Tag Archives: music

terrible no good very bad day?

It’s “playing”, not “working”, right?

Performing artists are amazing to watch. They do the seemingly impossible with apparent ease. They convey the most profound aspects of the human condition, while appearing to have no such afflictions themselves. The show must go on, right? Chances are, that amazing artist you’re watching – whether a dancer, solo instrumentalist, orchestral player, or actor – might just be having the worst night of their life.

Performing 101

So much of what we do as performers is built around two basic aspects of performing: the illusion of the virtuoso: that all things are easy to play, and even if they are not, they should appear to be so; and the illusion of constant joy: everything you do is a joyful expression and extension of your burgeoning artistic heart. You look at some of the crossover acts, like Yanni, John Tesh, and Andre Rieu, and they and their bands perform with constant smiles. I have even heard tales (who knows of their veracity) of one of these individuals summarily firing musicians for not keeping a smile plastered to their face at all times. (This is nothing new, I’ve read accounts of what a taskmaster TV bandleader Lawrence Welk was.)

Not so fast, orchestra geek!

We in the “legit” classical world get no easy out, either. Orchestras are pretty consistently being given grief over the fact that their musicians play with such dour expressions. Part of this is due to the difficulty factor of what we are asked to do, and partly to the fact that we are not in charge of how we express the music that is placed in front of us. The person with the waving arms is the one truly expressing themselves. We are merely instruments of their vision, in many cases.

Performers are only human, right?

So, back to my introductory statement. The work ethic of the typical performer is ferocious. We will play with 102º fever, the day our cherished pet dies, or with a broken toe. And we will then put on a brave face for rehearsals, and a big smile for our bows at the performance. For a lot of us, the hardest thing to do is to keep on keeping on when things are absolutely going to hell in a hand basket. Gabrielle Hamilton, acclaimed chef of Prune in New York, writes very well about this from the chef’s perspective:

No matter how well set up you are, how early you came in, how awesome your mise en place is, there will be days, forces, events that just conspire to fuck you and the struggle to stay up—to no sink down in the the blackest, meanest hole—to stay psychologically up and committed to the fight, is the hardest, by far . . .

Is that a light at the end of the tunnel, or an oncoming train?

There are so many times, either in rehearsal, or in performance, where this happens to musicians. Sometimes it is entirely internal. No time for a nap before the show, no time to look over those tricky passages one more time before going on stage, horrible argument with a friend or loved one. These all can and do compete for your psychic head space when you can least afford to cede that sort of mental real estate. Other times, it is an external factor in the performance. Orchestras are a lot like those flocks of birds or schools of fish that concentrate in very dense clouds, seemingly moving in perfect synchrony. All it takes is one attention lapse, one 10% drop in concentration from just one key musician, and that perfect balance is undone. Tiny errors begin to magnify and, if unchecked, could result in a massive fail that we in the business refer to as a “train wreck”.

Self-help guru sez…

My favorite tactic when I feel myself going down that slippery slope is to employ the self-help guru’s aphorism of “fake it ’till you make it”. It’s especially useful in situations where I’m just not into what is happening on stage. I might hate the conductor, or how they’re leading a piece, or I hate the piece, or you get the idea. If I pull myself out of that moment, smile, and then imagine that I’m actually really enjoying what I’m doing, nine times out of ten I’ll recover my mojo and go on to have an enjoyable performing experience.

Don’t worry, be happy.

The other common situation is where I make some drastic, gratuitous, horrible mistake in a performance. This might be a big, honking wrong note, playing in a rest, or just generally being a piggy player. The tactic I use, with varying amounts of success, in these situations, is to just let it go. Music is an ephemeral experience. The notes sound, decay, and are gone. Generally speaking, the audience is very much in this flow, and while something that is exceptionally loud or obvious might cause a moment of concert to them, it will be forgotten about within minutes, if not sooner. For us musicians, we will dwell on that mistake. It will grow in intensity like a malignant thing. Soon, it is all we can think about. We are miserable. Our generally well-honed sense of self-loathing will kick in, and it becomes an all-about-us pity party. That, needless to say, is not the way to bounce back! In truth, there is nothing that can be done about what just happened. You may have earned a glare from the music director, but pretty much everyone else is concentrating too much to care what you just did. I like to think of walling the issue off and saving it for later. I find that the performance is often much more rewarding and focused after that point. Being (and remaining) in the moment is not just good spiritual advice, it’s good musical advice, too.

So, the next time you’re watching an orchestra or chamber ensemble perform, remember that those performers just might be fighting for their musical sanity right in front of your eyes. Maybe offer to buy them a drink when you see them at the local watering hole. Chances are, they need it!

what i talk about when i talk about music (apologies to murakami)

It’s a funny think, writing about music. Yes, it’s like dancing about architecture, but it’s also pretty darned appropriate to do so. Some of the best writing I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction, has concerned itself about music or the fine arts in general. Music, in particular, lends itself to abundant discussion due to its ineffable nature. As Rilke put it in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all are works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.

There is so much in our human existence which is beyond our comprehension. Hence, the creation of religion and great works of art. Each attempts to describe the indescribable in terms that resonate with our pathetically finite bodies and souls. For me, music is where it’s at. I love the dramatic arts, the visual arts, film, most everything that claims to be art. But music for me hits the sweet spot of profundity – even when it’s not ‘high’ art. Some of the most moving songs for me in my recent life have been popular songs, from such bands and artists as Coldplay, Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile, and Barcelona. I must make a distinction here, before the fine art police come down on me for conflating popular music and ‘art’ music. First of all, the distinction is becoming less and less of an issue with each decade that passes, so it’s largely moot. (And plus, in the days when the ‘western canon’ of classical music was still ink drying on vellum, there was really no such distinction.) Second of all, I think that the issues addressed in each genre are similar, but often take different tacks in that pursuit. Popular music might deal with falling in love and breaking up from the perspective of the individual, in all its banality (which, by extension, makes it approachable to all of us – we can relate to the average dude who gets dumped on his birthday, for example). Art music might take falling in love and place it in the continuum of the universality of love, and what love means in the vast expanses of the world and the universe. Both approaches are equally valid. When Ben Folds sings about a love that spans a lifetime, as he does in The Luckiest, it successfully takes a simple text (though elegant in its simplicity) and creates a story that spans decades in the space of a four minute-plus song. It’s a gorgeous ballad, and one that never fails to tug on my heartstrings for a variety of reasons, all of which I’m not going to bring up here. But here’s a version similar to that which he sang with the Oregon Symphony a few weeks ago:

And then, there’s the art music approach – in this case, let’s use the subject of death, and the anticipation of death. Perhaps the most effective of all the great composers in this particular area might be Franz Schubert (at least in the area of the art song), most particularly in his fantastic song cycle Winterreise. In the twentieth song of the cycle, entitled Der Wegweiser, the protagonist of the cycle is on a deserted road on a dark and snowy evening. He ponders why he takes the road less travelled, and on his uneasy and unceasing quest for these deserted byways. In the end, he knows that he is seeking the road that no one returns from – that which leads to death. Personal, evocative, yet universal and probing in its approach to the greater meaning of life and death as it applies both to the individual and to mankind as a whole (especially in the context of this monumental collection of songs). Here is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau with Murray Perahia, pianist.

Both are great in their own way. Clearly, the Schubert has already stood the test of time. Will the Folds? Only time will tell. But my point is this – music has that special quality of being able to address issues with great subtlety (or not) with or without a text. For example, is there a greater valedictory statement of leave-taking than the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony? Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor.

More on this in a future posting. And I promise a bit of writing on the opening concert of the Oregon Symphony’s 2014-2015 classical subscription series from last weekend, too.

on listening

I was just watching a special feature that AMC produces with each new episode of Mad Men, where the creator of the show, Matthew Weiner, was describing the thematic subtext of the episode. It was about displacement, going away to another place, and being with who you want to be with while doing so. This gave me pause, as I hadn’t really been thinking about anything like that when watching the episode. Today, I realized that my experience was like that of many concertgoers who hear a piece of music, and are affected by it – sometimes deeply so – and aren’t aware of why. The piece of music can be completely and justifiably enjoyed without knowing how it is constructed or why it was constructed in that manner. Some pieces are better appreciated if their deep structure is known, but most music can simply be enjoyed (or not) on the listener’s own subjective criteria.