As younger music students grow into older ones they find that, like so much in life, the study of their art goes into progressing stages. That’s nothing new for anyone that undertakes in-depth examination of an art or vocation or hobby. We begin with an understanding of the technical aspects whether it’s just holding the instrument or drawing the bow or forming an embouchure. We see these as initial tools for making things happen. That’s what any beginner wants: to learn to make something happen, to create.
The catalysts for making things happen are as varied as the people that decide to study an art or achieve a skill. It could be as a result of going to a concert for the first time and hearing an instrument that piques the curiosity. It could be listening to someone go on about the beauty of what they’re studying in such a compelling way that you are moved to investigate on your own. That person stirred you to admit there’s a hole you need to fill and studying an instrument just might be the filler you are looking for. It could simply be the insistence of a parent who knows what’s best for you and sees music as essential as reading and writing… or for that bit of human studies universities like to see as evidence of your worth for consideration for admission to a competitive process.
It doesn’t really matter for our examination here. You’re there and you have an instrument that needs tending to. Well, wait.. that’s not really accurate. You’re the one that needs tending, not an inanimate structure of wood or metal or plastic or a collection of flesh, blood, and cartilage used by singers. Those are just tools. What matters is the end result: poetry.
I have often said to my young, developing musicians that music is a language. It is a language that is as valid, if not more so, than learning a spoken and/or written language we might have to learn in school. Some languages are easier than others to learn because, in the case of Spanish, once you learn the rules of pronunciation you find that everything sounds the way it’s spelled. French goes off the rails because you have to learn combinations of vowels that sound differently than what you are accustomed to in English. German add umlauts and neutered forms of words to the usual masculine and feminine. Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian require new sets of visual recognition to create the aural. There are still a handful of languages with no written version but require a fine ear to learn.
Music fits the kind of language that has its written traditions also. The layers are deep because at one level there are codified rules about that written language that don’t much matter to the person who is listening. The more you learn about music, the more expansive those written rules or the theory become. Thus, does our ability to express ourselves become greater with a potential to be profound.
The first poems we learn are simple. They rhyme and they have a basic and eventually predictable patter that help us remember. For some, that is as far as they feel they want or need to go: learning the rules so that they understand them. So it goes in the study of music. We make the choice to learn the rules and chase a passing grade and are happy with that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
For those that do wish to go further in music, the study of poetry as well as great theatrical literature is critical in order to find the beauty that depth provides.
One of my favorite moments in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is the scene where Cyrano believes that his cousin, the beautiful Roxanne, is going to confess her love for him. As she speaks, he responds with a series of “Ah”s that change as he gradually realizes that she actually loves another younger, handsome cadet. These Ahs go from quiet-yet-eager anticipation to tragic disappointment as he discovers “She loves me not”.
As a trumpeter who plays symphonic repertoire I am often called upon to play punctuating interjections that will vary with the context of the musical moment in a given composition. I will often have to play a series of repeated notes that vary in intensity. I could certainly, when called upon to change that intensity, just ask “You want it louder or softer?” Of course, while mildly funny, it shows that such a question misses the point entirely. Granted, sometimes it is just a question of just louder or softer. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, too. Most other times, I have to be willing to risk and actually say something using my instrument as an amplifier of what is inside my head.
Asking where the restroom is in the Paris Opera House or investigating the location of the local pharmacy in Shanghai or finding out what time it is in Seville are all legitimate and useful things for which, at the very least, a cursory study of practical conversation is called for. Going forward to use language as a tool for expression is another matter, altogether.
When you play your instrument are you asking “Que hora es?” or are you actually saying something that gives me a peek into who you are? It’s a risky business as people are quick and willing to criticize your “accent”.
Are you willing to be criticized in order to progress?
Are you willing to get lost for a while in order to find your way?
If it turns out you are wrong, are you willing to re-examine what you’re doing in order to get it “right”?
Make no mistake: none of that is easy if you can’t fall back on the strength of your convictions. It’s as hard as asking your crush out on a date and getting turned down gently or cruelly. This is the reason many won’t venture into what can seem like a void of uncertainty. Who enjoys being criticized for an earnest idea? No one I know. The good news is that it only seems like a void. For those that seek how to say something that is real, the search for poetry is always a worthy effort. The ones that are disappointed are the ones just looking to say something without any real commitment behind it. It’s just an exercise. El baño esta en la biblioteca.
Make nothing that comes out of your instrument thoughtless. Make it purposeful. Say something. Convince me you’re right. Don’t ask questions with your instrument. Use the language of music to make a statement… every time.