We As Artists

I discovered a fantastic quote today on the website of pianist Nadine Andre*: “Our sense of hearing is the first to develop and the last to leave us.”  Whether or not this is technically true is of no consequence; our sense of hearing is such a vital part of our everyday lives that is often taken for granted.  As a result, music is a major influence in our day-to-day routine.  Just going from my house to school each day, I see hundreds of people on the tube with earbuds jammed in their ears and headphones around their heads, listening to their favorite artists on their commutes to work and school.  Nearly every day, I hear a street performer playing the guitar or the violin in the tube station.  Our society is saturated by music; it’s all around us.  Pay close attention for 24 hours, and you’ll discover just how great an influence music has in our daily lives.  Just some food for thought.

Today, we had a vocal masterclass at Trinity with baritone Roderick Williams.  I think I speak for everyone in attendance when I say that Mr. Williams gave an absolutely outstanding class today.  Not only was he a humorous and dynamic presenter, but he also had an easygoing, personable manner that put the performers at ease with him.  He made some excellent points about how to connect not only with one’s audience but also with one’s character role.  Mr. Williams suggests drawing emotion from one’s real experiences, which I think is the best way to truly connect with the music.  The first performer sang a very dark and sinister Britten aria from the opera Billy Budd, and he mentioned after he finished the piece, “It makes me want to crawl out of my own skin.”  The text of the piece was, certainly, very horrible, and Mr. Williams gave the following advice for connecting with this difficult character.  He said that when you’re first getting accustomed to an evil character such as this, you must allow it to wash over you.  “There may be days where you go home to your flat and just cry, and let out the emotions from playing such a horrible character.”  Once you’ve come to terms with the character’s evil nature, you can develop the ability to “put on the suit” of the character, drawing perhaps on a dark place you’ve experienced in your life.  Then, when you’re done performing that role, you can “take off the suit” and become your normal self again.  I thought this was an interesting point about putting on a suit.  Essentially, that’s what we do when we act on stage.  We are not the characters ourselves, and these characters may be, like in the Britten aria, nearly impossible to relate to.  However, by drawing on personal experiences and recalling actual emotions we’ve felt at some point in our lives, we can become the characters for the short time we play them.

Another interesting bit from Mr. Williams: “We are our own harshest critics; we don’t need national news to tear us down.”  This is so true; as artists, we tend to have this overwhelming self-consciousness, no matter how good we sound.  My friend shared this diagram with me, and it relates perfectly to the point I’m making:


We as artists often find ourselves facing severe doubts and a lack of confidence in our abilities.  The famous Italian tenor Franco Corelli was well-known for his overwhelming stage fright, widely believed to be the cause of his rather early retirement.  He would get so nervous, experiencing severe anxiety and stage fright before performing, stemming from his doubt about his talent.  He didn’t believe that he had a good voice and perhaps was afraid of disappointing his audience.  This, of course, was the exact opposite, as his incredible talent is still admired world-wide, over a decade after his death.  I think all performers get varying degrees of stage fright before a show.  Every voice teacher I’ve ever had has told me that it is completely normal to get nervous before you sing, even suggesting that it’s a good thing.  If a singer gets no nerves at all, he or she will become careless in his or her singing.  Nerves give us a certain edge, an energy that is absolutely necessary to give one’s best performance.  Of course, as in Mr. Corelli’s case, it can get to a point where the anxiety is too much and begins to take a toll on one’s mental and physical health.  On the other side of the spectrum, we have moments as artists that are extremely narcissistic, particularly after finding some sort of success in our careers.  If enough people tell you how good you are, you’ll eventually start to believe it.  We do need to have a certain amount of confidence in order to bring ourselves to perform in front of an audience.  As the above diagram suggests, it’s the meeting point of self-confidence and self-doubt where art is created.  I think that as young musicians, we are on a journey to find this point, to strike the right balance between the two.

One more quote from Nadine Andre*: “In a world of growing commercialism and electronic media, our need to find inspiration and beauty in our lives is also growing. I believe that music making is one of the most successful ways we can do this… it is our feelings that should guide us when we manipulate sounds to create music.”

It is our responsibility as musicians to share our emotions and art with the world.  If we are able to convey those emotions effectively, people will start to listen and connect with our art.

 *quotes from Nadine Andre taken from her website: http://www.nadineandre.com/


Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

Some really interesting bits of information and insight I’ve picked up today from my lessons.  The first “fun fact” that both surprised and somewhat disturbed me is that 80% of music on iTunes has NEVER been listened to or downloaded.  That’s a lot of music!  So many artists are putting their work out there unsuccessfully, while the same twenty pop artists get thousands of downloads per day.  We had a really great lecture today from cellist, composer, and musicologist David Bahanovich on the evolving world of music production, and he gave us some excellent insight into what it takes to be a successful musician in today’s society.  As all musicians are, I’m sure, well-aware, the music industry has undergone immense changes in response to the evolution of technology.  Massive corporations like Apple, Spotify, and Amazon have changed the way music is consumed, so that the audience is more likely to download songs and albums online rather than buying the physical album in stores.  YouTube has also provided an opportunity for the audience to pirate music.  If you’re making millions as a pop artist by selling out stadium shows and marketing merchandise, this may not affect you as much; however, if you’re a struggling artist trying to sell your work, the last thing you need is for people to steal your music off of YouTube.  It’s a tough situation, but essentially the solution is to adapt and market yourself in a way that targets a specific audience.  As Mr.Bahanovich put it, we can’t simply play music; we must create an experience, something our audience has never seen before and will be likely to remember.  We have to find a way to stand out from all the “background noise,” the 80% of music that is never heard.

After this engaging lecture, I had my jazz improvisation class.  I really love this class, and I’ve been searching for an opportunity to improve my skills in vocal jazz.  I have never gotten the chance to receive formal training in vocal jazz, so this class is a great experience for me.  We’re currently working on gaining a better understanding of the chord structure in popular jazz standards.  Today, my teacher gave us such a fantastic anecdote on learning to play/sing jazz that I just had to share it.  He likened learning improvisation to learning a new language; when learning a language, you try to imitate those who have mastered the language by imitating the accent, the sentence structure, etc.  It’s essentially the same with jazz.  A great place to start is by imitating the masters of jazz, musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Miles Davis.  From there, you can start to develop your own voice, customizing the music to fit your own unique style.  I had never thought of learning jazz in this way, and it was such a great perspective.  Concerning improvisation, he quoted trumpeter Clark Terry’s theory: imitate, assimilate, innovate.  Basically the same point as comparing jazz to languages, one must imitate the musicians we strive to become like, then continually practice and master the art.  Only after mastering the essentials and gaining a deep understanding of how the chords and structures work can one start to branch out and create a unique voice.  Perhaps Terry’s theory stretches beyond jazz improvisation.  During the lecture today, Mr.Bahanovich told some stories of seemingly ordinary and average musicians who achieved great success by coming up with unusual yet simple ways to market themselves.  Of course we strive to imitate them in order to build an audience and gain fans.  After building that fan base, we can then begin to “innovate,” establishing an individualized voice and music completely unique from anyone else’s.  We must create a one-of-a-kind experience for our listeners, whether that be a visually-engaging production or music that forms a unique and personal connection to our audience.  The music industry has seen massive changes in the last two decades, but hope is not lost for aspiring musicians.  We must continue to master our craft and earn the respect and devotion of listeners.  From there, the possibilities are endless.

Our Responsibility as Musicians

I was speaking with one of my classmates today about the general lack of support music students give to their fellow musicians.  I found it interesting that he brought up this subject because it’s a concern I’ve often thought about since high school.  The poor attendance at some concerts and musical events in high school could simply be accounted for by the characteristic laziness of teenagers in their high school years.  But as I went through college, I found it more and more upsetting that music students were not showing up to support their fellow musicians’ performances.  Of course, we all have busy schedules and loads of homework (including hours of practicing), but I found it hard to believe that my fellow musicians couldn’t spare an hour every few weeks to come out to the choir, band, large ensemble, chamber music, big band, jazz combo, or any other performances.  I’ll admit that sometimes people had a legitimate excuse, such as work or a night class, but for the most part people seemed to be just plain lazy.  A common excuse seemed to be, “It’s been a long day, and I’m tired.”  Believe me, I understand long days; last semester I was taking seven classes, performing in two choirs, and working 12 hours a week when I could fit shifts in.  Maybe it’s just me, but I find tiredness to be a poor excuse for not attending concerts.  It’s not physically taxing to sit and listen to music, as far as I’ve experienced.  In fact, as musicians I would think it would be an enjoyable end to a long day, to just be able to sit and appreciate good music.  What’s more, most of our student ensemble concerts at school are free, so it does no harm to your wallet to attend.  Perhaps it’s the mindset of our generation to be more self-absorbed.  We’re constantly posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and other social media outlets, often about the most trivial aspects of our daily lives, such as what we’re eating for breakfast/lunch/dinner (I’m guilty, too).  Sometimes it seems as if we all want to be celebrities, as if society waits anxiously to see what we eat, wear, and think every day.  Perhaps it’s this egocentric aspect of social media that’s caused our generation to be less concerned about supporting our colleagues.  But it’s becoming more and more clear that in order for the performance industry to stay afloat, we need to have many more people actively engaged in supporting performers.  And that starts with each other; if musicians don’t support each other, who will support us?  We need to rethink our priorities.  Everywhere you look, there are performers literally begging for people to attend their shows.  We spend so much time trying to build our own audiences that we often forget to contribute to the audiences of our colleagues.  The littlest effort can contribute to a musician’s audience.  The next time you see a friend or acquaintance post an original song or a video of a live performance on Facebook, give it a like or a share.  If your classmates are staging a small opera or putting together a small chamber recital, show up and support them.  We as musicians have an enormous audience within our own crowd, if only we decide to support each other.  With that, I leave you with a quote from James Taylor:

“I believe musicians have a duty, a responsibility to reach out, to share your love or pain with others.”

In my opinion, we not only have a duty to share our “love or pain” through our own music, but also to share the art created by our fellow performers.  Think about it.