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The birth of a note

I gave an improvisation workshop last weekend to a group of budding young singer-songwriters.  My main focus with them was on listening -- the most important part of any musical endeavour, in my opinion -- and we did many exercises that got them to open up their ears.  Of course, as I warned them, this was just an introduction -- "listening" does get more complex as you go on.  And eventually stops involving your ears... yes really.  :-)

This, combined with some discussions we had at the same week's Amity Trio rehearsal, has had me pondering about all the aspects of listening the past few days.

For many of us, the idea of keeping in time begins with us playing along to a metronome -- that clicking annoyance of sometimes painful rhythmic accuracy.  It's a good start.  It shows us where we're tempted to rush or slow down, where our sense of rhythm is completely off, where we're losing the "heartbeat".

However, if we were to listen to a metronomically-accurate performance of anything, it would be as exciting as watching paint dry.  Part of the tension and release of music comes from playing with the push and pull of the tempo -- making your audience wait, or surprising them by jumping in.

If you're playing solo or singing a cappella, you have total freedom in this endeavour (within the boundaries of taste and reason!).  As soon as you add an accompanist or ensemble member, however, there's a whole new layer of complexity -- how do you communicate the when and where of this push and pull?

If you're just listening with your ears, then you'll always be lagging behind a bit, reacting to what you've already heard a split second earlier.  You can't just react, or the whole piece will drag to a crawl as everyone lags behind.  You need to anticipate what the others are going to do.  Which is easy if the others are playing metronomically, but more complex if they're playing musically (which we all hope they're doing, or it's gonna be a lllooonnnnnnggggg performance!).

This is when music teachers and coaches around the world introduce the idea of eye contact -- at the beginning and ending of phrases, and whenever possible in between.  If your head is buried in your music, there's no way you can communicate with your musical partners.  If your toe is tapping the beat, you are not paying attention to your musical partners, you're attempting to take over as conductor and only paying attention to your own rhythm.  (Which might be OK if you're a soloist with accompaniment, but you still need to pay attention and communicate this rhythm to your accompanist and not the floor.)  Of course, as with our trio, there is often a great deal of verbal discussion behind the scenes, but when reading through something for the first time, or once you've decided on how you wish to play a phrase, then a nod, a breath, or a raised eyebrow is all it takes to ensure you begin a piece or a phrase or a note together.

As I discovered when playing next to a rather lazy and incompetent principal cellist who kept relying on me to keep track of our entrances, those visual cues aren't necessarily accurate.  ;-)

It doesn't have to be a resentful stand partner who is trying to "out" you and your sneaky ways by moving her head a bar too early (and then shrug and itch her nose like she almost had a sneeze, or carefully examine her bow-hair...).  But, as my former ensemble coach, the late Ken Perkins of the Orford String Quartet, taught me: what people INTEND to do is not always what they ACTUALLY do.  You have to pay attention to what they're actually doing, not just go with their best intentions.  Don't ignore their intentions, but do be aware of what's going on with the rest of their body.  For instance, they may be wanting to produce a sound at time point A, but their bow is too high off the string to get there on time, so you adjust to match the reality, not the intention.

These cues are getting into the much more subtle.

But think about it: a note doesn't begin when the sound begins.  Watch a string player, and you'll see all the subtle preparations the left hand has to go through to prepare the note, and the right arm has to go through to prepare the bow to make the string sound.  Watch a wind player or a singer take a preparatory breath.  Watch the pianist or percussionist lift their hands or mallets to prepare to strike.  There are at least a couple of seconds before the sound occurs when you can see the preparation for that inevitable sound.  Much like a diver jumping on the end of the diving board, you've committed well in advance -- and if you break that commitment after you've made it, you're going to have a painful belly flop!  :-)

Let's stick with the diver for a moment -- even before that final, no-stopping-me-now springboard bounce, there's the run or walk to the edge.  Before that takes place, there's the moment of focus and concentration.

It's the same with the first note of a piece.  Or of a phrase.  Before you can make that final "bounce", you've had to decide what you want to do after it starts!  You need to have the sound in your head, the tempo, etc.

Yes, this can all be communicated through eye and body language, through the physical preparations, but...

The next level of listening involves neither the ears nor the eyes.

Ken made our university ensemble rehearse with our eyes closed.  Very scary, and counter to all that had been drilled into us about ensemble playing up until then.  But once we were able to stop our nervous giggling... wow.  (The Orford String Quartet would do this regularly, going one step further by recording their rehearsal, and playing it back at half-speed to see if there were any even slightly ragged entrances!)

Victor Wooten calls it "listening with fox ears".  You're not just listening with your ears, you're listening with your gut and your soul.  Your intuition, your hidden psychic... your Music.

Our eyes and ears and bodies can sometimes lie to us.  Our eyes and ears and bodies make mistakes on a regular basis.  Our Music does not.

When you can tap in to the Music and ignore your eyes and ears and body, you realize that the notes begin long before you're even conscious of them.  They may never even "begin" at all, but be there constantly, waiting for you to invite them to come out and play.

On those rare occasions when all the members of an ensemble are tapped in to the Music, it's a blissful thing.  Music High.

Which, quizzically, requires that you have built up control of your eyes, ears and body and technique... and then totally let it go.

All that advanced preparation, all the training, all the planning.  And then run... bounce... dive... YIPPEEE!!!

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