Tuesday, March 25, 2014

One Thing


I am a generalist through and through. In my teaching and in my life, emphasizing “teaching all the parts to everyone,” playing each piece from different points of view (bass. melody, chords, drums, etc), not just playing, but singing and dancing as well, not one style, but a little bit of all styles, not one instrument, but a little bit of many instruments. And not just music, but connecting it to culture, history, psychology, anthropology, poetry, storytelling and on and on. I’m always recommending this over just playing one style of music on one instrument. I am an idiot.

Yesterday, I went to hear a Choro band play live for the radio and the virtuosity of each of these six musicians was stunning. I kept thinking of that old cowboy in the City Slickers movie advising the younger men—“One thing.” Find one thing that suits you. Stick with it. Master it.

One was a master of the flute, another of the pandeiro (tambourine), another the bandolim (like mandolin), each demanding a different dexterity and attention to sound that matched with the way each of them is musically put together. And all of them with such control and nuance and technical mastery playing rapid-fire passages so cleanly and expertly. It was a wonder to behear.

Then went on to a jazz club where two more guitarists and a drummer upped the ante yet a few notches higher, sharing with us the sonic fireworks made possible only by 10,000 plus hours of obsessive practice on one instrument within a narrow range of styles. And that’s what the audience thrills to— the fruits of such single-minded dedication, reminding them of the stunning range of human achievement possible and uplifting them in the process, proud to be a member of a species that can accomplish such things. Whether watching a master musician or gymnast or juggler or dancer or listening to a dedicated poet or storyteller or philosopher, we catch the overflow of their achievement and emerge refreshed.

Of course (though those who know me well may disagree), I’m not a complete idiot. There is a danger to the cult of adoration, a sense of passivity being content to just let others do the work and we’ll buy the tickets. The power and beauty of the Orff approach is to achieve satisfying musical results from simple ideas, techniques and material accessible to all. People leave a workshop feeling “I am more musical than I thought.” The gifts of artistic expression seem within their reach—and they are. Instead of being overwhelmed with awe, the participants feel invited into the circle.

No contradiction here. It’s a both/and proposition. Virtuosos have no choice but to follow the flame of their passion and starting from mastery of one instrument, they indeed can—and often do— branch out to singing, dancing, playing multiple styles, making extra-musical connections and the like. Audiences can appreciate both the inclusive sing-a-long and the extraordinary performance. There’s room for all. And though my talent and interest insisted that I follow the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none route, perhaps my cultivated virtuosity is the Orff workshop helping people discover their own musical power. Doesn’t play well at Carnegie Hall or American Idol, but has its place in the ecology of human potential.

Inspired by last night, I’m off to play piano. Well, maybe recorder– or bagpipe– or banjo– or write a poem…

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