I asked my friend Stephen Burns to write the article for this issue, and I was delighted when he said yes.
Stephen is a world-class trumpeter who has performed internationally and at the White House. He is also a conductor and composer, and the Director of Fulcrum Point New Music Project. He is a wonderful teacher, a former tenured professor at Indiana University, and guest lecturer at Northwestern University. Some of his trumpet wisdom appears in my book, The Art of Practicing. In this article he shares many refreshing thoughts and ideas, all with the inspiring energy that characterizes his gorgeous playing.
Adventure, Experimentation, and Discovery
By Stephen Burns
August 25, 2012
Summer is a season of adventure, experimentation, and discovery for many musicians. Music festivals and seminars abound in the most inspiring locales—from the majestic mountains of Aspen, Colorado to the lawns of Tanglewood; from the cloistered enclave of The Center for Advanced Musical Studies at Chosen Vale to the bucolic intimacy of Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music. These are often the first places where we experience the magical moment when our imagination and physical energies combine to create an inspired musical statement. And these unique events are also portals into the creative world of superior musicians.
I have fond memories of my first summer at Tanglewood, where I attended a series of master classes given by the great violinist Joseph Silverstein on the complete solo violin works of J.S. Bach. As a young trumpet student, what I found most intriguing was that the majority of his comments had nothing to do with playing the violin, but centered mostly around transcending technical challenges and allowing each phrase to breathe, sing, and dance according to very basic laws of nature. Through musical gestures and actual dance steps, he demonstrated how melodic and harmonic phrases were constructed upon subtle, yet quite ordinary systems of impulse and flow that we can experience physically. He talked about how each dance movement of the dance suites has a musical fulcrum point of tension and release. He even related the works’ musical structures to the architecture of great European cathedrals. I had never heard anyone talk that way about music before. It blew me away.
That experience instilled a lifelong passion in me for communicating the essence of music. Hearing Silverstein play and teach also propelled me into a lifelong search for expressive qualities and vibrant sound worlds, through assimilating, rather than imitating, the performances of great masters—including Björling. Rubinstein, Casals, Milstein, Caballe, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
The Magic of Re-Creating
We often forget that we are all creative beings. The argument in music is that the composer is the creator. But in order to actually live and be heard, their music needs to be re-created—either with strings and horsehair, wind and wood, brass and buzzing, percussive materials of all timbres, or even computers and electronics.
We make music with our heart and soul, our burning intellects, and discipline—that magical confluence of longing, motivation, and dedication. In spite of our strong aspiration to play better, the process often seems daunting and confusing. To realize our goals we must develop and maximize our ability to coordinate three essential elements of the creative process: imagination of an ideal, performance of that ideal in reality, and learning to bring our reality closer to our ideal through perceptive adjustments
Invocation of Your Ideal
The process of playing music is fairly simple: you hear it ideally in your mind and then you play it in reality. At the beginning, the ideal and the reality may be quite distant from one another, but through consistent and attentive practice the body naturally develops in the direction of producing the desired sounds.
Practicing without listening for an ideal concept of tone, rhythm, and musicality is a bit like navigating the ocean, while steering your ship with your eyes closed. You may find your way, but your chances are better if you develop your powers of perception and use your intuition and intellect to master the nautical knowledge you need for arriving at your port safely and with a joyous appreciation for the journey.
To stay inspired and energized through the long and challenging journey of learning a piece of music, it can be helpful to reflect on several emotional, physical, and intellectual similarities between playing a musical instrument and sailing the seas:
- A strong sense of adventure mixed with an innate awareness of our vulnerability
- The emotional thrill of riding the energy of the elements
- A visceral ebb and flow similar to harmonic and rhythmic movement
- The vastness and depth in exploring uncharted territory
- Tremendous satisfaction in the completion of a powerful journey
The Importance of Motivation
Before we embark upon our musical journey, it is important to identify and connect deeply with our inspiration and motivation. Why are we taking this trip, and where are we going? Being clearly connected to the purest of musical intentions allows us to simplify the process and trust in the coordination of mind, body, and musical expression. It also clarifies the entirety of musical intention: the whole phrase, the overarching emotional message, and every detail of Feeling, Intonation (melody in harmony), Rhythm, Style, and Tone—which gives us an acronym for putting music FIRST.
As a young and ambitious student, I had dreams of greatness that were based on an egocentric view—a desire to be the best, to beat the competition and rise to the top of the world’s ranks of soloists. If you reread the last sentence, you will see no mention of music, feeling, or artistic intention. I had plenty of inspiration, but the driving force was one of insecurity, neurosis, and aggression. These are extra, unnecessary layers that distance us from truly entering into the moment and creating every detail.
Using Your Imagination
In our creative process we need to engage our imagination and connect with our sound utilizing the essential elements of earth, water, air and fire. Conceptualizing beyond notes is not a new idea. Musical terms such as secco, dolce, fondu, and con fuoco direct us to create a quality of sound with additional sensuous attributes, which transcend the bare-bones notation.
Often simply observing and appreciating the movements and colors of nature can enhance our interpretations. One exercise is to take a passage and play it with full musical intention. (Recording this process helps.) Then take a moment and imagine the deep, brilliant blue of an evening summer sky just after sunset. Play the same passage again, imbuing the tone with this essence. The difference can be startling. Then shift colors—blood-red wine, or sunflower yellow—and repeat the passage. You can do the same experiment with taste, temperature, shape, direction, or material.
For rubato I often imagine the natural momentum created by a bouncing ball to help me viscerally connect with the energy of acceleration. Or I observe the movements of a bird coming to rest on a branch to capture the sense of placement for the final notes of a fast movement.
Everyone has memories of musical moments when their conceptual world of sound was blown away. That summer at Tanglewood my mind was blown again and again by the Boston Symphony musicians who would imitate each other—at times a trumpet seemed as rich as the trombone, or the flute disappeared into the strings. And Buddy Wright’s clarinet solo in the Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony was so otherworldly that the entire orchestra shuffled their feet in applause during the movement.
In the same way, we can invoke our favorite musical moment, as well as the qualities of our teachers and favorite artists. Hold them in your heart and mind, and let your music be infused with that energy as you share it through your musical offerings.
Making Friends With Ourselves
My very first memory of my summer at the Tanglewood Institute was not musical at all. In the beginning I was very nervous and shy, feeling that I wouldn’t be able to meet the exacting standards of the musicians around me, so I kept my guard up and practiced seriously. In line for dinner that first night I met a gorgeous, blonde violinist from California, who completely disarmed me by saying, “Hi. My name is Heidi. We’re going to be making music together for the next 10 weeks so we should probably make friends with each other.” It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that this was the most important and profound teaching of the summer.
Learning is the ongoing process of making friends with every aspect of our creative process—especially with ourselves when the reality of who we are falls short of our ideals, which it certainly will. What then? It is most helpful to acknowledge our humanity, with all of our strengths and weaknesses, and to work toward our ideal with kindness toward ourselves, clear perception, and a sense of humor.
Working With Emotions
How often have we reacted to making a mistake with an angry outburst or expletive? What does that ultimately accomplish? Everyone has stubbed their toe at one time or another—maybe walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But on the way back to bed, did you stub it again at the same place? Probably not—the body automatically remembers where that impediment was and avoids it with a few feet to spare. When we allow the body to perceive all elements of a situation—both positive and negative—it will naturally correct any error.
But if we become carried away by negative emotions while playing, we effectively obliterate our mind’s ability to perceive the exact musical nature of the mistake: was it too early, too late, too high or too low; into how many shards did we shatter that chord or note? Was the mind in a creative, singing mode or a critical, commenting mode? The body needs this data—this clear perception—to learn, and to naturally correct itself the next time.
To develop your body wisdom, consciously notice your mind, body, and sound the next time you play. Is your mind completely engaged in the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic process of expressing the musical phrase? Is your body ideally aligned, energized, and relaxed? Was your process too passive or too aggressive? The moment to honestly assess your playing is when you’ve finished the phrase. You can reflect upon what you just played in an objective, positive manner.
Aligning Body and Sound
Musical imagination involves not only the conceptual mind, but also a conscious relationship with the bodily experience of sound. When you initiate a sound from an inspired state of mind, you can engage your body so that your seat or stance is grounded in earth energy, drawing richness and stability up through your legs and seat. Try doing this, and notice if the energy flows through your torso just as water and air naturally do in the process of living and breathing. Notice how your body relates to the natural world: Earth is a natural foundation upon which water flows, and air flows above. When musicians clench their abdominal, chest, and back muscles in an effort to make a more powerful sound, they actually inhibit the resonance of sound in the body.
You can think of the body as a lighting rod between heaven and earth. It needs earth in order to be grounded, vertical, and energized for most fully realizing our musical intentions. Ancient Buddhist teachers have described this open, vibrant state as similar to the result of properly tuning of the strings of an instrument: “Not too tight, not too loose.”
Discipline: Curiosity, Longing, and Dedication
Those words apply to our discipline as well. If we are too rigid, we lose the playful spontaneity of each musical moment. If we are too sloppy or distracted, the details often fall through the cracks. We often view discipline from the outside in—the idea of a disciplinarian imposing their will upon a student. But if we can stay in touch with our curiosity, longing, and dedication, we can even begin to experience our sound as a profound teacher. We can listen to each sound and sense whether or not we’re playing from our true inner voice.
If you feel disconnected from your inner voice in a passage, try slowing it down to half the tempo, or even quarter tempo—until you feel the raw rhythmic and dynamic energy in the music—the subdivisions and chromatic alterations that give it texture and drive. This process can reinvigorate your enthusiasm and dedication.
Finally, it is important to temper your aspiration with the understanding that there is no single, absolute way to play any piece of music. In fact, it’s best when the playing is fresh each time—when we communicate straight from the living moment of our heart, mind, and body.
You will encourage such freshness if, through all of your efforts, you remember to appreciate the endless possibilities in working with music—the genuine adventure, the mess of the experiment, and the joy of discovery.
Q & A of the Month
I struggle with a very competitive nature. I am always comparing myself to others and find myself constantly feeling inadequate. How do I let go of comparing myself to others? Also, how do I keep it from discouraging me?
This is a great question—one that many people struggle with. I think all of us, to one degree or another, tend to compare ourselves to others in different areas of our life. We tend to judge ourselves. Even reflecting on how universal this tendency is can help you relax about it a little. Then it has less power over you.
One key to working with this tendency actually lies in the experience of feeling discouraged. When we feel discouraged, it contains sadness, which is a core feeling, a deep heart feeling. If you tune into that underlying, painful sadness—“I wish I felt better about myself; I feel hopeless”—you are touching something raw and vulnerable in yourself. Realize that this vulnerability is good. In fact, it’s the place where music can really touch you, and from which you can make music authentically and connect with other people. You can feel proud of yourself for being willing to feel it and admit it–that you are not hiding behind a false confidence as so many people do, pretending that they feel completely fantastic about themselves and that everything is hunky dory.
Once you’re in touch with that core of sadness, you can take a little time to let it flow through you, just like music flows through you. We need to give feelings plenty of space to flow through like that—to respect and value them, and to take care of ourselves that way. Otherwise they can just pile up and create blocks to our energy. If you open to it and let it flow through, you might then find yourself more open to music. People usually play better after taking some space for themselves.
The other very important thing to do is to seek guidance from a good teacher—to make sure that the way you’re practicing your instrument is really serving you and helping you play as well as you can. No one can do it alone, and in seeking help from someone else, you are honoring your own intelligence—it means you already have the wisdom to sense that you could benefit from some guidance. So you could take heart from that and follow your intelligence. In that way, your intelligence will keep developing.
P.S. New York Area Pianists: There’s an amazing performer inside of you. If you’re ready to have someone bring it out of you, I have a couple of openings. Schedule a free consultation.