I was working with a student on a band solo, in a programmatic piece about the prairie or the wide open spaces or something like that. You know the kind of generically expansive, colorful wind writing I’m talking about – kind of Copland-y and with some 5/4 and 7/8 bars mixed in so we can all tell that it’s meant to be free and untamed. A piece I did not know, but could predict.
She had a solo, and wanted it to be great, so we dug in. We talked about how to count securely into the off-the-beat entrance. We talked about the shape of the phrase and where to breathe. We talked about supporting the sound so that even the softest dynamic could be audible to an audience member. We talked about using vibrato to enhance the phrase, and to move long notes forward without having to crescendo too soon. We talked about how to roll in and out on the reed to produce the big intervals more reliably in tune.
At the end of our session she played it for me again and the transformation was tremendous. It sounded like good oboe playing and clear musical communication. The not-quite-tonal melody made sense, and the whole thing had a confidence that it had previously lacked.
What do you think? I asked, brushing my hands together in satisfaction.
Well, she said, it does sound better now, but I’m having trouble feeling the prairie wind.
When I played this before, I could imagine the wind sweeping across and through me on the open expanse of the prairie, and now I’m just feeling my diaphragm and my embouchure.
What a great statement! I think that that, right there, is the essence of what it means to be a professional musician. We don’t have the luxury of feeling the feelings – we have to create those moods for others. In the moment, I don’t get to feel the prairie wind blowing through my hair. I create that landscape for everyone else, but as soon as I’m smelling those sweet wildflowers in my mind, I’m off task. It’s not my job to cry when I’m playing Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony – my job is to express emotion for the audience. I want them to cry. I can’t play well if my body is tense or contorted, and I can’t play at all if I’m laughing or weeping.
No matter how moving I find the performance to be, my job is to keep it together all the way to the end. How do I concentrate on key signatures, dynamics, and nuance if I’m distracted by the backstory of what I’m playing?
Indeed, the story is important. I’m going to play an operatic death scene differently from a champagne party, and a witch’s dance differently from a Strauss Waltz. But that’s all in the preparation, and the planning, which happens before the performance. When we’re in the thick of it, I have to focus on the oboe or it will get away from me.
The enjoyment I get from music is the satisfaction of performing it well. The sense that I’ve moved other people. The feeling that everything is in the pocket, and fits just right, and that I share the responsibility for that. There’s a magic in the DOING, just as there is in the listening – and I am such a doer.