lives in a constant challenge. In many cases, we fall short and in some cases, for good reason. But just like a strong marriage, love and commitment get you through the tough times. So, the next time you have the chance to pick up your instrument, be grateful to be in a committed relationship.
(There happens to be a delightful gigue that follows Pachelbel's canon that you may or may not know about:
This summer I spent a sizable amount of time in my trusty Town and Country driving from Northern Michigan, south to Bloomington, west to Northfield, MN, and east back toward Petoskey. Driving is an opportunity to scan the airwaves for trends. What kind of music do people listen to? What message and meaning does this music have and what does it say about the people that listen to it?
One trend I’ve tuned into is the “party anthem”. Electric soundscapes and deep bass provide a backdrop for their Carpe diem proclamation. “But we young right now / We got right now” (Right Now: Rihanna), “It’s our party we can do what we want… say what we want… love who we want… kiss who we want… see who we want” (We Can’t Stop: Miley Cryrus), or “Lets make the most of the night like we’re going to die young” (Die Young: Ke$sha).
Young people sense the undercurrent of uncertainty that is so pervasive in the world today and their solution is a kind of hedonistic escapism. The night promises high-times that are exciting enough to keep our worries at bay, at least until morning. While there is a time and place for letting off some steam, I believe that if you party everynight, or even every weekend, it ceases to be a party. After a while, we become desensitized to what a “good time” really is. I feel fortunate to be working in the field of music performance. While not every second of every day is filled with glory, it is ultimately rewarding. There is nothing quite like the solace of playing chamber music with colleagues or listening to a truly inspiring performance. Catharsis, real emotional release, is not easy to find in the sea of media in which we are drowning. Perhaps that is why performing classical music is important to me. The uncertainty of our future dissolves as we share a meaningful experience with each other, and, even if it is only for a couple minutes, we don’t feel like we have to escape, but we face the moment and live in it.
The reason that this “recent events” post has been delayed is because there have been so many “recent events” recently!
After driving through the corn and soybean fields that lay between Bloomington Indiana and Northfield Minnesota, I found my way to St. Olaf College of Northfield MN. St. Olaf is the home of Professor Anna Clift’s summer institute Cello: An American Experience. The program consists of 20 national and international students ages 15-22 who come to study in a cello intensive environment. Our days are filled with practicing, lessons, masterclasses, and concerts with world-class faculty. As CAAE’s Artist Apprentice intern, I have organized and coached chamber music, worked with our faculty and staff, and mentored students on topics ranging from practice strategies to their goals for personal and professional growth.
For this post, I would like to draw a conclusion from the observation that many cello professors have made independently. The art of practicing seems to be very elusive for students of the “Millennial Generation”. Our smartphones, tablets, and computers have induced a sort of “learned incompetence” over our brains. Patience and perseverance are not our strongest virtues in and outside of the practice room.
1. If it doesn’t happen the first time or second time, we are apt to give up.
2. If something is close, but not exact, we are satisfied with “good enough”.
Therefore, I believe that the cello is a sort of Instrument of Truth. By that I mean that, like a mirror, the sounds we make on the cello are a reflection and projection of ourselves (as an abstract entity, either consciousness or a soul) into reality (the physical world). Once sound is made, the truth, whether full of beauty or ugly in nature, becomes tangible. The truth may include but is not limited to how much we have practiced, how nervous we become, how well we keep “in character”, and hopefully, our musical gifts. When I sit down with the cello, I have to be incredibly honest with myself otherwise I will trick myself into believing many false notions. “That was almost in tune” and “I’ll get it next time” are phrases that should be eliminated from the mind. This requires courage, perseverance and patience. I am reminded of the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Thank you to all of our faculty, staff, and students at CAAE this summer, especially Prof. Anna Clift and Prof. Bruce Uchimura for giving me this opportunity.