Saturday, July 25, 2020

What is MusicaListening?


Why are the words connected? What's with the single "L" in the middle?


As a separate entity, listening gets its own attention as a technique, a foundation of what we do, a fundamental. So much so that we have entire courses dedicated to it. They are called ear training and aural skills. AURAL SKILLS! That says it all right there. SKILLS....TECHNIQUE... LISTENING - a discipline unto its own, a technical word, synonymous with other technical words. 


Just want to drive this home because we can also accept, I hope, that listening is also very emotional. Our feelings, our experiences, our memories, our emotions just in general affect our listening, affect how we listen, affect what we choose to listen to, affect how much we remember of what we listened to, and can even affect what we hear period. 


Emotions affect the very nature of the sound, the very fabric making up of the sound as we interpret it. 


Yes sound is interpreted, not collected like water in a bucket. Listening then becomes a singular dichotomy. It is one thing, listening, taking in the whole singular sound. Yet, it is also two things at the same time. It is interpreting very fundamental things that have a center like pitch, dynamics, tempo and beat. It is also weighing, comparing and interpreting the artistic and creative aspects of color, tone, phrasing etc. And so if listening is emotional, and listening is a fundamental technique, at the same time, then my question becomes what other fundamental techniques can be emotional? What are the emotions of the other fundamental techniques? What, about other techniques, makes them a singular dichotomy? Shifting, string crossings, double stops, slurs, bowings, detache, martele, etc etc the list goes on and you could make your own list for your instruments specific techniques. Listening is closely linked to music making because it closely links the things that make music. Why not have a spelling that reflects that?


Yes listening is closely linked to music making, understatement of the ages. I listen and I make improvements. I put emotions and music making into my playing. They are two things and yes they are powerful together, I am listening and I hear it. Thus, the outgrowth of this is that I have a musical performance that affects the audience, they are listening and they hear it. No surprises here.  But is that linkage a power we can harness for improvement? Can our brains really tie together this kind of complication in a way that we can utilize it as a tool?


Correct, to say Listening and Music making are closely linked is a gross understatement. They are one, they are integrated, but how do we know that they are integrated? Why are they integrated and why should we care in the first place? 


You can't create aural art without aural ability, right? Well you can't unless you are Beethoven and spent your entire life before deafness attaining that ability and the supporting skills. Ok there's one exception, and it's a powerfully important one because, HOW?! What Beethoven didn't hear first hand from the sound waves bouncing off the walls or through the floor from his piano, he heard 1st hand in his mind. He learned to do that. He learned to hear internally what it would sound like harmonically and what it would feel like emotionally when heard in the physical world. That is the genius of great composers, that is the ability of our brains to learn, and the power of our brains to smoothly meld seemingly un-meld-able stuff.   


Thus.. my weird spelling comes from the need to reflect what is really going on. It reflects the strange meld of the togetherness, the relatedness, the integration of this powerful internalization, this learned skill.   


What is musicalistening? 


If listening is always two things at once, if it is always a singular dichotomy, then it is not enough to just listen or just be musical. If you want to improve, if you want to get better, if you want to see your technique move forward, you must musically listen.


When you are practicing you must be your own self-analyzer. You are the producer, the artist, the engineer, the analyst, the critic, all of it.  Are you producing what you know to be valuable and entertaining? If I decide to just be musical.. well who knows, maybe something good comes, maybe it doesn't. 


I don't mean to word-smith and split hairs. I am using these two phrases, musical-listening and just be musical, to juxtapose and present an idea, to make a distinction. The idea is that there is a difference between 

  1. Just being full of musical energy and exploding onto the audience, or exploding into the instrument
  2. Proactively listening to what you are doing and assessing while you are exploding onto the audience. 


Exploding isn't bad, in fact it's important that at the end of all this we do that very thing, release all of our musical energy into the instrument, unleash it on the audience, and just be musical. When we are learning though, when we are trying to teach ourselves in the practice room, that is something different. Learning a musical instrument in the absence of music though is folly. Great artist don't paint a full picture in black and white and then color it in later. Why do we? Well... we love layers, we love process, we love steps. What's not to love? These thing bring order and efficiency to our lives. Step 1, step 2 step 3 etc. Do this, then do that, then go here. Easy. 


Who hasn't heard this analogy, "Build the foundation, then put the frame on the foundation, and then put the house around the frame." Love it! Can't get enough right? So easy and clean and neat and because its so easy and clean and neat we use it to teach and learn music. In fact we have used it so much that we can't help but use it. Go ahead and try this week talking about learning music. Try talking about foundation and fundamental without separating music and without separating music from technique. How did you do? It is engrained in us because it was engrained in the people who taught us and the people who taught them. There is one slight problem though. 


A foundation, frame and house siding is not a living organism. It does not have to factor in executing precise actions based on muscle tissue moving in time to a beat, which is reacting to and following the orders of a 8 pound hunk of fat full of chemicals and electrical impulses that are reacting to and interpreting little black dots sprayed on the page by a 19th century deaf person who thinks they can hear. No a house does not do this, and thus a human, a learning human, needs something else.


In that learning space, you must musically listen while you are playing. It's not a "later thing" or an "add on". It's a necessary fundamental that should come at the beginning along with all the other fundamentals we know and love. *When I musically listen, something is different. I am focused, I am proactive, I am executing the plan and getting the desired outcomes. 



Why Muiscal-"Listening"? Why not MusicalHeart? Or MusicaLemotions or MuiscalCello? If its all about emotions and learning why not these or some other something that cuts straight to the heart of emotions and pedagogy?


Ours is an aural discipline. Its not visual, its not physical (although there are important physical aspects to playing an instrument and singing). We deal in sounds, we paint in sounds, we interpret through the aural landscape of this world. Therefore Listening is universal to all music, everywhere, and so I believe there is something universal to musicalistening. It is something that we all, no mater our specific musical discipline, must do to improve.


Understatement of the millennium right....?


Well, the paradox of this whole thing though is that I can without meaning to, turn it into a visual thing, a physical thing. Meaning, I focus on the parts I can see, being overly visual, and focus on the parts I can feel, overly physical. There are actually so many things besides the aural to focus on that it is a real danger in learning a musical instrument. Even now I am focusing on the learning/practicing part. This is a discipline all unto itself and because of that we can spend an exorbitant amount of time on it. There is always the danger of completely ignoring the actual sound. In fact I think I have spent most of my musician life just being musical, overly visual, overly physical, and not focusing on the aural, not really listening. By accident or shear talent It has served me well I have to admit. I have made it into the profession as a teacher and so there must be something to it however stumbled upon it is. But I also think about all the progress I wish I had made on my instrument, I think about how it confuses people when they realize how bad my intonation is and how lacking my sense of pitch is, how long it takes me to learn things.  


MusicaL-Listening acts as a permanent reminder of where my focus should be, what this art form, my chosen discipline, is all about. I come to this idea anew all the time. I think I am listening, I think I have finally gotten to where I need to be, and then all of a sudden I realize I have never really listened. I come to some new level of listening, some deeper level of listening and everything is new and unknown. 


How do I know if I am really Listening? or I am Listening, I know I am, this is not new information, I need to get back to practicing my technique or Umm... you just overstated the obvious, why should I bother to keep reading?


You, I, we, are in this discipline of music, playing the same pieces over and over again, playing and listening to the same songs over and over again because each time we come to them we get something new out of it. That is the power, wonder and joy of great music. A great piece of music isn't on the spectrum of music it is not one cog in the great machine of classical music. A great piece of music is singularly and solely unto itself a spectrum waiting to be experienced. Listening is a spectrum in that way, we are all on it in different places and I don't think there is a limit to the depth you can go in one lifetime.  


I made a statement at the end of the previous section that I would like to update


*When I musically listen though, something is different. I am focused, I am proactive, I am executing the plan and getting the desired outcomes, I am making decisions


The cycle of decision making and subsequent outcome is the vehicle that takes us to new depths of listening. I have written about this topic in two blog post you can read here if you like. 

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions and in the post on Shifting there is a section devoted to Decisiveness. To see the YouTube Video where I talk about decisiveness click here Decisiveness in Cello Shifting.


Ok, Listening is special, really special. So why not just call it "Listening"?

We are specifically talking about the discipline of music, music is the fuel that powers the listening. We are musicians, we are musicologist, audiophiles, aficionados of music. The music is the whole point of doing it and so music is the rocket fuel that ignites the listening. It is the emotional thing that fuels the emotional part of listening when it comes to listening to music in an emotional way. 


The other reason to connect them and spell the funny word is to point to something really important. There is something in our music world that doesn't get pedagogy, or even a nod or a mention nearly often enough. That is, the discipline of learning itself. So more specifically, we are talking about the discipline of how to learn music and even more specifically specifically (is that even a thing - yes that can be a thing, its the internet๐Ÿ˜‰) specifically specifically how to learn the discipline of learning a musical instrument. Yes the learning part, the practicing part, is a discipline all its own besides the actual performing part, and it is a discipline you must learn to master. I think thats why playing an instrument is so hard sometimes. What other discipline in the world makes you learn how to learn it?


I get it, MusicaL-Listening or MusicaListening. So where do I, where do we go from here?

If you are still reading at this point then you know there is something in you that you could be using more to help improve your playing. Or maybe you know there has been something all along in you, in all of us that has not been tapped yet in this way, that hasn't been utilized to its full potential and that's why you are still here. Thank you for being here. I am here for the same reason, I am on this journey of discovery with you to figure out what I have been missing out on, to see if I can tap into what is there. You know as well as I do though, it's not a magic pill. You still have to do all those things that we must do, you must stop and analyze and make decisions in a slow intentional way, you must get out the metronome and/or drone pitch, you must listen to recordings play along to recordings, do score study, all that stuff. And.... and ... you must do musicalistening. You must musically listen to yourself as you practice. It's the only way and maybe it's the missing ingredient for you. The mistake we make as musicians, and we as teachers make the mistake far too often, is to think of music as something layered on top at the end. I don't think it should be that way. Again, it's not a magic potion or an excuse to shirk off the nitty gritty details, but instead one in the list of fundamental techniques. Music is a fundamental, not an extra, its not the coloring at the end of practicing the black and white outline. Music is a part of the black and white outline from the outset, from the beginning, and it is part of the color at the end. I think you already know that, I think that is why you are still here with me at this point. I want to say to you that you are right, and you are not alone. I feel the same way, and I am with you. I am thinking about you, and I hope this helps you. 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The joy of perspective and its role in "Getting into ____"

I was very fortunate recently to interview Benedetta Orsi, Mezzo-Soprano and soloist who has recently released an album of French Love Songs title "La Voix de l'Amour" This is a wonderful collection of Arias ranging from some of your favorites to some that you wish had been your favorites sooner. As soon as I heard the second track on the Album I thought "Where has this song been all my life?". An interesting connection with that song as well, be sure and read to the end to find out.

As we were talking it became clear how important perspective is to Ms. Orsi, getting perspective, changing it up, asking herself if it's the correct perspective, if it's updated enough. We are talking about emotional and mental perspective, not physical location like we might say about a painting or our seat in the concert hall. We are also talking about updating, revitalizing our perspective. Its never about getting perspective because you didn't have one, you always have some kind of perspective. It's also not about better or worse because we can really fall into a trap with that. It's about the emotional connection and the way in which perspective informs that connection and empowers it. What a profound thing for us all as musicians and listeners to think about because she is absolutely right.

Listening is not black and white, our ears are not buckets for sound just catching whatever drops are out there. I believe perspective is one of the cornerstones to explaining why this is. If you connect the dots it's easy to understand why. Emotions are affected by our experience, how we interact with the world, our friends and family around us, our job etc etc etc. Our daily going about our lives is constantly changing our experience and changing our emotions. Our experience is in turn affected by our perspective. How do we see the world around us? Where did we grow up? Who are our heroes? Who are our detractors and the people who have been not so nice? Our Mentors and people that lift us out of that? Who are my favorite artists and composers? If I find a new one how does this new entry into my listening library compare with what I have experienced before?  Perspective is powerful, very powerful.

This is the beauty of Music, of Art, of creativity. That even as a consumer, not just as performer or creator, I can have a totally new experience by changing up my perspective. Perhaps you already know very much about a piece or the artist singing it or the composer who wrote it. It is a deep joy still to try and read something new, talk to someone new about it, hear their perspective and update your own to some other level. The question might come up, "Do I need a new perspective? Are you telling me to get a new one because mine isn't good enough?" This word and its use in phrases can sometimes have a negative and even accusatory connotation. For example "You need to get some perspective!" , "You are really taking this out of perspective." "Please have some perspective." and the list goes on. You could almost define it as a word we only use when we are pleading with someone.

We are not pleading here my friends, definitely Ms. Orsi is not, she is sharing an important tool, a skill, that deepens our experience, expands our horizons, and increases our joy.

And... It is not optional. If you want to be a better musician you have to do this, you have to be proactive and go out there and get new perspectives.  Ms. Orsi "Changing and learning new perspectives helps me to get into the role, to get into the character and get into the music" This phrase "Get into_____" or "Get into the music." is used a lot, especially by teachers talking to students. "You need to get into the music." "...get into the role"...get into the string." "...get into the keys [pianist's]" But what exactly does that mean? It sounds so esoteric and vague? No wonder students don't respond to it. But my summation is this; Once you have read up, studied what there is to know around a piece of music, gotten other peoples perspectives, formed some new ones of your own, in other words taken it all in, you can then make something personal which is yours, and put that personal something out there. It will be more personal to you because you have gone on this journey of discovery to get new perspectives. Perhaps this got you to internalization period, because this is a new work for you or perhaps you internalized it on a deeper level. Whatever the case may be, it is for sure more personal to you now. Thus we have the equation connecting perspective to musicality and technique.

Updated Perspective => Internalization => Personal Connection => Improved Interpretation => Improved Musicality => Better Performance

This isn't just for performers though, its also for you the listener and appreciator to help deepen your experiences. Whatever your connection to music is, if you want to have new found joy you have to go out and be proactive about it. I wonder now how often we think of changing perspective as a "nice idea" something aficionados say about works of art or write down so they can sound fancy in their blog post's.๐Ÿ˜‰๐Ÿ˜  Changing up our perspective is essential to living full lives and having experiences which continue to be meaningful. I am so deeply appreciative to be reminded of this. Be sure and see the whole interview on my YouTube channel and check out Ms. Orsi's new album as well as her other recordings.

Speaking of the album.... the 2nd track, titled "Plaisir d'Amour" by Jean Paul Egide Martini, is particularly interesting. As I was listening to it the first time it sounded oddly familiar. I thought "That sounds like part of the song _____. Surely that's a coincidence." Turns out, Plaisir d'amour is the basis for a song by none other than... are you ready for it... Elvis Presley. How cool is that?! Be sure and take a listen and leave it in the comments if you know which one.

As always happy listening, happy learning, happy perspective hunting. I know mine is forever changed and I look forward to the next time it gets an update.

Clay

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Cello Shifting



So…shifting... a lot to unpack and why you need to unpack it and wrap your head around it. As well, its a blog post where a large section of it is on decisions. Why? Didn’t I just write about that recently? Why have  have this whole separate thing on all the  aspects of shifting, and such a large part on decisions, again...? In a nutshell, it’s that important. The reason to have it is so that you understand and appreciate the different components separately. The different parts of a shift that we are going to go into are, decisiveness, intonation, rhythm, and one smooth motion. This is really important when it comes to learning because you must evaluate your performance and decide which part needs the work and needs correcting the most. If you don’t appreciate this fact about learning, if you don’t break the shift down into its separate parts then you are liable to not make the progress you are hoping for. 


Its so easy when practicing to say  “That was good’ or “that w as bad” in very general terms. We lump everything into one pile and either play it again or move on without much change. It is imperative that you be able to focus on these different parts at different times in your practicing. Now, Performance is a different story, when you perform you don’t think about tons of things at once, you just think about the music about the goal you are going for, and you go for it. Practicing is a completely different entity though. So how do you recognize and decide which one to change and/or improve when you are self assessing and correcting?


A great, easy, indicator that one core principle of the shifting is not developed or needs some more work is when you feel very strongly that the other 3 are really solid, and the one in question is not. 


For example...


Decisiveness is important because it is the thing that build consistency and confidence. If when you go to perform the shift for the first time, or the first few times like say for family members at home or in your lesson, and you find yourself with debilitating nervousness. This is probably a sign that you haven’t quite decided about this shift. Now nervousness is a really big topic all its own and can be affected by many different variables, decisiveness is just one. I have found in my own playing though that decisiveness plays a key role in my stage fright. This is why I mention it here because the first and most prevalent symptom of indecisiveness is nerves. To say it another way, nervousness doesn’t always come from indecision, but indecision does usually lead to nervousness, which makes stage fright a good indicator As a side note, you, nor I, will ever be completely without nerves. Its what makes us human and what helps us give exciting performances. For our purposes here I am talking about the level of nervousness that you feel is really stopping you from performing at even your most basic level of ability. I have suffered with that a lot in my career, for this reason,  and so I bring it up now. 


Another indicator of indecisiveness is when someone, probably your teacher or fellow musicians, ask you about the shift. What do you think of it? How have you practiced it? What have you done to internalize the notes and the physical motion? If you have a hard time responding to these types of questions you haven’t decided much about this passage you are worried about and/or you haven’t practiced it much, which is also leading to lots of indecisiveness and doubt.


How can you change it? How can you be more decisive about what you are doing? Why should you change it. You should change it because you don’t want to be nervous, you want to be able to engage in conversation about it,  but also you simply want to be very consistent with the shift you are trying to execute. 


One really important thing to do, you are doing it right now, you are watching this video. Studying up, getting other perspectives, affirming what you believe about shifting. Don’t just watch this video, watch as many as you have time for and commit to watching at least a few of them. Listen to recordings, watch other performances of that shift of that entire piece. Yes ours is an aural art, you must use your ears first. But this wonderfully technological age we live in allows us to see our fellow musicians, other human beings, executing this skill which we are trying to attain. That is so powerful! And so important to our decisiveness. 


Why is it so powerful? The opposite of decisiveness is doubt or indecisive. That state of being where you are constantly questioning what you are doing, constantly doubting the decisions you have made. The fastest way around that is to be affirmed by other people, either by direct affirmation or by seeing them do what you believe to be accurate and true. So you can see decisiveness isn’t just about time in the practice room, that’s really important, but it is equally about thinking through what you are doing, being committed to and  confident in the decisions you made about the shift or other music, and executing them free from doubt  and indecision. 



Intonation - something which we are always working on regardless. When it comes to shifting how might I know that intonation is the thing that needs the most improvement? The clearest indication is when its not going correctly, out of tune, and you feel very confident, you are less nervous or not nervous at all, you are moving well with good posture and great rhythm. All of this is going well and yet its not in tune. You go to your lesson and your teacher says “Its out of tune, you are not shifting to the correct note.” or you play back a video recording of yourself and you see and hear that everything else is right then say to yourself “Its out of tune”. 


The biggest reason this happens is that early on in the learning, probably not enough decisions were made about the intonation, specific decisions like ‘That was sharp, make it lower” or “That was flat, make it higher”. And there goes that word again, decisions (decisiveness) and so you begin to see that these things are intertwined. Something went wrong and you didn’t internalize this pitch, this musical note, you didn’t in-tone it in your brain. One of the tried and true methods to get your brain caught up is to sing it. This greatly helps with internalizing. Another method is to play the pitch different ways, play it down an octave, or two. Play it on the piano. Listen to the piece with the music in front of you, following along on the page while you are doing some deep listening. This one is really key. 


Rhythm - rhythm is the most easy to fix and ironically the most easy to miss. We practice alone most of the time, like 99% of the time. We don’t have other people that we have to play along with in the practice room. We have the freedom and the curse to make notes as long or as short as we wish. We do it often enough, and repeat it enough times on the same notes and wall-a, we have no idea we are rushing or dragging. The solution is simple, practice with the metronome. So often students either don’t get the metronome out to begin with or don’t follow it. You can’t have it simply playing in the background, you must follow it. 


Having trouble knowing if you are following it? Easy, record yourself playing to the metronome. Its not something musicians do a lot, usually they are recording to see the big picture, to see if the end result is coming along. Students, the younger the more important this is, should record themselves playing to the metronome to ensure that they are following it. It is easy to ignore while you are playing but you will hear instantly on the recording if you are not following it. 


One smooth motion, which also goes along with posture and position - What does this mean exactly one smooth motion? It means that I shift my hand and fingers in one single, not herky jerky, motion from the bottom note to the top note. The key to executing this is to leave early, and so the one smooth motion aspect of shifting is very connected to the rhythm. This is something I will cover in detail in the how to practice video. I as the musician have to understand exactly where the note begins and ends in order to leave early and arrive on time, or even arrive early without extra unintended movement in my hand. 


How do I know if I am not doing this correctly? Again, if I feel very confident in the others. If I have decided and internalized what these notes are, what this passage is, that I know exactly what this pitch is supposed to sound like and I am able to follow the metronome accurately, then possibly I am not moving my hand correctly and possibly not moving it with the correct posture and position. Usually this is indicated by shifting up, immediately hearing that it is out of tune and jerking or correcting the note at the last possible second or even late after the beat in which it was supposed to be played. 



Video taping can also help this. If you see yourself following the metronome accurately, but then always leaving late, or making extra motions just at the very end to correct pitch, then possibly you are not building up the control required to have consistently accurate shifts which is the same control it takes to have one smooth motion. 


Now I know you are wondering a few things like, these parts of the shift, they all overlap and are  so interconnected, how do I really know which one needs the work? What if its more than one? What I can promise you is that you will make mistakes in your analysis, in the beginning, and you will get better at it. The more you try to separate them out and identify them individually, they better, faster, and more efficient you will get at it. You have to stop and make decisions about these different aspects, specific decisive analysis, and there goes that word again decisive. The more you identify them and fix them individually the more accurate you will get, and the better more consistent your shifting will become. 


I promised a resource to help with practicing and so I want to make sure I get that in here. In the description I have a link to this passage from the Dvorak humoresque for Cello. It’s a a video on Tik Tok and what makes viewing it on tik tok so powerful is that it loops for you indefinitely. Looping is a tremendous tool in any music learning technology and tik tok has it built right in. Please take a look at that and follow me there for more great practice videos. https://www.tiktok.com/@musicalistening/video/6834103669928021254




These topics are covered over the course of a three video series on my YouTube Channel if you want to check that out. Part 1 is an overview of why you should know these different parts. Decisiveness is it’s own thing and it is also something which is affected and intertwined with the other three. For this reason the entirety of video number 2 is about decisiveness. Part 3 is about the specifics of practicing shifting for improving your performance. 


Part 1

Cello Shifting - Part 1


Part 2

Cello Shifting - Decisiveness - Part 2


Part 3

Cello Shifting - How to Practice - Part 3

Friday, April 17, 2020

Decisions... Decisions... Decisions...

Reading a book and playing a musical instrument have something in common. They both are tasks with an active loop. Whats a task with an active loop? In both activities you are engaged in the activity in a deep level. You are deciding what is on the page, or what is on the memorized paged, producing that in your mind, and then analyzing it as you go, and then starting the whole thing over and over again as you move through new input. You are not over analyzing you are taking it in and letting it sweep over you, and you are always making a decision about what it is you are experiencing.

Now some would argue that claiming you are making constant decisions, even if they don't appear overly analytical, is not music making and is not really reading. The reason being both of these tasks ultimately require you to chunk so much information, see the big picture, take in lots at once. If you are constantly focused on the little details then how can you see the big picture? Maybe they are right, but we are not talking about major league decisions. We are talking about recognizing what is there, and deciding on any magnitude of scale from very small to very big what it means to us, if anything. I think most of the decisions are just "Yes, this is ____(that)"

Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle and we are doing both of these things at once, making lots of small decisions some significant some not, and taking a look at the big picture. I don't believe true physical multitasking is a real thing but I believe mental multitasking on this level, internal and belonging to one person's singular activity, is. I also believe though that people who are doing both well, reading and playing a musical instrument, are constantly making decisions. Why do I know this? How do I know this? It has to do with something, some things, I have written before. The idea of playing "away" from the cello about not playing "into" the cello.

I noticed the other day while I was reading with my son that I was reading and having the same kinds of sensations in my body as I do when I am playing. It's as if I was reading and simultaneously waiting for someone to tell me what I am reading. Wouldn't that make everything easier, just have someone tell you what to do while you are doing it? Then you would get to do the activity and reap the joy of it but the burden of decision would fall on someone else. Of course... why is the decision a burden to begin with? Isn't it fun to decide these things? What is joyous about it to begin with if you are so uninvolved in the process of getting there?

I have never thought of myself as that kind of person actually, someone that just wants to be told what to do. So what is it then? Is it that I am afraid to make the decision? Feel inept? Feeling lacking in knowledge or skill level sufficient to make the decision? There is also the closeness when making a decision. You have to be present, you have to be in that place and committed to what you are attempting to focus on, in order to make a hard decision. Maybe that's difficult. Here is a theory for us all, that when we are doing this well, moving happily along, making decisions, all the little ones, then we are ______. Yes, I think that is it, and really narrows it down. It's _____.  The answer has to be _____ because people describe the feeling in so many ways.
  • Centered
  • Present
  • Balanced
  • Hanging (cello stuff, although I have heard violinists refer to this sensation also)
  • Relaxed
  • Weighted
  • Committed
  • Focusing the Sound
  • Into the ___ (my personal favorite, can't see to find a better one for me, just fits)
And this last one really bring me home on this idea. This word fits me, "into", I get it, I understand it, its how I wrap my head around the bad habits I have at the cello. 

What works for you? How do you understand what you do when you are understanding it well? When you are really noticing everything you are doing and able to see your playing objectively, what word(s) fit? This is important, that you know what works for you, that you learn to accept your own vocabulary.

Why? If you don't accept your own understanding then you are liable to be in the limbo mode waiting for someone else's. It may never come, in fact it rarely does. You have an understanding, you know something is off. You know you are not balanced, or centered or hanging correctly in all the right ways and places etc etc. You are not weighted and committed. Choose which ever you like, but you know. Have you decided to do something about it? Have you decided that your own understanding means something? It's the first and most important decision of all. You can't decide about whats on the page whether reading, playing a musical instrument or otherwise, until you've made this first very important decision. You can't decide the arc of the line, the nuance in the story, the progression of whatever art discipline you are in, until you decide that however you decide things, is ok.

Happy Deciding and Happy Practicing
Clay

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Who? What? When? Where? Why? - The path to the center of active listening


What is the difference exactly between active listening and passive listening? Is there a difference? Is that just something we invented as musicians to make ourselves feel better? Are we ever able to really switch off between one or the other? Does the music itself dictate which one we are doing? Is it a certain kind of situation perhaps, deeper listening versus light listening. Like say, if we are listening to one kind of music that is our preferred music for playing in headphones or the background while reading or studying (something I can't do, maybe it's a generational thing or a Clay thing, can't read/study while listening). Or certain music for cleaning, folding clothes, other household chores. You know what I am talking about. The background jams, the lift me up music, the passive stuff, or at least the stuff we treat passively....?

Maybe there is other music which we reserve for more serious listening endeavors or events. The stuff that really lights us up and drives us. The "real" music of our lives. So my question for us today is....

What makes it "real"?

I am going to take a stab at answering it and say that reality makes it real. You're welcome. Good thing blogs are free.

The reality of our world, the people, the things that happen, the things that happen to people, events, geography, politics, wars, pandemics, natural disasters, death, birth, sorrow and healing and so much more, the gamut of human experience. Sometimes, some people, turn that experience into music, either by writing it, or performing it, or listening to it, or sharing it,  or all of the above. When we know more about what that experience was, or maybe what it currently is in the living moment, we listen differently. We listen, as they say in the Benedictine traditional of Lectio Divina, "... with the ear of our heart."

For much of my life I have known and loved the hymn, it is well with my soul. This hymn text was written by Horatio Spafford and set to music by Phillip Bliss. Only in adulthood did I learn the story of how the hymn came to be, the tragic events of Spafford's life and the immense loss of his family he suffered. I now hear that hymn, that music, differently.

Nearer my god to thee is another one, legend has it is was played on the Titanic as it was sinking, the last song. There are varying accounts but the point is still made, so many people hear that piece and think about that tragic event and their listening experience is deepened. I learned while reading for this entry that ALL the musicians on board the Titanic went down with the ship because they played till the end to help calm everyone down. Now I am definitely going to hear this hymn differently.

And it's not just sorrow that connects us in a deeper way to music, our celebrations as well. Enigma variations was written by Elgar to celebrate his close friends and family. Nimrod, from those variations is perhaps one of the most gigantic orchestral works of all time, a celebration of his close friend Augustus J. Jaeger. Once I knew that I could never hear the piece the same again. How deep and personal that friendship must have been to create such an incredible, beautiful and moving work. It just makes it that much better to listen to.

The list could go on and on and on, and it's having exponential growth as we speak. There are so many amazing things happening with music right now. I hope that you are able to find some comfort in that if you need to, to even celebrate it and enjoy it if possible. And remember, when this is behind us, you don't have to wait for a tragedy, or a pandemic, or even a celebration to go and find out a little more about the music you are listening to, and become connected to it, listen to it in a deeper more active way. It may not equal now, I don't know if anything in my lifetime ever will. So embrace it now, remember what this feels like, enjoy it if you are able, soak in this amazing musical listening moment in our world's history.

Happy Listening
Clay

On a Hymnsong of Phillip Bliss arranged by David Holsinger from TRN Music


Nimrod - Daniel Barenboim Chicago Symphony

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

It's Official December 14th 2009


December 14th 2009 - "Well I guess it's official, I don’t listen. That is why I play so bad. I am not focused on the sound. The only way to get better, the only way to make sense out of MusicaListening is to know that it always gets deeper. There is always another level to get to. I have only scratched the surface and then moved on thinking there was something new to find out. There is not really anything new, there is only that which is already true and you take it to the next level."

I wrote that a decade ago, apparently. Until I re-read it just now I did not specifically remember writing it. I do remember writing this sentiment or truth or discovery or whatever it should properly be called, many times, many many times ad nauseam nauseam, amen and amen.

The realization of it was so intoxicating. To be conscious that I was not actually listening to what I was doing, to comprehend that such a thing was possible after so many hours at the cello, my chosen profession, the thing that was supposed to bring me a living....  It was horrific, awe inspiring, sensational and depressing. What a whirlwind, no wonder I kept re-discovering this fact for so many years. I would even go so far as to say I was addicted to the cycle of diagnosis and practicing that went along with this endless circle of re-encounter.

As I write to you now in December 2019 I must confess I think it has only just begun to change. This entry is fortuitous to find because I find myself sincerely, truly listening differently lately. Hmmm... think I wrote that before? It just comes out and feels so new that for a moment there I didn't realize I was doing the same thing all over again a decade later. Wow, old habits die hard.

The part I wrote at the end was dead on, and the part to cling to for now. Listening didn't change, I changed, I found a new level. I am finding a new level even now, after 31 years playing cello and 10 years teaching orchestra. It's a new way of being while I am listening, and so it feels like I am listening for the first time. Perhaps it is my age also. Perhaps now I see that nothing else much matters in this aural art form except for the aural parts. That sounds so obvious that it can come across as comical to say it but it's so true. There is so much to get your brain, fingers and arms hung up on that the aural aspects can come in dead last on the priority map of performing a musical instrument. Like the opening thesis here, I have written that previous statement before too, in many variations. I have done many thing many times in pursuit of musical progress. And this is where age perhaps matters the most, knowing what works and what doesn't. I have tried thinking about music in so many different ways, so many different ways that I know, now,  don't work. I have tried to skirt around it, around the sound,  around being in the moment with the aural-ness of instruments around me. I have spent a lot of time thinking I could find something new, or some completely new way of thinking that wasn't 100% focused on the sound. Of course if anyone ever asked me my stock reply was "Of course I am listening, of course I know the sound matters". I don't think that was a lie, but at each new level of listening there is a judgement that passes in me that feels like any declaration that came before is now retroactively null and void, falsehoods of a person that doesn't exist anymore.

In order to stay focused on what matters, to not throw the baby out with the bath water, lets say that each new realization, each new encounter is a tone in a chord. If you have a root, and then the third, you have a completely harmonization, a complete tonality. If you discover later that you can add a 5th, and you quickly love the idea so you do it,  you have a more complete chord, a more complete harmonization, a more complete tonality. You don't then say to yourself, or anyone else playing with you "Now we have the right notes in the chord. Those previous ones were not really tones, this 5th is the real tone." Well... you see the folly already. It's only a 5th because of that root sitting under it, take the root out of the equation and you have to call that 5th something else.

Let's not judge our journey so harshly anymore. Let us say that the only thing that is official is that we are officially resigned to the fact that there will always be some new place to get to, some new plane of musical existence to explore. The present and the past are not two sides of a coin, or two sides of an experience, the light and the dark, despite how much we treat them that way. And let us give ourselves a smidge of credit. There is also the fact that there are aspects of music that change my listening experience and that makes it so challenging when trying to realize if we have taken an unnecessary path. The more we know about theory the better we hear. The more we know about a composer the more real a piece becomes. The more we know about the history behind and around a piece the more context we can give it in our own time. All these things, which seem non-aural are in fact serving the fulfillment of the aural goal. If we dwell on them two much and forget about the end product we get into trouble. If we do that human thing where we go, "Hey, these non-aural things affect listening, so what if there are other non-aural things affecting listening that I can discover?" I don't know that we literally say that to ourselves but that is what happens. We get curious, genuinely and sincerely curious in pursuit of something better and we loose our way. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, a wise person once said.

Stay well out there, stay focused and make sure to forgive yourself on a regular basis. Nothing is every official or final in this journey. That's why we decided to take it.