Posted by: Liz Massey | September 24, 2011

Practice Notes 3: Harmonizing Complexity‏

Photo courtesy of Dacey Bell via SXC.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve posted several times about beginning to play the trumpet again. (Here are part 1 and part 2.) It’s been a journey filled with creative stimulation and challenges. The past 12 months have been particularly intriguing, both in terms of the roadblocks I’ve faced and the way in which my sense of myself as a musician has broadened.

Finding my voice
Prior to last fall, I measured my musicianship entirely by whether I was actively engaged in playing the trumpet. Things had been like this for as long as I could remember. When I was in high school and college, I tracked my practice time in much the same way I logged my exercise – in both cases, doing at least an hour was good. Less than that was cause for self-reproach.

The first step in my new relationship with music came when my partner joined a women’s chorus last year. She, like I, had always primarily thought of herself as an instrumentalist. But as she came home each week, excited about the group’s talented new conductor, she shared vocal-based musical tips with me that were new to us both. Although I came from a family filled with talented vocalists, and had sung in choirs sporadically over the years, this was the first time I had ever considered the work that was involved to produce a quality vocal performance.

By February, my partner was enjoying her participation in the chorus immensely, and she and I began planning a commitment ceremony. We both knew we wanted to perform the music for our event. However, for logistical reasons, we decided to pre-record our music, which consisted of both of us singing some of our favorite love songs while my partner accompanied us on guitar.

So we would rehearse each weekend for our eventual recording date, and we discovered a funny thing: I was having trouble holding pitches when I sang.

This discovery was devastating to my musician’s ego. I had NEVER had anyone tell me I couldn’t hold a pitch properly when I sang. It was always pretty easy to keep my trumpet properly tuned, so intonation problems weren’t something I’d even suffered through instrumentally in a very long time. Things were better when I wore headphones or stuck my fingers in my ears, but since we were also videotaping our singing, neither of those options were going to work for the final version of our songs.

As February turned into March and April, I began substituting singing sessions for trumpet practice during the weekend. For the first time ever, I began paying attention to HOW sounds were formed in my throat and mouth. When I attended Pat’s chorus rehearsals as an observer, I watched the conductor as she explained why certain techniques were useful or unhelpful. As time passed, I went from feeling that singing was something that just happened (without conscious thought) to wondering how anyone was ever able to sing ANYTHING on pitch!

After many practice sessions, my partner and I figured out a couple of tricks to improve my intonation when I sang, and we were able to produce our wedding music without a hitch. (We also had some wonderful mastering help from Pat’s daughter, Amy, the audio engineering whiz.) But by that time, my view of vocal music had been transformed. I had gone from viewing vocalists as nice additions to the “main event” of instrumental music performances to understanding choral music as a complex world of its own.

Becoming a different drummer
Another strand of musical experience that’s becoming woven ever more deeply in the tapestry of my performing career is that of ritual drumming. My partner and I have attended drum jams on and off at a local spiritual community center for the past year and a half. Our house is filled with hand percussion of various sorts – from conga drums and djembes to a dazzling array of shakers, scrapers and clackers. In the drumming circle we attend, everyone is encouraged to bring their own instruments, but many folks also bring “toys” to share with drumming novices.

I was a little skeptical the first time we attended drumming circle – it sounded fun, but I was worried it would be a little too “woo-woo” for my tastes. However, once the group settled into their first song, I made a liberating discovery: drumming was an awesome real-time experience in spontaneous collaboration and improvisation, as well as a healthy channel for buried anger and aggression. When I’ve been frustrated with a situation at work or home that’s not going well, it’s amazing how much better I feel after a 90-minute session of whacking drums!

When I began my first practice notes update in early 2010, I would have defined my musicianship as limited to trumpet playing. I might have included singing as one of my musical skills, but as I noted earlier, I regarded singing as a little like walking for exercise (which I also do): I felt like most people could do it, so it wasn’t any great achievement to sing well.

Now, I find myself at a crossroads in terms of music. I still want to improve my trumpet playing and get back to the level of ensemble playing skills I had when I stopped playing at age 25. But I have come to realize that ALL my musical activities help me grow creatively, and may even provide cross-pollination in terms of new ideas and technical problem-solving.

Last weekend, I spent a pleasant session jamming on the drums with my 6-year-old grandson and my partner. I now regard that time, which included teaching a little bit about music to my grandson, as musically important as my trumpet playing. All of these moments (trumpet, singing, drumming, teaching) tickle my right brain, improve my ability to listen and interpret artistic sounds, and give me ideas for future performances. And perhaps even more important than that, my journey into musical complexity has reinforced how all of these music-making activities make me feel whole.

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