There are all sorts of comments you expect to hear after a performance, but I'm pretty sure that "boring" isn't one of them. Despite my years of experience, I still fight the urge to take musical risks with my playing. After all, the safer playing route means fewer missed notes, and in a culture that seems to place a high priority on "passing the test," the safe path to "passing off" each etude probably seems like the logical one. But at what cost? It is often an issue in my students' playing, as well, and I have spent hours trying to figure out how I can change this.
I get it. I really do. You want to get better now, right? What does "getting better" really mean? What are your ultimate goals in music? There will come a day when technique alone will fall short in satisfying your musical soul, and that strong, passionate feeling deep in your bones needs to be fed regularly to stay healthy. I chose my instrument because it allows me to communicate with my audience in a special way that fits me perfectly. I have played many concerts and recitals where I played trombone well, but the times when I really connected with my audience were the times when I forgot they were there and tapped into the song in my head - and those moments fed my musical soul.
When working with my students, I try to start each lesson with something lyrical, like a Bordogni Vocalise or Cimera Phrasing Study. If a student is nervous or not completely warmed up, the elements of a lyrical etude can help calm the nerves, and serves as a great primer for the rest of the lesson. My students know the drill - I will follow the lyrical etude with three requests: 1. sing through several phrases loudly and proudly, 2. play the mouthpiece without the tongue, glissing between notes, and 3. perform at least a portion of the vocalise again. I have very rarely had a student do these three things and not immediately sound better and feel more confident in their interpretation. Each week, the lightbulb turns on, but at some point over the course of the following week, the light switches off, and has to be turned on again in the following lesson. I am left scratching my head, wondering how I can help remove the switch from this circuit so that the concept of musical dominance over trombone operation becomes hard wired.
I don't come to this point as a teacher abstractly. I have plenty of experience on the other side of this equation. For example, a couple of years ago, in the first few minutes of a lesson with a major American symphony trombonist* I was playing - you guessed it - a Bordogni Vocalise. I had played for this gentleman on several occasions, but despite my relative comfort in his presence, I felt the need to impress him with my trombone playing. Sure, there were musical thoughts in my head, but they weren't at the forefront of my mind. I played the entire etude, and felt pretty good about how I had played the trombone. In a gesture that seemed to last for a minute, he looked at me, then looked at the music, deep in thought.
"You played it well...but it was....well, it was boring."
You know that sinking feeling when you realize that you totally missed the point? He was totally right. I had spent so much time trying to play the trombone well that I had forgotten where my focus needed to be - on the music! My trombone operation, no matter how good it might have been, didn't make a bit of difference, because I didn't connect with him through my music making. Needless to say, that moment created a strong priority from that day forward.
Please don't get me wrong. I believe that technique is important. It is vital! We must play the instrument well. We practice for years so that our tools are maintained and ready to be used at our musical discretion, but there has to be a point in the process where the technique becomes secondary to the music. Much like a painter, we need many "brushes" to achieve the nuance of a great painting. So as you sit down for your next practice session, remember what you're trying to say through your instrument.
* = major American symphony trombonist was not named in this blog post, because I didn't ask for permission to use his name before I wrote this post. :)
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