The Mystery in the Math
The only thing I can listen to when I drive through the city at night is Kind of Blue.
Every time I listen to it, I hear something new I haven’t heard before. And it is a relief to my classically trained ears to listen to something that my brain doesn’t automatically dissect into different structural elements. Since my experience performing jazz is somewhat limited, I can listen to it and just feel what I’m listening to. Or maybe that’s just the way you’re supposed to listen to jazz. Either way, I experience it in moods and atmospheres and hazy thoughts that dance in circles around ideas I can’t quite put into words.
Just this once, I’ll try to put one of these ideas into words.
Humans seek to name and dissect and quantify everything around us. We find comfort in organization.
Music can be labeled and dissected and broken down into a million little pieces. Teaching beginner brass players reminds me that music demands all sorts of things out of us. We multi-task to the extreme as performers. I ask my students to think about their breathing, intonation, posture, rhythm, fellow players, tempo, expression, dynamics, etc. You know how it is.
As a child, I remember feeling mesmerized by the mystery of music. It had the power to transform my feelings, my thoughts, my mood. It was ever-present in my house growing up. Impromptu dance parties are a way of life in the Pearce house.
In school, someone hands you an instrument and teaches you how to read this foreign language and suddenly some of the mystery is gone. You learn to analyze music and micromanage it. In order to hone your skills you break a beautiful solo down into tiny pieces that you rehearse over and over the way you’d lift weights to condition yourself at the gym.
I never used to appreciate Miles Davis. Perhaps I do now because I’m older. Perhaps I do now because I’m seeking out music that still creates that mystery for me.
We can break music down into a million little pieces, but it’ll still never mean anything until you let all of the pieces become a part of your subconscious and just play what you feel. Play the whole. As performers we have to master every bit of technique in order to let go and let the mystery enter in. My most expressive, effective performances have occurred when all of those pieces just happen unconsciously and my focus is on the bigger picture.
I find beauty in paradoxes. Music is objective and subjective. And depending on which answer you choose, music can be viewed as very complicated or very simple. I’m not a very religious person but I’d consider myself very spiritual. I believe things happen for a reason. And I am content to have a very small grasp on what ties everything together. I can always depend on Emerson to sum up how I feel:
All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen.
In my opinion, being an effective performer means trusting yourself and all of your work micro-managing the music. You must have faith that you’ll be able to execute all of the technique you’ve worked on. All the notes in their correct places. And then the safety of that black and white world is left behind, if you’re willing to risk it. A million variables come into play and the essence of the music and its message as you interpret it come into focus. You have to choose to direct your attention to the mystery. Whatever is expressed and interpreted during your performance is something that can never be experienced again. I’ve listened to pieces years after my first listen and they’ve meant very different things to me.
If the music I make has no meaning to anyone and is merely a conglomeration of exercises I’ve learned over time, then all I am is a hamster running on a wheel. I’ve got to throw myself into creating my own meaning within the music. If I’m going to run this hard I want to be heading somewhere.
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