Monday, April 11th is the birth anniversary (in 1891) of one of my favorite composers, Sergei Prokofiev. Okay, thereâ€™s some confusion here since, if you follow the Gregorian calendar, itâ€™s April 23th.
The last weekend of February, about a thousand Rochester singers performed in different venues over twenty-four hours. On Saturday afternoon, gospel choirs rocked the Monroe County Public Safety Building with high-decibel joy in a concert sponsored by the city. A few hours later and a few blocks away, the Eastman Chorale performed Dominick Argentoâ€™s tender love letter to Walden Pond, a song cycle based on text by Henry David Thoreau and scored for chorus, three cellos, and harp. The next day, eighteen local choirs offered a prism-style concert to a standing-room only crowd in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Audience members heard a wide variety of works: Russian liturgical music, barbershop, 21st century, Broadway, African chant, you name it. Singers were in and out of tune, sometimes stark and more often sentimental. I was happy to be there, but really, it was too much. I was drowning in a sea of notes.
Iâ€™ve been thinking about that weekend and what I remember most of the blur of voices and faces and itâ€™s this-- the voice of a man coming out of a snow squall in a parking lot. He was singing â€śWinter Wonderlandâ€ť full-throated, a la Frank Sinatra, carrying a child through a late winter storm.
You know what music is like when you donâ€™t expect it? Once I was standing in the nave of St. Bartholomewâ€™s Church in New York, holding my tape machine and waiting for an interview, when Elgarâ€™s â€śNimrodâ€ť sailed out of the churchâ€™s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ (the largest instrument in the city), rushed over the pavers and curled my toes. The organist was only practicing. I was an accidental tourist. It was an absolute coupe de foudre.
A few weeks ago, on my way to a meeting at the Eastman School, a wave of sound pulled me backstage. The RPO was rehearsing Debussyâ€™s torrential La Mer. I sat down, bewitched, like Iâ€™d never heard it before.
The question is, how does one create circumstances in which music is able to penetrate the deepest level of our subconscious? How can we set ourselves up for personal enchantment? Composer Aaron Copland is full of advice; he suggests directing ourselves â€śtoward an emotionally purposeful endâ€ť to encourage the marriage of mind and heart he believes is uniquely possible with music. What's your experience?
William James would tell you to keep your distance. In "Principles of Psychology" he warns against excessive indulgence. â€śNever suffer one â€™s self to have an emotion at a concert without expressing it in some active way, such as giving up your seat in the subway.â€ť Perhaps heâ€™s kidding.
My idea is this: listening to music is like star-gazing. The light shines brightest when you avert your eyes. Then it might surprise you.
Chris Van Hof lent me a copy of the book "Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music" by Angela Myles Beeching. Violinist Philip Ying calls it â€śthe ultimate Swiss army knife for the young musician,â€ť and the more I pour over it, the more I think it contains a lot of good advice for anyone working in a creative field.
Beeching oversees the career center at New England Conservatory of Music, and in this volume she summarizes the counsel she offers aspiring musicians, including tips on practical matters such as web-site design, managing money, and using social networking tools. As a professional church musician, I found this tip helpful; â€śAvoid playing more than twenty-five minutes without a five- minute break.â€ť (Okay, I can do this if that five minute break includes chocolate!) Beeching also extends this advice to any physical activity: gardening, typing, sports, etc. Take breaks, she urges. She recommends daily exercise, soaking in the beauty of nature, and carving out time for non-musical activities.
Hereâ€™s some general advice she gives career counselors working with musicians: â€śLook for the light in the eyes.â€ť Your eyes reflect your true passions.
Finally, this gem. Israeli composer Lio Navokâ€™s compares the artistâ€™s creative internal fire to a small, gold box. â€śItâ€™s something absolutely personal and irreplaceable in each of us that we need to safeguard,â€ť he says.
I have a gold box. You have one, too. Hold it close.
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