Developing Long Term Relationships with Music

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Today I’d like to write a little about the value of developing long term relationships with music. Relationships with music are no different than relationships with people, and just as truly meaningful friendships develop over time, a special performance of a piece of music comes after a long term musical relationship.

To connect deeply with a piece of music takes time. To bring depth to any relationship whether musical or personal it’s important to spend time together at different times and places and in different emotional moods. In music this brings solidity to the connection between the performer and the piece. Conversely, to learn a piece in a day or two and immediately perform it without developing a relationship with it is like a cheap fling; shallow and unsatisfying.

When I learn a new piece I like to take it slow, building familiarity over time and not rushing the learning process. I also enjoy picking up an old piece I’ve played before and starting over again. Every time I pick up a piece after putting it down for a while I see all sorts of new musical angles that I was blind to before which open up new realms of improvement. I credit this phenomenon to the power of the subconscious.

As I have discussed before, the subconscious brain is a much more powerful computer than our conscious brain, and using our subconscious to process the majority of information is a big computational advantage. When we learn a piece slowly, and take breaks from it, we allow the subconscious to work through it and often breakthrough ideas come from that process.

This is one of the main reasons why rest is so important to the learning process. It’s not just that we need to recover and rebuild, which we do, but also our subconscious brains need time to process, organize and connect new information.

Unfortunately the slow learning process rarely happens for jaded orchestral musicians who have to play a new program every week. Musical quality and job satisfaction suffers as a result. When I was in Saint Louis I would look at a program once or twice before the week started, play the week, and then forget about it. I was terrible like that, if you asked me what we played a few weeks before I would usually struggle to remember. I did a adequate job (on second trumpet) but that kind of preparation and commitment led to a very shallow and unrewarding relationship with the music I was performing.

I have improved my relationship with music over the last few years, and now I try to spend more time preparing for everything. It’s not about learning the notes, it’s about developing a relationship with a piece before “going all the way” with a performance. I try to play through music sooner and more often and I listen to a lot of recordings of the week’s repertoire, even if I’m focusing on something else, in order to let my subconscious get to work on the music. This has resulted in a much higher appreciation from me of almost all the music I play, better performances, and more personal musical growth.

Musicianship is a lifetime project. Cultivating a good relationship with music requires diligence, patience, time, and love. I have really noticed the benefit of longer relationships with music recently while preparing and recording my first solo album. I’ve been working on the music for over a year now and I have been performing, recording, reworking, rerecording, etc, the material for over a year now, and every time I pick something up again after a break I have all sorts of new insights on it. Thanks, subconscious!

One piece on that recording I have had a very long term relationship with is Ravel’s Piece en Forme de Habanera. I first played it at a recital at Oberlin in 1996. Since then I have picked it up and performed it many times again, from Saint Louis to Sweden to Vietnam to Hong Kong and every time I do I learn something new.

When I play this piece I have a picture in my head of a hot summer night somewhere in Spain, where it’s so hot everyone just sits around doing nothing but drinking sangria. It’s a soft and subtle piece, for sure, but in the music there is an echo of the day’s bullfight, the faraway sound of trumpet fanfares and the rhythm of the habanera dance.

I hope you enjoy my latest version of this beautiful piece, the result of an 18 year old musical friendship, with pianist Illie Ng Ling Ling. Here’s to many more years of friendship with this beautiful piece.

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