Sunday, June 03, 2012

Hearing realistically

Since I stopped playing ten years ago, I’ve been experiencing frequent reoccurring dreams. It seems just closing that tuba case for the last time did not remove it from the more hidden corners of my mind; 60 years of constant life with an instrument just doesn’t go away easily.

These dreams, or nightmares, which ever they are, started with me finding myself seated in front of an orchestra playing a concerto and discovering that I’d never heard the music before, not knowing when to make the entrance or what to play. In some dreams I frequently was sitting in the back row of the orchestra with the brass section playing a Bruckner or Mahler symphony and realizing I had not played in years and was totally tuba nonfunctional. I would wake up panicked.

After over a year of not playing, the dreams turned to another direction of anxiety. Here are a few: When playing in a strange hall, I was unable to find my way to the stage, there were stairways that led to dead ends, elevators that went to the wrong floors and the chronic problem of simply not being able to find my tuba. There were many times I would miss the bus, miss the plane, lose my concert clothes, or forget my black shoes! Perhaps the most ominous scene of all was going on stage and finding no chair or music stand for the tuba and when going back stage to get help there was nobody there. I’m still working on what it all means!

The frequency of these dreams has dramatically dropped in the last few months after a ten year break from playing, which I surmise is because I’ve started practicing again; I was encouraged to do so by esteemed colleagues at Musashino Academia Musicae, and other musician friends, who suggested that my students would greatly benefit if I were to play occasionally during my lessons. This has proven to be true.

Playing a brass instrument is very similar to athletic function, like basketball, track or swimming; aging decreases our ability to function at the same efficiency that we are able to reach in our youth. This is particularly true regarding tuba because of the necessary required large amount of air; vital capacity decreases with age. I was instantly struck, when I began playing again, by the fact that the instrument seemed much heavier that it did ten years before and that my air capacity was obviously diminished. This meant that the phrases I could play ten years ago in one breath were simply impossible now… very frustrating. I decided to stop performing in 2002 because I could feel those signs of aging, because I could hear those signs of aging.

In the last few months since I started playing again I have happily progressed from being absolutely nonfunctional to playing simple pieces almost well. I became my own teacher and applied the same methods I would use with students in managing air supply problems. At first, I was so encouraged by my progress that I forgot my knowledge and experience in hearing older players passing their prime; it’s a sad sound, the tone quality starts to get thin, there is an audible shake in the sustained passages and, of course, that telltale sound when a player begins running out of air. It’s sadder still when an aging player doesn’t hear the change.

I was tempted to perform again; in fact, in a moment of weakness I even promised I would play one piece (a very easy piece) on a recital with my good friend and old student Roland Szentpali next month. However, after two months of practicing an hour almost every day and progressing almost to the level I was in 2002 at my final concert, I needed to remember that the reason I stopped playing at that time was because that playing level had audibly dropped!

I will continue to practice, but maybe only for a short time each day, and I will occasionally play in the lesson room for my students. Fortunately, my ears seem to still function in a discerning way, which should keep me out of trouble; the idea of playing for students is that it should be exemplary. Speriamo! Roger

May 1, 2012, Tokyo, Japan