Thursday, February 18, 2021

Time and Perception

Once, a long time ago (maybe it was 1946) a new 1st trombone player joined an orchestra far away; he was by far the best brass player in the orchestra. The other players in the orchestra were what we call now "old school," and it clearly stayed "old school" for many years after the new 1st trombonist arrived; the horns were primitive, the trumpets were symphonically ignorant and the trombones and tuba were pretty much the same. They did the thing all untrained brass players do; they played late. The new trombone player was the only one who made an effort to be on time. Of course, in comparison with the other brass he was always early. As time passed and more experienced players began to join the orchestra slowly the brass section started to play on time, all except the 1st trombone player (who wasn't new anymore); he had been ahead of the section for so many years that when things finally got corrected it didn't seem right to him. His perception of what was correct was simply ahead of the rest of the section. Therefore he continued to play ahead all the way to the day he retired.

During these years of adjustment a new and younger 1st trombonist came into the orchestra. He was intelligent, a wonderful musician and a student of the older 1st trombonist. He immediately realized that his teacher was always early and found himself becoming very frustrated. Sharing that common quality that all great brass players seem to have, stubbornness, the new trombonist soon developed the habit of always being behind his teacher because he knew if he was with him he would be early. 25 years after the older trombonist passed away, his replacement was still playing late and thinking he was right. He had been playing late to his teacher for so many years that not being behind felt wrong. Finally, when the new trombonist reached retirement the problem seemed to resolve. It took 50 years to correct the time perception problem in the section!

And in another place long ago and far away there was a remarkable young trombonist and composer, it was in the early 70s. He was so far ahead of the rest of us that he captured our imaginations, our vision and pointed out to us a new direction. He knew that he was in new territory and that he was opening minds; he liked his role in the avant garde as the enfant terrible. He liked blowing minds and creating new sounds. Today he is a brilliant, perhaps genius composer, and he is charismatic. His avant garde school, though, has become an old-fashioned school, and he's still fighting the same old fight. Now frustrated because he is loosing the fight, he finds that most people think his music is ugly and vulgar. While he was stuck being the outrageous enfant terrible, the rest of the world passed him by and left him behind, yet his perception of himself in the musical world has not changed with the times.

Here's the artistic danger sequence: Motivation, Perception, Growth, Dogma, then Stagnation. It didn't happen to Stravinsky, he grew until he died. It hasn't happened to Boulez or Rostroprovitch. I'm afraid of it. If it happens to me, I will know it is time to stop.

When the pensioners sit on a bench and stare at the sea, what do they think about?

Between Tokyo and Hiroshima, Japan. November 15, 2004.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

This blog was actually written twenty years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland at the time when I had just started to learn how to write. I hope now, twenty years later and at a time when democracy is on everyone's mind, it will be an interesting read.



Is Music a Democracy?


Frequently, while giving masterclasses, I will ask students to play a passage several different ways and then ask the class to vote on which they preferred. The results are always interesting and enlightening, but then I ask the class this question; “Is music a democracy and do their vote results necessarily indicate the best musical option?” With that question, people are usually reluctant to show an opinion; that’s a good thing, I hope it means they’re thinking about it.


Symphony orchestras, for example, are probably among the last vestiges of a non-democracy we have and possibly could be called a “good dictatorship”! A successful musical performance needs a strong musical personality and strong musical personalities occur far more frequently in the individual than the collective. The conductor of a symphony orchestra holds a very powerful position, a position that almost requires he be a dictator; musical decisions need to be made singularly. Assuming the conductor is a powerful musical personality, and a wise, kind and sensitive person, everything should be okay! … Well, that’s a huge assumption! We all know that not all conductors are powerful musical personalities, kind, wise and sensitive. Still, music needs that individualism to project to a listener. How to deal with conductor incompetence and power abuse is a delicate matter to be addressed by orchestra committees and administrations, however, this article is about the need for individualism in musical performance.


I once played in a brass quintet made up of five men with five very strong and distinct personalities, musical and otherwise, each of who were qualified to make musical decisions and to present memorable performances. Sometimes, during nostalgic moments, when I listen to the old LPs we recorded (now safely stored in my computer), I hear very little of those strong personalities which should have been apparent and extraordinary; quite simply, the powerful musical personalities just weren’t there! Why? Was it that perhaps the personalities were too strong; perhaps it was just easier to compromise the individualism for the sake of peace during rehearsals; or perhaps those five strong personalities were simply incompatible, or the brilliant individual colors just neutralized each other to shades of gray. I may never know an accurate answer.


Since I moved to Europe it has been a pleasure to be invited as a judge for many brass ensembles, especially brass quintet competitions. In listening to hundreds of quintets, three things have become evident: 


1. There could be no weak link in the ensemble, all the members had to be great players. 


2. They had to project some kind of positivity while performing; this could be called “joy” for want of a better word. 


3. And all the truly great groups, the winners, had a leader. It was abundantly clear that the winning groups had a musical leader that, with his or her strong personal musicality, influenced the other players. This became very apparent when the same quintet participated over the years and we, the judges, could hear the influence of that musical leader growing among the other players through time.


There were groups that played perfectly together and projected no musical personality whatsoever. These groups, absolutely amazed by not being advanced to further rounds, were invariably the ones who would approach the judges, demanding an explanation as to why. Trying to explain was not easy.


It’s interesting to vote in a masterclass situation and see what pleases most people, but just like testing mouthpieces for a group of colleagues, the final decision has to come from the individual. 


Have the courage to be an individual, have the courage to be unique, it will serve you, it well take you further.


Tokyo, September 6, 2005