It makes sense, that this would be the time of year for our community musical, for what else is there to do in February? Hundreds volunteer for their place backstage and on stage (or under stage, if you’re a musician like me). This year’s show, Beauty and the Beast, is drawing large audiences–thousands--over the course of six performances. It’s good clean, wholesome fun for the entire family, much like a trip to the zoo. And although we have no zoo in Soldotna, we do have a substitute.
The figures in black are tuning their instruments, switching the bulbs in their stand lights, passing bags of candy around, and running though last minute changes in the vamps. This is our world, down here in the pit, and it seems perfectly normal, something any musician would experience regularly as part of living. Why, then, are they all staring down over the barricades? Dozens of people--before the show, during intermission, and even while the exit music plays--peer over the sides, pointing:
“What’s that, Daddy? It’s bigger than those little ones.”
“That, Jenny, is called a cello, which is another member of the string family.”
“Look, those two are playing together, aren’t they cute?”
“Don’t lean over the edge, dear, you might fall in!”
“Can we feed them?”
“No, Look at that sign. It says, “Please do not feed the pit musicians.”
Grunts and wails emit from the wind section. The strings whine and screech in return. One of the little observers above makes eye contact with me. I stop my scratching and stare him down, trying to force him to look away. He doesn’t, so I beat my chest and throw out an impressive run or two with my fingers, as an assertion of my dominance.
The tuning A tries to re-establish order, but no one backs down. One loud sound trumps another as the cacophony of the pit swells, and we all push our fortissimos, like hands slapping one on top of the other, to see who will be paramount. We would stop nothing short of fecal flinging, were it not for the darkening auditorium and the governing baton.
In the blackness, the audience leaves the entertainment below and refocuses its attention to the stage to see if it will present something better than what they’ve just witnessed. Order resumes in the pit once more, as the conductor unfolds the opening lines of the overture.
I can't. I try and try, but I can't. I try so hard I'm up all night, mental gears spinning, heart in turmoil, obsessing until the wee hours of the morning, trying to figure out a way to relax more. They tell me I need to relax, but I can't.
Truth is, I can't because I don't want to. No, I want to run a thousand miles and hike up to the top of a large mountain and scream wildly into the canyons. I want to throw rocks and break glass, and tear out my hair, and kick the doors down; I want to destroy. I want to pick a fight. I want to rage against all that should have been and wasn't, rage against the need for control--against being controlled--against being out of control.
When there is no peace inside, I wish to fling lawless streaks of red paint on canvas with my bare hands. When there is joy, make it yellow and add an exclamation point. Either way, I feel it loudly, intensely, like resounding gongs.
Outwardly, I am governed by the laws of perfectionism, which in turn enslave my will and drive my compulsions. They repress something inside that would rather be freely expressed, and the tension that this creates is engulfing at times.
I would not like to be tense. I cannot help but be intense. God help me find a way to play the latter and not the former.
All day! Every day!
My mom’s best friend, Stephanie, took an interest in it. She was also an artist, and so naturally she would stop to see how my first attempt at color pencils was progressing. I’d chosen to draw egrets, and placed them on a slate background to punch out the white of their feathers. The log perch came out just fine; layered Prismacolors provided amazing depth I’d never before experienced. But even as an eighth grader, I could tell something with the birds had gone amiss. They didn’t come to life like I wanted them to. What was it? Who could show me? I couldn’t make sense of it.
Stephanie didn’t bother to tell me what it was. Instead, she suggested, “Turn it upside down. Let the other side of your brain have a look at it.” Curiously, I did as she instructed. To my surprise, the undetected bias of the one side of my brain fell away, and the drawing lay free for fresh inspection from the other side of my brain. That’s when I saw it: the toes needed highlights. That was it! Egret toes look very much like pencils, unless they have highlights to point out the fact that they actually serve a purpose (which is gripping things like well-drawn tree limbs). I layered a small bit of cream atop the tan and burnt sienna. Voila, highlights!
Artists know to flip it around every once in a while. The mind makes mistakes when viewing from just one angle, and new perspectives create opportunities for new insight. In the act of creating a piece of artwork, I will spend a lot of time between brief color application just moving about. I stand on my chair. I walk across the room. I hold it in the mirror. I frame small portions of it between my fingers and examine how the microscopic bits are coming along. I run away and come back, pretending to be an art critic in a gallery. How is it? Is it good?
It works. It not only works, but is completely necessary in order to bring the drawing to the finish line. You cannot expect to achieve the same results without this process. Skipping this step is not only cheating, it’s about as dangerous as leaving the house without checking the mirror to discover that a pair of underwear is clinging to your sleeve. You need to consult other angles.
Artists know this fact. Do musicians? You must realise that this rule is no different with practicing. Perhaps we do not literally flip the music on its head to achieve results. What form, then, does this creative process take with the violinist?
I suspect it may be different with everyone. I admit, I haven’t dug into the depths of this process to the same degree that I have with artwork; it’s a little less obvious to see. I do know, however, that it involves the imagination.
Where imagination lacks, teachers may compensate. They can point out the obvious things that somehow went unnoticed during the practice sessions. A good teacher may not directly point at it, but suggest a mental turnabout much like Stephanie did, a device of some sort that will provoke an epiphany. Such direction is immensely valuable, as it shows the student how to make their own discoveries.
So what do I personally do to catch new angles?
I think one thing that benefits me is my studio. Thirty students are bound to have at least one or two new ideas amongst them. Although I’m usually the one showing them about, every once in a while, someone does something that gives me an idea. I continually study my students to see what growth they can bring me.
Listening to others is good, as it contributes to conformity. Conformity is not all bad; it comes in handy when playing in ensembles. Four people in a string quartet reach an agreement as to how a phrase is to be articulated, and though it may not be what each individual had in mind, it stretches each player to mold to a new form which they may have otherwise avoided. In this way, each is granted new perspective.
Conformity also provides contrast for individuality. In the areas where I do not conform, I notice right away how my own personality contributes to my creation. Identifying my personal flair aids in musical elaboration. (“I know this may not be how you personally choose to interpret the Bach, but I feel it this way, and I am sure it must be this way because my personality speaks differently than yours.”) I discover my voice and manipulate technique to better articulate my thoughts. I do what is right in my own mind.
To further activate my imagination, I try all sorts of tricks. I change the tempo. I turn off the lights. I role play, pretending I’m either someone else, or playing for different audiences in various circumstances. I try out new acoustics. I play it microscopically, listening for every small detail, then play macroscopically, thinking about what the big picture looks like. I take a short vacation from my music (because time creates fresh light). I record myself and listen to it later, pretending I’m hearing my piece played for the very first time.
Music, like art, is a continual progress, built brick by brick by the effort of activated imagination.
Every time I went to practice, the needling sensation provoked such rage that I immediately had to set the fiddle down and go thrash something less expensive.
Without my fingertip to serve its purpose, I am an empty jar on a shelf, slowly filling with a black scumbling of curse words. An entire week!--now lost to an injury that people would otherwise scoff, because it's that minuscule.
No one else knows how it hurts like the dickens. No one but me.
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