I find it very enlightening and useful to compare the various aspects of horn playing with other disciplines, some similar, some (on the surface) not similar at all. I’ve done this mostly with sports/athletics and some with business, but more recently I was thinking about the parallels of what we do as classical musicians and what actors in a play do. In short, we recite. We recite texts that others have created for us to perform for audiences. It’s up to us to infuse the bare text with life so that the audience is captivated by our performance (and, hopefully, clamors for more, and wants to shower us with praise [applause] for a job well done).
We don’t think about it much, but if we were to read plays or screenplays, we might be a bit amazed to note that the texts that actors read are very bare bones. It’s a huge help for the actor to start with excellent writing, but a great actor can take very few and very (seemingly) ordinary words and make them rock our souls and emotions. Sometimes their work seems so effortless that we might not even give them credit for their craft. Actors can seem like “normal” people reciting their lines, but to appreciate what they do, think of the times when you have see “real” people on TV speaking. They move us not at all and their words come across as stiff, wooden, unmusical, lacking in art or appeal.
How do actors do it? What tools do they have in their toolbox to inflect the bare text and bring it to life so that it moves and captivates us?
A quick list: tone of voice (register, rises and falls, phrasing of tone), pacing/rhythm of delivery, volume, timbre, facial expression, movement/gesture, lighting, make-up, costume, timing (in relation to other actor’s lines). The more experienced the actor, the quicker they arrive at the most appropriate and effective combination of these “tools” for each line. Unless it’s a one-person show (and often even then), the actor has help from a Director, who has a unifying vision of how the text show be delivered and fit together. The combination of a great actor and great direction (plus all the help from everyone else involved in the production, such as make-up, lighting, and costumes) can create magical performances that move and/or delight us deeply and that we may savor in memory for a long time.
Let’s see what happens when we translate the actor’s toolbox to musical performance in general and playing the horn in particular.
Our text is the printed page. The composer is both playwright and director (unless we’re working with a teacher who is to some degree the director). The bare bones are the notes. We get some help from the composer/director in the dynamics and other expressive markings. Is that enough? Many players stop there, and it usually shows. A whole region may be marked p, piano; but if we play it all at that one dynamic, it likely sounds dull and lifeless. Fine detail often brings life and interest to works of art; the nuances and fine shades of color, texture, and other such features can make all the difference.
What else would help besides the composer’s ink? A modicum of research is a good place to start. What do we know about the composer: his life, era, influences, style? When was the piece written? Was it written for a particular individual or for a particular occasion? Knowing these things can help us be true to the general style of the piece.
It’s easy to see that composers almost never leave us enough detail, and if they did, the “text” would be nearly indecipherable. We need to a general feeling for the music and its style to be internalized. Then we can recite our text so that it is the most effective, just as learning to speak a foreign language to some degree and then speaking freely is a better way to communicate than just memorizing phrases. And just as we listen to foreign language recordings of native speakers to learn all the micro-detail of language pronunciation that can’t be recorded in any useful way with ink alone, we need to listen to recordings of our solos whenever possible and absorb the richness of the phrasing and texture aurally, even though we possess the printed notes.
Once we have heard enough (different!) performances of our particular work (or works in this style), we can begin to work out each phrase of our solo. Where is the high point? Where do we increase and decrease volume and how much? Is there any rubato? Where? How much? Can we locate where our line assumes a “background” role so that we can adjust our dynamics accordingly? For this part of the process of working out and mastering the musical phrasing of our solo, it is usually a good idea to begin with exaggerated dynamics, i.e. starting much louder than will done in the end. Start with a big block of “marble”, then gradually sculpt it down to where the differences are clear and not too much or too little.
The last stage might be to listen to a recording of your playing. Is the phrasing that you feel you are be obvious about coming through in the cheap seats? Will every phrase have a clear (i.e. audible) goal to someone who has never heard the piece before? Are there still passages that suffer from what sounds like “drive-by phrasing”?
Take notes. Make changes. Record again. Repeat until your finished product is full of detail, nuance, and texture that are audible to all in the hall.
Then take a well-earned break. Put your horn away and go see a stage play. Don’t let it spoil the enjoyment of watching the play, but do ask yourself: how do the actors invest their lines with meaning and emotion? Are there further ways I can learn from their performance and bring their process back to the horn?