I am writing on the morning of the Hamilton College Orchestra’s last concert of the year, and it seems like the right time to draft some thoughts on what I hope my students learned in working with me this year – or 2, 3, or 4. It would be presumptuous to say I successfully conveyed all of these ideas – it is simply the work of rehearsing that points toward these principles.
First, last, and always is the importance of being present and of focused and sustained attention. Of being open to what is happening in the moment – whether an accelerando, a decrescendo, a subito piano, a moment of rubato, a melodic line that needs to be be sustained to the end, a harmonic change. Flexibility – the ability to adjust on a dime – is predicated on being completely present and in the moment and tuned in.
Non-sloppiness – both in our actions and our minds. Caring for every note we play, its articulation, color, shape and length, and the larger phrase of which it is a part, and the larger texture of the music as a whole. Caring about the details. (The principle of non-sloppiness was discussed by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa in his book Shambhala, though obviously not in a specifically musical context.)
Being aware of and in your body – our bodies are indeed our ultimate instrument, and we need to be tuned into the state they’re in and the feedback they’re giving us all the time. Learn the proverbial care and feeding of said instrument – stretching, breathing, listening to the body’s signals and not overdoing it. Regular practicing or conditioning over time is essential. But how can we play well or produce a tone that is truly good and expressive, other than with a physical vehicle that’s more or less limber and in tune itself, and that we are in touch with? It’s so important to find the right use of the body to play an instrument without getting hurt. It’s never too late to learn good, healthy technique or the basic body awareness that this is founded on. Anything that promotes this – dance, yoga, various forms of exercise – gets my thumbs up. Even better if it promotes physical awareness of oneself in space – either outside, or in a good indoor space.
The soul of expression is in tone. Tone is always the most important musical issue (though rhythm and intonation are right up there!). Tone expresses not only the feeling-tone of a moment, but more fundamentally a person’s tone quality reflects the essence of who they are. So the time spent developing our tone, and the care we put into the tone of every note we play, is most essential.
Intonation and rhythm – particularly a strong sense of meter and pulse – are fundamental to our sense of musical organization and structure. They are deeply revealing of our ability to organize our musical thinking. They are also manifestations of non-/sloppiness.
Energy in music is expressed both through rhythmic precision and vitality and through sonority (tone). Often we need more zap or punch (more rhythmic energy) or more energized sonority to get the music to speak in the hall. When I say in rehearsal that a passage needs to be musically sexier, my students understand that I’m really asking for more energy and sonority in the tone so that it comes alive. Energy is what gets the music across.
Everything matters. Everything we do, especially playing music, establishes habits which significantly influence the kind of people we are. Mindful or careless, attentive or inattentive, open or rigid, expressive or inhibited or mechanical – all of these ways of playing create a feedback loop in our souls. Also getting to rehearsal on time, marking your music with care, remembering things from one rehearsal to the next, making note of what parts to practice. Through our habits around playing, including the choice to continue to play music, we are creating the kind of person we will be.
Through study and performance we learn about ourselves – how we respond under the pressure of performance, what we need to give our best performance, how to stay grounded and centered and connected to our deep sense of who we are, what we are capable of, and what we have to say. This is how we find our voice through music, discover how we can express ourselves, and channel the expressive power of the music that moves us.
All of this distills down to a few basic principles: presence, awareness, sustained focus, care, mental organization, watching and listening, sensitivity and flexibility, and playing in a way that’s physically engaged and energetic. Care encompasses not just the details of the music, but also respect and appreciation for the gift of music, for the people we make it with, for ourselves, and for our audience. The opportunity to study and perform the music of Beethoven, Dvorák, Mozart, Sibelius, Kódály, and Stravinsky is a gift not granted to most people – we are very blessed to be able to do this.
The greatest hope of any teacher is that the rewards of a deep and heartfelt engagement with music stay with all of my students throughout their lives, and that they find a way to stay in contact with that forever. Please let me know how I can help. My thanks to all of my students – it has been my privilege, and they are my teachers as well.