The creativity pas-de-deux

  People who have dedicated their lives to the arts, or simply devoted themselves to making their lives a work of art, know well the feeling of reaching out towards inspiration, towards excellence. This yearning for that undefinable something has an ill-tempered neighbor, Mr. Frustration. He wears many masks: the composition that dies half-written because “I can’t make it come out on paper like it is in my head.” The comparison to another player – “I’ll never sound like her.” The fear of irrelevance – “Nobody wants to read this kind of story anyway. Why bother?” The conditional taskmaster – “If only you had worked harder, sacrificed more, then you might have made it.” And so many others. What a soul-sucking, time-wasting masquerade. Anyone who has done the cha-cha with the demon of perfectionism as often as I have knows the drill. It’s always the wrong tempo, and you always step on his toes. Get off that dance floor, friends. Now.
I recently listened to the marvelous audio book version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, a gorgeous meditation on creativity and allowing yourself to “make stuff,” even if it isn’t perfect. Even if you know it hasn’t a prayer of being perfect. Just Make The Stuff. It’s what we were born to do. And it’s fun. In her book, Gilbert challenges the belief in an indifferent or even hostile universe. If you love nature, she says, and yet believe nature doesn’t care about your existence, then how can you ever enter into a relationship with it? Why not believe that the love can flow in both directions? This is equally true for creativity. If the essence of the soul is creative, how can the universe not reflect that principle? 
I believe this is just as true for the interpretive artist as well as for the painter, composer, choreographer, chef, or novelist. An image that has come to me recently while playing my horn is that of each note loving me back as much as I love each note. It’s a different quality of music-making. We all know both performance versions when we hear them, the technically flawless presentation that leaves us cold, and the one that has love and passion. That second one reaches beyond itself, beyond the interpreter, and makes us feel those things too. Furthermore, I believe that the concertos, symphonies, songs WANT to be played beautifully. Imagine the pieces themselves blushing and going all shivery when a musician opens up to receive them! Throw them a great party, and they will want to come back and hang out and dance on the tables.
The beautiful things are out there waiting to be made, and so it is up to us to reach out for them with open arms, an open mind, an open heart. Music-making in this way is so incredibly rewarding. Indeed, it becomes its own reward. You will of course do your best to prepare with attention and discipline, and nothing can replace all the hard work. But you see, that’s not the same as being hard on yourself. You reach out for the music, for just the right voice or phrase…what if it’s reaching out towards you at the same time? That means you only have half the distance to cover.
I am reminded of that perennial quote by Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss.” What’s important to know is that our bliss is also skipping along half a step behind us, waiting for us to turn around and bump into it. When you approach your life’s work in this manner, you honor yourself, and you honor the source of that creativity. Now that’s one dance I don’t want to miss!

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? 🙂

The Big (and small) Picture

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Last May, Kerry and I were featured artists at the Brass Explosion Festival in Singapore.  Part of our residency involved giving master classes, something I have always found to be a joyful challenge.  My approach has usually been “person-centered”  – listening to each student, watching movement, sensing energy patterns, waiting and seeing what comes to me to say to help.  This intuitive approach can bring surprising results, but it helps to have a “method” of some sort to organize the time and situation.  While eating Singaporean hawker fare and drinking fresh-squeezed lime juice in the glorious heat, an idea sprang into my head. I decided to try it out on that afternoon’s wonderfully receptive guinea pigs!  Its work-in-progress name was “macro-micro-macro,” but now I call it “focusing the lens.”  (I’ve just named it that now.  Perhaps it will stick.) 

Bringing a new piece to life can be a daunting, though exciting prospect.  Many people dive right into the smallest of details before they’ve given themselves the chance to experience the feel of the music, the way it flows, what they want to say, by means of the notes on the page.  First step: focus on the big picture and don’t worry right away about minutiae.  Be gentle during this process, as you would be with a child at play.   The important thing here is to discover your connection to the music, to imagine what it could become, with the full and glorious force of your creativity.

Second step: after this initial “getting-to-know-each-other” phase, now is the time to zoom in on details. Tackle the basics first (get the notes, in tune and on time, of course) through slow practice, identifying a few elements or passages each time that need attention.  You can be creative during this part of the process, changing rhythms or articulations on the tricky bits, playing legato passages excruciatingly slow to feel one note moving to the next, isolating large intervals and practicing them out of context, exaggerating dynamics (especially the soft passages!) Use a metronome.  Be efficient and pragmatic – if one fingering doesn’t work, try something else.  Use what tools your teachers have given you and see what works for you personally.  During this step, be critical, in a cerebral, detached way, never beating yourself up for perceived mistakes.  You’re building a bridge from your initial vision to performance readiness, and putting in the time and awareness at this stage will keep the bridge from collapsing.  It takes time, awareness, attention, diligence.  During this stage as well as the next one, I find recording myself to be immensely useful.

Step 3:  many creative artists are loath to go here, to step back from the “micro” level and back to the “macro” – the big picture.  We’re afraid to trust the work we’ve done up to this point, afraid of relinquishing control over any aspect of our performance, and end up screeching along with the brakes on.  This is the time to bring your initial fascination and vision to life through the fine-tuning of all the little details you’ve worked on so diligently.  Rediscover the flow, make the phrases mean something in relation to each other, tell a story.  Love the music even more because you know it intimately.  Present the whole piece to your audience so they can enjoy it – let them think it was easy!  Most people come to a performance or watch a YouTube video to be entertained and moved.  As for the few who listen to a whole concerto then focus in on that clammed Bb at 3’24” – you will always have them among you.  Don’t let self-judgment or the judgment of others paralyze the artist within. 

In Singapore, working with a student that afternoon last spring on this “method,” it was beautiful to hear, and watch, the transformation in his music-making.  It takes courage to engage in the process of creativity, but we were born to it.  At every stage of practice, rehearsal, and performance, remember your ability to focus the lens.

The world will keep you waiting

Somehow I never seem to write my blogs while sitting in one place – a form of mass transit & my notebook & pen are the magic ingredients. This time I’m hurtling through the sky at 813 kilometers an hour, 12,000 meters above Canada – or is it Michigan? – in a winged metal tube. I’ve been in this particular tube for 8 hours, still an hour and a half left before touching down in Memphis, Tennessee. This week I’ll be visiting family and catching up with my husband, who has been on tour with his quartet for over 2 weeks.

I was just listening to one of my favorite songs on my iPod, “The World Keeps You Waiting” by the New York Voices. Ever since they performed with the Luxembourg Philharmonic last season, I’ve been a fan of their classy, artistic, beautifully executed renditions of original and arranged material. If you get the chance, go hear them live, or at least listen to their album “A Day Like This.”

Only after hearing this particular song a few times did I start listening more closely to the lyrics. In essence, it’s about choosing to listen to your own creative voice, to follow your inner vision on your life path. The world will try and seduce you into believing in its own importance. If you buy into worldly values and priorities, you will forever be left waiting, wanting, hungry.

The first two stanzas of the song go like this:

Maybe it means that I will be lonely
Maybe I’ll step aside; let the others go
Maybe it means my days will be lovely
This path of my design

Choices are made and chances are taken
I turned my back on every latest rage
I lost desire for pretty distraction
I’ve reached the age…

I suppose it is the challenge of every artist, negotiating a way to live in the world and to transcend it at the same time. We are all artists, involved in the creation of our lives on earth, the divine spark, immortal spirit in mortal flesh, wondering who we really are in this world of “pretty distraction.” No matter how much we have, we constantly want more.

The busier my outer life grows, the more I crave an inner simplicity & stillness to balance it out. Sometimes I forget/suppress this need and allow myself to get very caught up in the world and the dense cares that are a part of it. I need to remember to dance above it, to let my spirit be my guide, to live as a true artist, to take time for silence and reconnection to the source. Even, and perhaps especially, at 12,000 meters above the ground.