Playing music in the present

Like every Friday in these last two months, I have been wondering whether to come back to my orchestra. I have been taking a break since last Christmas.

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Rehearsals in the school’s theatre

They are a lovely bunch of people who have fun when playing music together. When I joined, they accepted me with open arms, and they were my first group of friends I made in Berlin. The conductor instead seemed (at least in particular moments, near important concerts) more focused on results and concerts. Most musicians managed to ignore or absorb his prompts and the atmosphere remained usually calm and pleasant.

However, as I sometimes play the drums (mostly replacing the first drummer, rarely on my own initiative), I felt more exposed, because the conductor only recently (realised?) told me how he needs the drummer’s role to be: he/she should be his closest musician, because most of the orchestra tends to listen to the drummer instead of paying attention to him directly. I find this a clever idea; but I don’t feel able to fill that position. My dearest memories with the orchestra are the ones when I am in a pleasant harmony with my fellow players, like a jazz ensemble, mumbling music together, listening to each other – and these moments were invariably interrupted by the conductor, who desperately wanted my focus back on him, in order to regain control over the speed and dynamics of the whole orchestra. I felt woken up from a dream, sometimes too rudely (well, anyone woken up from a dream would see it as rude, I suppose).

I thought about that a lot and finally realised that the role he needs is not the role I have in mind for myself, and my attempts to walk in his direction both exhausted me and were objectively unsuccesful. Therefore I said I needed a break and left for now six months.

What I love is to play music in the present. That means to play music with attention and concentration, becoming aware of notes, of details, of my fellow musicians. The time for the future is before and after the playing session – not during it! – it is the selection of pieces for an upcoming concert, and the careful comments after the repetitions. But without playing in the present, there is no music, there is only a lot of stress when you realise how uncertain is the piece – and after playing, you can’t see the things who went well, because they are initially hard to spot, so few in the middle of a lot of mistakes and uncertainty. Everyone could say that the piece is not ready; but it takes a careful ear to spot the little improvements, that are the minimal, crucial building foundations for further work.

If I were a more skilled drummer, or a cooler-headed horse, I wouldn’t have suffered that much under the strain. But repetitions were my time for drums practice, not for judgment. I felt sometimes that a repetition was in fact as stressful as a concert. I still fear that, therefore I think I’ll skip rehearsals one more time tonight.

 

Music piece of the day: Scarlatti’s Fugue in G minor, a.k.a. “The Cat’s Fugue”

Much has been said by well-informed critics over this piece; played it has been many times along centuries.

When I listen to this execution I find it witty, clean, passionate, classy. The initial notes could have been composed by a cat walking on the keyboard. The piece evolves then in a subtle crochet-work of harmony. There is so much grace and balance in these notes.

This is a graphical rendition of the score – the main theme is represented by red dots, and the patterns are visually easier to spot:

I hope you enjoyed listening to this piece! The links and videos contain links for further listening (like a lively jazz version!).

Cat tax: Nora the piano cat.

 

On Hayao Miyazaki’s movies

Today I wish to talk about what I love of Miyazaki’s work, and hopefully transmit some of his passion.

In 1985, Hayao Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli and produced animation movies who quickly became popular in Japan and abroad.

I must say that the first movie I saw (Ponyo) left me quite cold. I tried to follow the plot and was disappointed that it sort of lazily meandered around. I watched some other films from him and then re-watched Ponyo, and only then I was enchanted by the superb drawings, colors, movements, details, music and humour that pervaded the whole movie. I think that I truly appreciated Miyazaki’s movies when I stopped watching them to see what happens, and began to watch them to see how things happen. In this perspective, the movies look incredibly deep, rich, witty, attentive, meaningful and optimistic. I like Miyazaki’s decision to put a lot of details for you to decide which ones to follow, and that satisfies my joy in watching movies many times to spot something new every time.

I recently watched a video of Studio Ghibli’s backstage, when they were producing Spirited Away. I saw him and his team putting an insane amount of work behind every single drawing – but a meaningful work, an incessant exercise of observation and care, that is moreover visible in the final product, and makes these movies so valuable:

One important part of these movies is the music. Most soundtracks have been composed by Joe Hisaishi, who mixes elements of many genres and writes powerful, complex and rich music that perfectly matches the scenes.

Most comments to these videos and this article talk about strong positive emotions that this music evocates. There is a sense of peace, purification, even humanity in these notes, that I feel like a call to become a better person.

I hope I inspired you to watch Miyazaki’s movies, or at least sparked some joy 🙂

Music recommendation: “La Guerre” by Janequin

I would like to present you a chanson from ClĂ©ment Janequin, a famous French Renaissance composer. He was one of the first composers who added noises and effects to songs – bird chirps in Le chant des oiseaux; market sellers’ advertising their goods in Les cris de Paris; cannons, trumpets, horses and shouts in La Guerre:

On ChoralWiki you can find the French text and its English translation.

I listened to this piece many times, discovering its many layers: at first I was captivated and amused by the sounds that animate the battle, then amazed by the musical skills of these singers, then by their joy in singing this piece, and then  by the sound of Renaissance French and its nowadays odd pronunciation. It is nice to note that modern Canadian French contains visible traces of Old French – and that makes this song look so unbelievably Canadian to me, especially the last part where the singers shout: Victoire! that they pronounce: VictouĂ©re! – it makes me smile, but also think of the centuries that have slowly passed and shaped French language, as a river digs a canyon. I feel connected with the mind of Janequin through the centuries, thanks to the countless people who kept this piece of music alive. Enjoy!

Why I like reading, and how I like to read

Today I started reading a new novel that I picked from the French section of my local library – Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam“, by AmĂ©lie Nothomb. After reading several books in English and Italian, mostly in the efficient and clean, almost steel-like prose of technical explanations, I met a rich, singing, poetic French first-person narrative. It gave me more joy than usual, as if I came back home – and I attempted to find out why.

In general, I particularly like reading novels in French because I find that this language can convey so many nuances of expression, it seems to possess such a vast colour palette. When I read in Italian, I can’t find the same depth, not because Italian doesn’t allow it, but because I don’t feel that Italian and French (nor German or English) are completely interchangeable on all topics. I consider them like musical instruments, with their own structure and voice, that makes them especially able to convey the sense and emotions of a piece of music written specifically for them, or their equivalents. You can spot that when you compare Paganini’s Caprices with their piano “translation” written by Franz Liszt:

 

It also made me compare the musicality of a language in a given text with the movement of an animal. There are texts who move around swiftly and graciously like leopards, without any noise from their steps. Some texts sound exact and articulate like insect legs, moved with precision, almost mechanical in their appearance. Some other texts move around with the cute awkwardness of a foal, that tries hard not to trip, but that shows the seed of its future elegance. I like to pick up a random book from the library and discover, page after page, which kind of movement it has chosen to embody. The topic doesn’t matter much, because I am reading to discover how other people decided to express their thoughts, and this alone fulfills my curiosity.

To finish, here is the step-by-step (literally!) analysis of horse walk, because it matches with how I sometimes feel when I read a book: it is not about the destination of that walk, nor about the context, but it is my analysis of its components one by one, even if they don’t make sense alone – but when I get out of this “analysis mode” and I go back to the full picture, at the expected reading speed, I spot so many more details. Enjoy!

 

Billy Cobham’s lesson at Drumeo

Yesterday I watched Billy Cobham’s lesson about the art of the rhythm section. I knew him only by name and I remember having bought drumsticks designed by him. I have to confess I was unsure if I would like the lesson, as he is so famous, and I am often disappointed by how famous musicians lose connection with their own creative source, with fellow musicians and with the audience.

This is not the case of Billy Cobham: I found him so open, so genuinely interested in preparing a good atmosphere for the musicians he plays with, conscious of the force and responsibility of the drums section; he compared playing in a group to a friendly conversation; he underlined the ability to keep an internal metronome and play only the notes that are really needed. He then played two pieces and an amazing solo. It was almost possible to follow his thoughts, and feel his joy in making music. See and listen yourself!

I am relieved that such a gentle personality is one of the leading voices in drumming. I am so afraid that the music scene will end being dominated by other forces than the human aspiration to get together and have real fun – people like Billy and many others like him, are my hope. Last but not least, thanks to Drumeo for sharing these amazing lessons for free!

 

On leadership mindset

Love Bite -- by Chad Hanson

Lately I collected many hints on how a good leader should be: at my kindergarten, at riding lessons and by music rehearsals. At the same time I thought about how it takes to be a good team member.

In the past I had my strong opinions on some topics and would not accept any other, even from people who expected me to conform. I used to fight back, first with explicit force, then more softly but still very firmly. I was not especially good at leading because I was not so good at presenting my ideas and getting feedback from others, on any level. I was sometimes a difficult musician in my orchestra: the more I was pushed to play in a way I didn’t like, the more unmanageable I became.

Since then I understood many signs, or maybe, I got older and I don’t cling that desperately to my opinions anymore. It was an interesting lesson with the horse I ride: I have to communicate clearly and show a calm, focused mind, in order to be accepted as leader by an animal that is many times bigger, heavier, faster than me. I can occasionally bluff and play calm, even if I am not, as it is usually a safe thing to do – opposed to be scared by default, scare the horse and create an actual dangerous situation.

It is almost the same with children. They have marked personalities and clear ideas on what they want, but also rely on adults for guidance and exploration of the unknown world. When I feel that I am teaching something new to them, I am like a mountain guide, walking in front, showing where I put my feet, leaving the freedom to walk in another path when I consider it safe too; I check often with them to see if the way is manageable for them, if they are tired, happy, scared,curious. I learned in these last months how to pay attention to small signs that help me understand how another person feels, even if his/her words say otherwise. It happened too often that people answered “No thanks, how nice of you that you offer help, but I don’t need it now” and I saw on their faces that they needed that help so badly. Then it’s another diplomatic game to play, how to help them without patronisation.

And on this fine tuning, I exercise my leadership skills and my team member skills, usually by trial and error in real world situations. Sometimes I manage to make my tests with people who have much to teach me on this field: it is a real enjoyment to know that I can practice with the confidence that I am in a playpen, in a sandbox where I don’t have to worry that I could hurt somebody in order to learn my lessons.