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.

Looking back, looking forward

It seems appropriate that in a decade of my life with such a heavy emphasis on travel, I should be writing this blog from a cafe in Brussels-Midi train station, fresh from Luxembourg and on my way to a project here and in Lille for the rest of the week. It’s also the day before my 40th birthday. This blog originated in the desire to chronicle in some fashion the many “indulgences,” the rich abundance of experience my life has brought me, in these first four decades. On the train, I was reading a book that a friend recently gave me, about the four principles of creation, the four things we came to Earth to experience: love, health & well-being, abundance, and creation, especially the knowledge that we create our own reality, “not some of it, or most of it, but ALL of it!” as the author of the book proclaims. Sometimes this seems a ridiculous idea, especially in challenging times or in the instances when we don’t feel we are in the right place doing the right thing. Yet, when I examine the events of my personal history on a deep level, I see how true this has proven to be. The times that have felt the most tumultuous, the beginning of my 30’s for example, have since revealed themselves to be key in the direction my life took in response to those challenges. It is a lesson I have continued to learn, over and over again.

One of the greatest joys in my life is the journey that playing the horn has provided me – especially in the way my ensembles have enabled me to travel around the world and spread the vision of healing through music, through performance and teaching master classes… accessing a level of emotion and symmetry, gently bringing my soul into harmony with the best within me… striving, through discipline and focus, through listening closely and being open to new ideas, to create beauty and go beyond what was possible even a few concerts ago… moving from a place of idealism and enthusiasm, even when tired or under the weather or in the presence of cynicism… I’m not saying I always live up to these ideals. I have experienced much self-doubt and anxiety, even when things seemed to be going their best. But I have always tried to keep this vision before me, to remind myself and surround myself with reminders for the times when I lose the flow and sink into negativity. The greatest tool I know for remaining positive is gratitude, constant and profound gratitude. That part comes easily to me since I feel so very blessed, especially through the amazing people who are a part of my life.

I was going to do a little list of some of the moments that stood out for me during my 30’s, and maybe I will still do that at some point, but as I write at this moment, I just feel overwhelmed with a feeling of happiness for the gifts in my life and a sense of open curiosity for what the next year, the next decade will bring.