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.