Thoughts on perfection vs. excellence and the American Horn Quartet’s final year

For months now, I keep telling myself that it’s time to jumpstart this blog again after a hiatus of over a year, as the sheer act of bringing reflections and thoughts to (virtual) paper has always been a joy. Each time, the impulse died with the internal dialogue, “Too much has happened to write down” and, my all-time favourite murderer of creativity,”If you are going to write something, it needs to be spectacular.” (Read: perfect.) Perfectionism is dangerous game the ego plays to prevent us from giving birth to any creative endeavour. As a performer, I relearn every day the delicate skill of knowing when to let go and let a performance happen. The moments we divest ourselves of the need to steer the outcome are those where magic and miracles can happen. Yes, careful and considered preparation are a requisite for this letting go – it’s a balancing act. The fulcrum is different for each person and every situation, but what remains constant is the triumph of enthusiasm over anxiety, put simply, love over fear. I like the idea of striving for excellence rather than perfection. It’s just as much work, but without the automatic “doomed to fail” label attached. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

So…now to plunge in and share with you what’s on my mind today!

The American Horn Quartet, one of the greatest joys and blessings in my life these past several years, will give its last concert next August in Los Angeles at the International Horn Symposium. Due to a schedule conflict between orchestra and tour obligations, the AHQ has just completed a US tour without me. I was quite heartbroken at first not to be able to participate in what is the last major American tour of the quartet, as well as one I had the main share of organizing. Okay, I’m still sad about it. But 1) my part has been in the more than capable hands of Karl Pituch of the Detroit Symphony orchestra, for many years our go-to sub anytime we need reinforcements in North America. And 2) the reason I remained in Europe was to rehearse with the OPL for an upcoming tour including one of my favourite things to play, the 3rd horn part of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with my extremely talented colleagues. So, back to the AHQ. A lot of people have asked why we are throwing in the towel while still at the top of our game. That’s an answer unto itself, really – we would like to leave a legacy of fantastic concerts and conscientious artistry and go out before we outstay our welcome. It’s also become more difficult for all four of us to free ourselves from other (job) obligations at the same time. The quartet has been around for 30 years; I have had the pleasure of the last six. Once we pass the torch, I’m not sure what will take its place – certainly Kerry and I will resume the Virtuoso Horn Duo, put on hold as our priority went to the quartet, and I hope the Ni Ensemble will get going again. Aside from that, the extra time not spent answering and writing hundreds of emails organizing tours will go to other projects. I honestly have no idea what I’ll be doing in 5 years, and that’s okay. But I will miss the AHQ dearly. The four of us bring out the best in one another musically – I call it the Turbo button. When the music kicks into high gear, the combination of laser-like concentration and the power of the music feels like a clear, sharp wind, leaving no room for distracting thoughts. So even though the repertoire we play can be devilishly difficult, my mind is rarely more peaceful than in the middle of a performance. I truly feel emptied out, in the best possible way, after a recital.

Earlier I was talking about perfectionism, about knowing when to put in the nitpicky work and when to surrender to the flow. In our rehearsals, we sometimes go into ridiculous, microscopic detail, even on pieces we have performed dozens of times. The alchemical transformation comes about as a result of the absolute trust we have in each other on stage. Even if clams happen (for my non-musician friends and readers, that’s what we call the occasional splats that happen to every horn player!) or if a passage doesn’t come off the way we did it in the practice room, that trust remains. Recently, in London at the International Horn Society symposium, someone’s cell phone went off in the audience just as we had started the finale, throwing us off our rhythm, and we had to start the movement over. It’s the first time that had ever happened during my tenure with the quartet. But so what! We knew that we could sink straight back into the flow of the piece because of that trust. Also, we have fun.

We have a new CD coming out called En-COR! – yes, it’s a pun, and yes, the whole CD is made up of our favourite encore pieces. Release date should be the middle of December, just in time for Christmas stockings. We used the Kickstarter program to fund the project, with well over 100 supporters. Once it’s available (Albany Records,) I will share links to find it. During the recording sessions, the microphones were close to us, so the listener has the feeling of being right there. You can hear us breathing, hear our valves clicking, feel the organic current of the music. Our Grammy-award winning producer, Gregg Squires, did a brilliant job in capturing a very “live” feel. With two and a half days to record 20 pieces, the principle of knowing when to move on becomes pretty important.

Preparing to take our final bow...

Preparing to take our final bow…

Hey, blog written! Now I just have to press “send.” How hard can it be? 🙂

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