Traveling from A to B

bridgeWhen I was a child, I played in the community orchestra in Panama City, FL- The Orchestra of St. Andrew’s Bay. The conductor of the orchestra, Rusty Garner, would occasionally pass down a practice tip as the orchestra was full of local amateurs and children who needed help with the challenging standard repertoire we would regularly perform. One of the things he said stuck with me at the time and little did I know, I’d still be exploring the meaning of what he said to this day.

Rusty had learned this trick while studying bassoon performance at the New England Conservatory and I have never heard it put quite so simply. He asserted that if you are ever having trouble with a difficult musical passage, you can be sure of one thing: The problem(s) lay between the notes. 

In other words: hitting the notes (at the right time, in-tune, appropriate volume, color, articulation, etc.) was not the issue so much as the process of getting there.

Contrast this to many musician’s conception of practicing; the practice of “hitting (or arriving at) the notes.” We tend to trust that our bodies will be able to sort out the rest and if anything goes wrong the answer is to try harder and play the passage or specific note in question over and over again.

The truth is that when we play a note late or out of tune, it’s not because we have bad technique or a bad ear- it’s because we haven’t properly conceptualized and embodied how to get from point A to point B (musically, psycho-physically, & emotionally).

Let’s call getting from note A to note B a “movement phrase.” Then to go from note B to note C is another movement phrase. If note B is a  sour note, there is no need to practice picking B out of the air or going from B to C, as the first problem in need of attention lies between A and B.

At this point, be curious about the process of getting from A to B. How far is it from A to B? Get use to the feeling of moving between the two without being afraid of missing your target. It’s perfectly fine (and probably necessary) to be wrong at this stage. Decide if you want to show the distance (slide) or hide it. Even if you want to hide a shift, don’t jerk your hand from one point to another- let your fingertips lead the whole arm into the movement and enjoy the journey rather than trying to get it overwith as soon as possible.

Just like musical phrases, movement phrases can be very long and complicated; but also can be broken down until you’ve reached the most basic point A to point B and then put back together again. In this way, we can take the most difficult and complicated musical passages and make them as simple as getting from A to B.

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