Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Performing with Purpose

Please note: no real names of students were used in this otherwise true account

I've often struggled justifying my life as a performing musician.  There is nothing I love more than playing the horn, and I am at my happiest when I'm playing music with friends.  But, what does my life as a horn player do to make the world a better place, to give back, to make me a contributing member of society?  A battle with this notion constantly, wondering if being a musician is nothing more than a selfish pursuit.

Recently, a powerful experience allowed me to realize how all of my life's puzzle pieces need to fit together overcome this mental, moral obstacle.

Most of my performance experiences in the past several months have been incredibly joyful.  I've been so happy to get back into the performance lifestyle that nothing could bring me down.  However, during one recent performance, I was so nervous and stressed that I was not having ANY fun at all, instead feeling only discomfort.  I couldn't seem to calm myself down, particularly in the measures leading up to a passage that made me particularly nervous (read: I screwed it up a few times in rehearsal).  I tried all of my old tricks during rests: smiling, centering, deep breathing, closing my eyes and feeling the music happening around me.  Nothing was working.

Then, I'm not sure why, but for some reason I started thinking about my El Sistema kids in Lexington. I thought about how they light up every time I pull my horn out during rehearsals, or every time Mr. Paul pulls out his bass, or when they see Ms. Anna playing in the Lexington Philharmonic during school concerts.  The light in their eyes when they watch and listen to us play shows me that we are actively inspiring them, and the work we do with them (the nurturing musical environment we create) allows them to believe that they are capable of achieving something great.  I imagined them in the audience, and how excited they would be to see and hear their teacher play.  I then started thinking of specific kids in the program, eventually getting around to José, a seven year old violinist.  José tugs at my heartstrings because he's very shy, and he struggles a bit with social skills, but he LOVES playing the violin.  He's not the best in the class, but he is a diligent worker and clearly loves every minute the instrument is in his hands.  He wouldn't get to have this experience without our program.  I decided to play the upcoming portion of the piece for José.  I then performed the middle of the piece for Maria, and the end for her twin, Gabriela.  Once I decided to dedicate my time on the stage to those kids, I felt a calmness that I hadn't felt in days.  I played significantly better for the remainder of the performance, because suddenly what I was doing had purpose.

I realized in that moment that, above everything else, I perform music to give hope.  I practice because I enjoy improving my craft, and I rehearse because I love to play music with friends, but I perform to inspire.  Without those kids, performing isn't nearly as meaningful to me.  At the same time, I HAVE to keep practicing, to keep playing at a higher and higher level, in order to provide the greatest amount of inspiration possible during performance.

I know those kids weren't actually in the audience that night, but they will be someday.  And maybe, just maybe, they'll be on the stage with me someday, too.

We all have different reasons for performing.  What's yours?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Eating my Horn Vegetables

A few months ago, I started a new horn student.  She's a sophomore in high school, and very talented. We started lessons in the midst of district and state band auditions (which she made!), and a concerto competition.  Now that some of these events are over with, I told her it was time to go back to more regular etude work.  We're starting with the basics: Kopprasch book 1, Maxime-Alphonse book 2, and the Pottag Preparatory Melodies.  

When I was explaining Kopprasch to my student, I told her that this book was not necessarily for fun, but it's important to her development as a horn player.  I used the conventional analogy of eating that one vegetable that doesn't taste great but you eat it anyway because you know it's good for you.  Then I started thinking about the role of vegetables in my life (this is not a weird sentence if you know me). When I was a kid, I hardly ate any vegetables at all.  Now I'm vegan.  I love vegetables of all kinds!  At the age of 20, I went from cringing at vegetables to eating a diet that consists entirely of plants.  It was a tough transition, but now I can't imagine living any other way.

Like every good American, I also enjoy frying vegetables.  This is a scene from when I lived with 2 veggie friends a few years ago.

For me, the metaphor of Kopprasch to vegetables is significant.  And yes, I'm certainly the only person ever to utter that sentence.  It's my blog and I'll write what I want :)

As I assigned these etudes to my student, and thought about vegetables, I realized that I've never really worked through any of these books myself.  I started tinkering with M-A and Pottag a few months ago, but other than an etude or two, I've never done Kopprasch.  That's right.  I'm an ABD doctoral candidate at a major conservatory, and I've never made it through Kopprasch.

That's pretty silly.

It's not through lack of my teachers' effort that I didn't do Kopprasch.  My undergraduate professor started me with the book, but I found the etudes boring and didn't understand the importance of them at the time, so I just stopped bringing the book to lessons.

Immediately after I assigned my student these etudes, I realized the fault of doing so.  How could I properly teach her if I hadn't done them myself?  As soon as the lesson ended, I opened all three of the books and started from the beginning.  Now, as I play through each Kopprasch etude I think, "I wish I would have done these sooner!"  Sure, maybe I don't have a ton of fun while I'm playing them, but as an educated hornist, I now know exactly the skills that each etude builds, and I'm so grateful to be playing each one.

Perhaps it's faulty to wish I'd done them sooner.  Clearly I didn't have the appreciation for them at the time like I do now, so maybe this is exactly the right time for me to begin.  I'm learning more and more each day that, whether it's eating your greens or practicing your lip trills, it's never too late to get back to the basics of life.  No matter when you start, you'll be better and healthier for it.