Solo and Orchestral Trumpeter and Educator

Thoughts on music, trumpet playing, and education from Eric M. Berlin, Professor of Trumpet at the University of Massachusetts and Principal Trumpet of the Albany Symphony and Boston Philharmonic Orchestras.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Perfection" as a barrier to true music making

In addition to my career as a performer and teacher, I serve in other capacities which sometimes demand that I speak publicly and at times in high pressure situations. I normally spend an incredible amount of time and energy preparing for these occasions and am often fraught with anxiety leading up to the moment of truth. What I have observed, however, is that when it comes time to deliver, I am sometimes able to let go and feel very much like a conduit for something to speak through me. In these moments I feel like an observer listening to the words coming out in a surprisingly effective manner. 

I was recently called upon to speak on camera about something that means a lot to me - music. I was asked what makes the greatest musical performances,and I expressed that it is "the purest connection of minds free from any obstruction". As I spoke, I found myself oddly calm and easily able to voice this concept without ever having attempted to put these thoughts into words before. My body was absolutely relaxed and confident in the way we hope to be as performers on our instruments. Somehow, I was able to let go and trust my knowledge and preparation to get the job done well and found myself in "the zone"

The interviewer commented on the effectiveness and ease of my delivery, and I was able to observe and understand what happens to me in these moments with clarity. "If I tried to say it 'right', I could never do this." This was an insight I had never had before about my speaking, but it was the absolute truth. If I had written a script and thought through every word to deliver in precisely the right order, my priority would have been "getting it right" instead of communicating my message. With perfection as the focus, the connection between us would have become muddied at best and completely severed at worst. Letting go and trusting the knowledge you possess to speak through you can yield some remarkably effective communication.

This experience has led me to really reflect on what makes that "purest connection of minds free from any obstruction" in a speech and try to relate it to musical performance. I began to look at some of the most powerful speeches in history. There have been incredible Presidential acceptance speeches and inspiring words from political conventions in recent years. Thinking back in history, landmark speeches by JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. also come to mind. Each of these speeches has an element of improvisation and interaction with the crowd receiving the message. I took the opportunity to watch John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech in Berlin as a fine example of how to convey a powerful message.

Notice that he is not glued to a pre-written speech but only has a series of note cards to which he refers occasionally as his eyes connect with the people of West Berlin eagerly consuming each utterance. There is a conversation even though he is the only one speaking. There is also an element of improvisation as he interacts with the energy of the crowd. He owns the message he is delivering and is unfettered by the written page. It seems to me that the message is speaking through him.

Could he possibly have written down the exact words, seconds of pause between, which words to repeat etc and gotten the same response? I can't imagine it. Nobody trying to replicate that speech will ever do as well.

How does this relate to music?

The last great hope for music is the live performance. The experience of listening to a great orchestra, jazz combo or chamber music group perform is a singular one with no two performances ever the same. By the very nature of so many minds constantly reacting to a music director and each other, an orchestra must be removed from that single static idea of "perfection". Yes, we are all reading pages of notes, but any orchestra member will tell you that the majority of our attention is spent watching, listening and constantly adjusting how we play what we see on the page to fit within the ever evolving collective effort.

Reflecting on our recent Boston Philharmonic Beethoven 9 concerts in Symphony Hall, the magnitude of the shared experience is enormous. When considering all of the minds involved in this conversation, we see the connections grow exponentially. We begin with deaf Beethoven creating music in his imagination with so much more clarity than he could ever hear in the "real world". This incredible picture of such vastness is deciphered from the graphic representation of the score left by the composer and processed through the mind of the music director (in this case Benjamin Zander) and executed through further interpretation of 100 members of an orchestra, 4 soloists and a chorus. This message is then received by 2,800 audience members who feed the conversation with their own energy.

This conversation, when an audience is open to receive and the musicians are highly trained enough to execute the music but also comfortable enough to let go and let the music speak through them, is what creates magic. This produces the same collective elation that draws an audience to its feet and to roar with cheers and applause in a concert hall as the citizens of Berlin reacted to the honesty and purity of JFK's message. The musical experience, however, is so much more powerful and visceral as there is no language to decode.

How does this relate to auditions?

I teach the concepts delivered by sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella in his books "Golf is not a Game of a Perfect" and "Life is not a Game of Perfect". I have always benefited from his concepts as they applied to auditions and the physical act of playing the trumpet, but this interview helped me understand the dangers of "perfection" in the more fundamental and more important frame of communication.

Dr. Rotella's concepts of training your swing on the driving range and trusting it on the course resonate well with me as a trumpeter. Thinking of technique while trying to hit a golf ball or playing the trumpet yields less than optimal results. A quote from one of his books: "Before playing any shot, a golfer must lock his eyes and mind into the smallest possible target." has been a mantra for me over the years. My translation of this to music is to have the clearest aural picture of exactly what I wanted to sound like. With incredible effort to refine that ideal, I have had some very positive results in auditions ending up in the final rounds, but I just didn't close the deal in the last final round.

Could it be that this ideal picture itself is akin to a perfectly constructed paragraph with meticulous grammar and punctuation? Could too strictly adhering to that aural picture of perfection be the last impediment to truly connecting with an audition panel as it would be in speech? How can we make that ideal less rigid and more fluid? What would responsive communication with an anonymous and invisible panel feel like? How do we  turn that fully formed paragraph into note cards and "own the message" enough to deliver it in a more responsive and conversational way? How do we best let go and allow the music to flow through us? 

Among the many books about sports psychology and the psychology of musical performance on my shelf, "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner is one of the most powerful. It is a wonderful study on getting out of one's own way and tapping into the music that is flowing through all of us. I recommend this to every performer as an invaluable tool for achieving true and direct communication through music. 

My goal for all of us is to use our printed page, chord changes, and whatever else we use to serve only as note cards that allow us to channel what we already know and feel deep inside us. After the proper investment in practice and preparation, allow that truth to flow without regard for perfection. Float above and enjoy the show. You may be surprised at what you hear!