Thursday, June 23, 2016

What it takes to make music May 1, 2016

NOTE: I had a spirited debate with a colleague about the physical and mental demands of membership in a marching band. Shortly thereafter, I interviewed Las Cruces Symphony Conductor Lonnie Klein and recalled that when we last met, after a recent concert, he was drenched in sweat, and told me he usually lost several pounds during a concert weekend. Then I ran across this column, from March 26, 2000. For all those who don’t understand or appreciate what it takes to make music, I think this is information that demands an encore.
LAS CRUCES - Multitasking is nothing new.
Even those born before the full-bloom computer age and the enticing demands of social media have been doing some form of multitasking most of our lives, and those of us with music training grew up performing the kinds of full-tilt multitasking feats that cyber wonder kids can only dream about.
There are lots of things any musician - vocal or instrumental - has to consider to produce the most modest of performances. Just for openers: you must pay attention to intonation (you and your instrument must get and stay in tune), articulation, tempo, key (beginning and subsequent changes), and volume, and learn and understand the strange symbols that constitute the language of music, and special instructions relating to style, which are generally conveyed in Italian, just to make things more interesting. If you haven’t memorized the piece you’re playing, you also have to think ahead to turn pages without losing notes, which means you have to plan to get a hand free or work out a silent signal system with a cooperative page turner.
Unless you’re playing solo, you then have to multiply all these factors by the number of people with whom you’re playing. In an orchestra, that could be upwards of 80 musicians. And some musicians, like pianists, have to perform two different melodies at once, and if your left hand doesn’t know and mentally and emotionally integrate what your right hand is doing, you’re sunk.
And, of course, there’s the conductor. While you’re keeping one eye on your score and page turning opportunities around the bend, you have to keep another eye trained on the conductor, who is doing his or her best to wrangle the whole musical herd neatly through the next pass.
You must be sure that you are playing in tune and in tune with your fellow musicians. That can require some pretty tricky spontaneous and continual adjustments and compromises, especially if you have been blessed (or cursed) with perfect pitch and are playing with some intonation-impaired colleagues. You must also listen to make sure you are not playing louder or softer than the score directs, that you are not overwhelming or being overwhelmed by solo singers or instrumentalists, and that you are maintaining the proper mood and tempo.
Keep in mind acoustical quirks of your venue. And keep up. I’d bet those references about the importance of everybody being on the same page originated in the music world. In melodic realms, being on different pages can have consequences far more dire than prolonging a meeting: it can mean the murder of a symphony, a fatal, head-on string quartet collision, the end of an aria, or the ear-splitting clash of musical titans.
Then there are the distractions: the broken strings, overflowing spit valves, exhausted reeds, and the irritating personal and musical quirks of fellow performers. And audience members who chime in with coughs, sneezes, throat clearings or even, in a few brain-dead cultural assassinations I’ve witnessed: ringing cell phones. Your job as a musician is to keep all these impossibly complex factors in mind, continually, skillfully and gracefully cooperate to cope … and then transcend it all to produce rejuvenating joy. Then, and only then, do you have music.
I thought about my ear-phoned newsroom amigos and gridlock victims seeking solace in traffic and realized how much we rely on music’s transcendent moments to help us through the trials of daily life. And I thought, as I often have, that music and art are the first things we should give our children and the last things we should consider taking away.
It’s not the multitasking and the gridlocks that could ultimately do us in, but the lack of access to those transcendent moments.
We all need to learn more about creating such moments ourselves and find ways to reward and encourage those who are especially good at producing those miracles and sharing them with the rest of us.

S. Derrickson Moore may be reached at 575-541-5450, or @derricksonmoore on Twitter.

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