Making music with a group of like-minded individuals with one purpose before a responsive audience sharing their pleasure at hearing it is a thrilling experience. Audience members and musicians alike look forward to that moment of connection. But to consider music only as a type of performance leaves it vulnerable to becoming a superfluous form of entertainment. Yes, music is a performing art. But it is much more than that.
Due to the pandemic, I have not given a live performance in over a year, and I am certainly not the only musician in this situation. Performances may be cancelled, ensembles may not rehearse, and audiences may not gather. But music remains.
The end result of music is not simply a performance. While performance is a wonderful celebration of hard work and brings enjoyment to both the musicians and the audience, it is only a byproduct. Music is not just an art; it is a discipline. What music produces is a growth in character and thinking. For that reason, it is valuable regardless of whether or not rehearsals, performances, or audiences exist. I decided to take this time away from performing to consider other ways music has impacted me as a person.
I have been a musician all my life. I was brought to church, hearing the organ and choir each week, from before I can remember. My Mom sang songs with me and my sister, and my Dad began teaching me the piano when I was three. I have studied music ever since. In this post, I will list the various things that I believe music has contributed to my growth as a person. A few caveats: I am not saying I am fully formed in each of these areas, I can’t guarantee that all musicians develop these traits, and music is not the only discipline that can help develop these traits. However, I do believe the study of music is important because it does encourage the development of these traits – and perhaps more so than in any other singular discipline. (These are in no particular order.)
Patience. Sit around and wait. And wait quietly. Wait for the lesson of the student before you to be over. Wait while the director rehearses another section of the ensemble. Wait your turn for an audition. Wait while other musicians you are traveling with pack up their instruments. Wait for late audience members to get seated before the curtain rises. Waiting in lobbies before appointments or in line at a store or restaurant is nothing compared to the waiting I have done as a musician.
Perseverance. There is hard work. Then there is hard work that takes months or years of effort before seeing any significant results. Learning music is this second kind. I tell my beginning students and their parents to expect it to take at least three years of lessons before playing music really starts to become fun. The enjoyment to frustration ratio is very low at the beginning as students spent more time deciphering notes than playing a piece fluently, and the beginning pieces are often boring. However, being an advanced player doesn’t eliminate frustration. Endless hours of practice are needed to perfect difficult sections of music, when the ability to understand the music exceeds the ability to execute it. As a composer, I must persevere when I spend a good amount of time writing garbage and have to throw it out and try again. We must persevere when our feelings tell us we’re no good and should give up.
Humility. When one sign up to study music, one agrees to being told every week about the need to improve. There’s no such thing as having “arrived.” The most famous soloists still work at improving their craft. Some of those famous people are the most humble because 1) they are aware of their own shortcomings, 2) they know how hard every musician must work, and 3) they know the lucky breaks they’ve received that other musicians who worked just as hard didn’t get. A musician who does not practice humility is a musician who is not practicing. Humble musicians improve.
Multi-tasking, but also focusing. I know, the recent thinking is that multi-tasking is less efficient than not multi-tasking. I just happen to disagree. I do many things at once because I’ve learned to. In ensembles, one reads and/or watches the director, listens, and plays/sings all at the same time. One cannot play music well without multi-tasking. On the other hand, musicians must hyper-focus. Independent practicing and zooming in on even a single beat, to make sure that every detail is exactly right, requires intense focus. Advanced musicians can spend a long time in a room alone with their instruments (or notation tools if they are a composer) and do nothing but work. It’s not uncommon for me to practice for two hours straight at the piano before taking a break. I have to remind myself to drink water and use the bathroom. How do musicians simultaneously focus on their parts and multi-task by listening to the rest of the ensemble during a performance? It is a mystery! But this is how musicians’ minds work.
Intentional listening. Listening to one’s self – for the right notes, rhythms, phrasing, tone, dynamics; listening to others – to match rhythms, phrasing, tone, dynamics, as well as to balance and fit the parts together correctly. In improvisational settings, a musician also listens for the holes in the music and then fills them. The musician is listening to learn and thus respond appropriately. This is not casual listening.
Self-evaluation. Beginning musicians must be corrected by their teachers, and the rate of learning is dependent on how often they have lessons and how much correction they need. As musicians improve, they take on more self-evaluation and can recognize and correct more of their mistakes themselves. This requires a commitment to self-criticism. While it is important not to become unhealthily obsessed with perfection, a good musician avoids lazily accepting mediocrity.
Interpretation. Music is a large category with many genres and styles. Each genre or style requires it’s own technique to be played properly. In order to do this, the musician must understand how to play it. I have heard many classical musicians attempt to play jazz music; it sounds awkward and stilted. I have heard jazzers try to play classical music; it’s sloppy and unrefined. That’s not to say NO classical players can correctly play jazz, or that NO jazzers can play classical music well; some can. But it takes a lot of effort to learn the setting and approaches of these different types of music. Even within the larger category of classical music, there are different approaches: one plays the work of Joseph Haydn far differently than the work of Claude Debussy. Under the jazz heading, Big Band music is far different from Bebop. No matter what kind of music one is playing, the mature musician has learned how to make the musical decisions which bring the music to life in a way that accurately portrays the time and place it came from, whether old or new, whether from one’s own culture or another. It is impossible to learn all the different styles and genres, though I personally think it is important to learn as many as possible. Music also provides the opportunity to develop cultural appreciation as one learns about the historical and stylistic development of various musics.
Fine Motor Skills and/or coordination. These skills will vary depending on the instrument. Piano requires both fine motor skills and coordination, as pianists use all the fingers in various combinations and usually use both hands together. Drummers playing set must coordinate both hands and both feet! String players must coordinate their fingers on the fingerboard with bowing, strumming, or plucking with the other hand. Wind players must coordinate the movement of their lips and tongue with their fingers. And so forth.
Pattern Recognition. Music is all about patterns. There are patterns within pieces that help to create a sense of continuity. There are also patterns, like rhythms for example, that transcend individual pieces and help musicians quickly learn something new. Not only do musicians recognize patterns, but they also notice the minute changes to a pattern.
Attention to Detail. The level of detail musicians must pay attention to is astounding. Simultaneously, they have a sense of how their tongues are held in their mouths or how their fingers are touching their instruments, the manner they are sitting or standing, the way they breathe, the proper start, pitch, length, and finish of a note, how loud or soft they must play. Some of these details can change from one split-second to another! Musicians develop an internal sense of how long a second is and then are able to divide that into smaller units. It is not uncommon for musicians to play at speeds where notes last for 1/10 of a second or perhaps even faster!
Planning ahead/preparedness. One cannot cram learning music. That’s not to say people don’t try. But there is a limit to how quickly one can train the muscles to play the proper notes in the proper time in the proper way. Each person is different in how long it takes to learn music, but an insufficient amount of preparation will become obvious during performance. (Caveat: not all mistakes are due to a lack of preparation.) Musicians must plan ahead to make sure that they learn the music. They have to set aside enough practice time, and they also must plan out how they spend their practice time. Which sections of the piece are most difficult and need more work? Directors of ensembles preparing for a concert must consider how much time is needed during rehearsals to master each piece. If this is not planned out well, the audience will know which pieces got more attention than others. Musicians also must plan their months and even years in advance, making sure all performances and rehearsals are marked on the calendar. Musicians can’t just show up to gigs and immediately start playing. They must lug their gear around and set up. They have to give their instruments time to acclimate to the performance space. They have to give themselves time to get their heads together. Musicians must prepare for the possibility of some things going wrong. When I was playing saxophone and clarinet a lot, I always brought an extra reed up on stage with me. A few times, I have switched reeds during a concert because the one I had cracked. Guitar players carry extra strings. Musicians also must plan ahead for regular instrument upkeep and repair and have a plan in place if their primary instrument must unexpectedly be in the shop at the same time as a performance.
Self-direction. Learning music is like learning to read. Once one is proficient, the world is opened up. There is nothing except the level of effort one wants to exert that limits a musician from branching out. New pieces, new styles of music, new instruments, new projects, new techniques. No one is going to call up musicians and tell them it’s time to practice or experiment with something different. All of that is the prerogative of the musician. They have learned to be self-directed and can do whatever they wish if they decide to use that skill.
Did I miss any? What else would you add to this list? I would love your input!
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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.