On freedom and rules – the seaman, the writer and the drummer

I read this morning this post from Simone Perotti [IT], focused on the similarities between his experiences as writer and as seaman in the Mediterranean Sea. He finds that the sea is setting the rules, and the seaman has to submit to them if he wants to make safe progress on his route. The author is in a similar condition, in the vast sea of language. Fighting the rules of the sea would put the seaman in peril of his life; fighting the rules of language would make the author not understandable.

I liked that post. I felt no inferiority in his words, at least not an unhappy one. Obeying to the sea gives him clear goals and a reduced set of possible actions. This limited freedom has the positive, surprising aspect that it frees the mind from computing too many future scenarios. Isn’t it the case of many sports too? Or jobs? In most cases there is no complete freedom of choice. Still, lots of people are ready to accept the rules of a given activity and have a really great time practicing it. It makes me think of Jost Nickel‘s lesson on Drumeo, where he explains how he builds a new groove. He elaborated three rules, and sticks to them. He defines that “being creative through limitations”. Of course, he adds that you are always free to drop the rules when you realise that you explored all possibilities and you feel bored.

My final consideration is that freedom mentioned by Simone and Jost is not in the single actions themselves, but on a higher level: either the setting of the rules (for the drums), or even higher, the decision to do that activity instead of any other (for the seaman and the author, and the drummer too). When I think about my perception of freedom, I realised I focused on the obeying part and surely appeared more submissive than I would have liked to. I’m glad I read Simone’s post and realised the bigger picture.

 

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Autumn celebration and thought about teaching

Magic Fall

Autumn keeps being my favourite season, with its flamboyant colours, and its connection with school’s start. As a kid, I loved the beginning of school, with all the new books, pens, pencils, the lofty mountain of knowledge ready to be presented to me. The last weeks of summer holidays were filled with expectation and impatience. Even now I welcome the freshening of the air, the discolouring of leaves, the arrival of rain and mist with that same joy.

At the end of October I’ll start again with drum lessons, after a break that lasted a whole year. It’s hard for me to wait for these few more days, because my teacher has that blessed ability to spot what I can already do (no matter how minimal it is! Sometimes it’s just showing up at the lesson, while I’d rather be sleeping on the couch) and then suggests what to build on top of it, letting me learn new skills one step at a time. Others focus on what I can’t do, and urge me to improve moved by guilt, by the obligation to make the best use of my potential. He is currently one of the very few voices in my surroundings that underlines my strengths, in an honest way that I am quick to believe (while some encouragements are too far-fetched to be credible, even if they are totally well-meant), and that concretely motivates me. We don’t talk about that explicitely, but he surely sees how our time together transforms my mood and lets me grow as musician, and I’m sure we both find reward in our common enthusiasm.

On playing at concerts, part 3

Yesterday we had our yearly concert:

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It was my first concert after my year away, and it felt great. The two last rehearsals had been for me a bit borderline for concentration – there were both things that ran very well, and practicing more was boring, but also things that didn’t work well, and there was clearly no time to fix them. So overall I was in a right balance of relaxed and focused when I walked on the stage for the concert. It was also interesting to see how the calm of the musicians calmed down Mariano, the conductor.

I enjoyed playing with my fellow musicians so much! We are such a closely-knit group that we support each other, know who has difficult parts, and cheer the soloists as much as the audience, if not more. I didn’t feel like performing yesterday, the fun of being together was stronger than the stage fright. I took this picture at the soundcheck (sorry for the bad quality) – I love how some are concentrated, some relaxed while waiting for their cue, and in the middle Thorsten smiles. This picture sums us up so well 🙂

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Playing drums: notes and movement

Last weekend we worked with our drum teacher on movement while playing the snare drum. Today I thought about the connection between notes and movement, and which one influences the other, in which music styles and in my practice.

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Drumline – source: marchingbands.wikia.com

I remember having paid attention to movement in itself only in my first year of drum lessons, because I started focusing on technical challenges in reading notes, learning new rhythms and learning to play various percussions. I stopped noticing when I was getting tired and cramped, when the movement was not calibrated well and therefore the notes came out of rhythm. My response was to try harder – cramping even more – and finally give up.

During Saturday’s lesson I understood that if a set of notes is not sounding right, or even is not properly timed, it is very likely that the movements are not correct. I thought about pieces that are written with the movement in mind, from which the notes come out – for example marching band music, especially the more spectacular pieces. I have in mind my beloved Downfall of Paris. Look at Tormod’s hands and arms first, then listen to the music:

This video shows the symetry of movements and is for me a feast for the eyes:

And look at the bass drum players’ movements, especially at the beginning:

The movement has a big influence on the sound itself, because the speed of the stick hitting the drum decides how it will rebound – a light stroke will muffle the note, a faster/stronger stroke will make the stick rebound and produce a cleaner note. The skill of a drummer is being able to guess the movements just by reading the notes, and practice so much that the movement does not need to be adjusted with conscious decisions (a bit like when driving cars). This is made easier in marching music, because the building blocks are not single notes, but basic patterns (the rudiments) that are learned until they become “movement units”.

I feel that I understood something big, that allows me to make progress by spotting myself what I can improve. As with horse riding, I will in any case benefit from “an eye on the ground” and will keep asking for expert advice, but I know I can do a fair amount of work on my own.

 

Music weekend with my orchestra

Last weekend my orchestra had organised a three-day musical retreat, in order to practice before our main concert. We had a great time, that I enjoyed even more as I have recently started playing again, after a long musical break. I realised how much I missed my fellow musicians, the positive energy I get from our being together.

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Still nature with trombone (accidental composition)

The orchestra was divided in three groups: wind instruments (flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboe, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas) and percussions, each under the lead of a teacher. The percussion section was definitely the smaller and consisted of me, the first drummer and the teacher. We first looked through all the notes (we had notes for 5+ percussionists in some pieces, and had to select which ones to play), then we practiced the most difficult spots. I practiced on the castanets, that are very conveniently mounted on a wooden base, and are therefore way easier to play – there is even a knob to calibrate the opening of the shells:

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We solved our doubts on the notes in the first half of the day and dedicated the second half to posture and movement while playing the drums. It was a precious moment. We rarely have the time to take care of our posture, because we are busy following the notes; but this work is even more important, because it allows us to play for longer bouts without strain or even injuries. The exercises are on a musical sense extremely simple (for example slow quarter notes) just because the attention is elsewhere, needs to be elsewhere: on the wrists, arms, back, seat; on the speed and the similarity between the hands. It is a sort of yoga for drummers. You can read more on this topic on John Lamb’s blog.

After the practice in separate sections we had two sessions of rehearsals all together. The sound was way better than in our previous runs, thanks to the accurate work on each difficult spot! I am confident that we will have a great concert, because we have passed the point where we only read notes, and are now able to add expression to our parts.

On Saturday evening the conductor was ready to thank everyone and close the session, when the trombones asked to practice one spot once more, and the conductor was so surprised. I later thought about it, and why is it such a rare event. Maybe it is because conductors are used to whip the orchestra forward, as if the orchestra itself would otherwise not play. Therefore, at the end of the repetition the orchestra usually ends up more tired than expected. In this case, working separately allowed a better feedback between the musicians and the teacher, and probably a more appropriate workload; thanks to that, we were not as tired as usual, and wanted to continue playing. If I were the conductor, I would take it as a sign that I have allowed the orchestra to work in an efficient way, and moreover, that it is manifesting its own will to improve. I would find it wonderful, and I would do my best to replicate the conditions that lead to it.

I’m so looking forward for our Sundays concert! I feel so different from when I wrote about concerts, and am so glad I am feeling overall much better.

Music recommendation: string instruments day!

Today I wish to share two videos: the first is Bottesini‘s Concerto for double bass N. 2, played by Principal Double Bass of the London Symphony Orchestra, Rinat Ibragimov. The video’s comments are gold 🙂

The second is a song by Loreena McKennitt, recommended to me years ago by a fellow software developer:

I keep finding music that speaks to my soul in ways I could not imagine. I turn to these sounds and voices in the times I feel discouraged and low. I hope some of you will like these songs, and I wish you to find more gems while travelling the wide ocean of the Internet 🙂

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.