The Contrast

The Contrast
Lift Big, Sing Big, Look Great Doing It.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Breathe, water, and thoughts on expression

What I'm going to say doesn't push aside the merit of having systems in order. Having finite choices, things that are extremely consistent. I preach consistency daily. It's how you mark progress. It's how you determine if the uncontrollable variables are coming into play. It's a great indicator of mastery.

But, in the realm of performing and living and breathing on stage, I must take a small stand against the "set it and forget it" mindset. I'm going to bring in a few different philosophies in this discussion, some of which are directly applicable, others which are not. Bear with me.

Mark it!

I distinctly remember when I first began playing in orchestras at a higher level (outside of public education) that everyone had pencils always readily at hand. The conductor would say something and dozens of hands would slam against the metal stands, scrambling for the graphite to circle dynamics, or "correct" things in the score. They'd feverishly mark the paper - digging in the paper until it was visible from a yard away.

I've seen scores, so brutally altered with "corrections" that the original composition is barely recognizable. This to me seemed so silly. Often times the "direction" I was receiving was either a basic reiteration or what is already in the score or something that was far less tangible, a feel or concept that had no place being boiled down to a scratch in a score.

I'll never forget all the sour puss looks I've received over the years when everyone else went dashing to mark and I sat their just staring at the maestro, listening to what they said. Some would look alarmed at me and say

"Well, aren't you going to write this down?"

And me, being the unknowing smartass that I was once said...

"I'll remember."

I'm not sure if I've inspired a tirade of this caliber before, but I've seen enough conductors blow up in front of me to have the memories blend together. I believe I've seen a conductor scream "Write it down or you WON'T remember!!!"

3 Things -

1.) If you convince me the reason WHY I should listen and mark things as such, I'll remember it eternally. If you sell me the story with your baton, I'll follow you to the end of the earth. That's a promise.

2.) Too many people take notes and never actually listen, leaving their ugly chicken scratch the only thing that they can manifest the memory rather than just absorbing the information.

3.) Having performed dozens of full opera choruses (Peter Grimes at Des Moines Metro Opera being at the top of the list) where the blocking, language, and music are all at an insanely difficult level and yet still being able to perform all aspects of it BY COMPLETE AND TOTAL MEMORY that I'd be able to remember to be "extra soft" on that last phrase before we go into the subito forte section or whatever.

With that being said, I got really great at faking marking notes in my score for the rest of my time as an orchestral musician. Like taking a broken pencil and scribbling on the dulled end of the paper. It's not like they're gonna check your work.

The Moment

I'd like to think that I was allowing the conductor to have more freedom. That my attentiveness to his (or her) expression was more important than the roadmap we spent 2 hours carving into the score. But, I know this to be unfair, they've got to control a freight train and some use the tools of marking to best get the product they desire. Completely understandable, and by no means do I think every orchestral musician should stop marking their scores...although, the more people I talk to the more I realize I'm not alone in my "faking."

Freedom is something that all masters share. One of my absolute favorite masters of the violin, Nathan Milstein continually changed his fingering and bowings. Or so I've heard. Pieces he played his entire life. His playing was his life, his livelihood. And yet he never sunk into the trap of "this is just how it's done."

I've recently taken this into the art of singing and acting, finding that I can greatly affect the profundity of phrase by merely mixing and matching the way I breathe the phrases. This goes against what I've been taught of course: Mark your breathes they say, so the accompanist can follow you better.

Why should things be so concrete? If the gravity of your expression is palpable enough, you won't need to mark a single thing.

Bruce lee was a man who studied many different forms of martial arts and was deeply routed in the teachings of Kung Fu. But it was his own fighting style that really championed him above others. Jeet Kune Do was all about being like water, ever changing to better adapt to the situation.

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” - Bruce Lee

I've come to really love this idea. It's found a perfect home in my philosophy with character development. It's allowed me to play some very diverse characters while still upholding some of the principles of singing I love to spout.

Reality Check

This idea of living within "the moment" is extremely romantic. But, to just say "I'm gonna go with the flow" makes you sound like a damn beach bum. The truth is that in order to truly express yourself and find a giant palate of colors, you've got to paint by the numbers and keep within the lines for YEARS!

In order to thrive with freedom, you need to be grounded in the principles of technique, live within your mechanism and truly understand what it's capable of. You have to put yourself out there and feel the sting and burn of failure, the remorse of loss and the joy of victory. You've got to grease the groove doing the same shit over and over - learning patterns that will help you dominate the situation.

You can only obtain true mastery by conquering the mundane and finding out what it means to do things by the book. Once you've filled your book with the basics, tallied everything possible, you'll be ready for that next step. Which, if you haven't already guessed, is to throw that book away and to start painting pictures.

Until Next Time,

Lift Big, Sing Big, and Look Great Doing It.

The Opera Bro

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