My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, August 15, 2016

From the kitchen to the stage

Today I realized that great cooks and musicians have something in a common - they have learned to let go and to trust their senses.  They have learned that interpreting great dishes or musical compositions goes beyond technique and mere re-creation into a realm that incorporates their own experiences, whims, and moods,  blending them seamlessly with where their audiences are, even if their audiences don't even know themselves where they are or where they want to be taken.

These ideas have been floating around in my head for a while now but they seem to have all collided while I was watching a movie from a few years back called "Today's Special."  It's a fun, romantic, heart-warming foodie movie about a young sous-chef that has worked for years in a restaurant in New York City.  When a promotion doesn't come his way and he confronts the executive chef for an explanation, he receives an honest but painful evaluation - he doesn't have the passion, vision, daring, and creativity that it takes to be the soul behind a restaurant.

This news comes as a blow of course, and launches Samir, the main character, into a fairly predictable journey of introspection.  He ends up reluctantly helping out his father in the family's Indian restaurant that has been struggling to survive.  Having abandoned Indian cooking since he was a boy, Samir does everything to keep the restaurant alive except plan and prepare the dishes himself - he hires a taxi driver he had serendipitously met instead.  This taxi driver, Akbar, is a big of a magical character.  During the resurrection of the restaurant, he teaches Samir some very important lessons about cooking which I also want to translate for musicians for the remainder of this blog post.  In one scene Akbar turns the kitchen over to Samir, encouraging him to try his own hand at combining traditional Indian spices in order to create a "perfect" masala.  Samir looked bewildered and disturbed since there were no measuring implements or recipes anywhere in sight.  With Akbar's encouragement and repeated philosophy that one just needs to use one's head, heart, and stomach, Samir gives it a try - a dash of this, a gentle pouring of that, and so on.  In the end, is it "right?"  Akbar doesn't seem to savor the results but he approaches the moment as any good teacher should.  He admits that it doesn't seem quite right while at the same time affirming that what Samir has done was good anyway.  The lesson was not about "right" or "perfect," it was about letting go, listening, smelling, feeling, and creating.

I am convinced that even beginning students should be given plenty of opportunities to let go and to experience music making and learning in a way that involves more of their senses.  I believe that we teach musicians to rely too much on reading every note on the page, note-by-note-by-note.  We don't teach how to read music as a language.  Similarly we teach students to read every indication on the page and to follow them without necessarily knowing why they are there.  As a result, students don't feel that they have the tools they need to make music on their own.  If someone handed them a piece of music without any fingering, pedal marks, bowings, etc...my guess it they would feel just as bewildered and disturbed as Samir was in the movie without recipes or measuring implements.

As I have mentioned on my blog and on my Facebook page, I don't consider myself a teacher even though I spend most of my waking moments thinking about the process or learning.  At the moment I have one adult student who I consider my guinea pig for all of my philosophies and strange notions and oddly enough, at her lesson this morning, long before I watched this movie, we had a series of very similar moments to the movie scene I described above.  In the past few weeks at our lessons I have increased the amount of times I intentionally pull the music away from my student and ask her to narrate to me what's going on the music and what her understanding of the music means to her.  Today we did even more of that.  I had her re-create several passages to the best of her ability based on her narrative, without the music anywhere in sight.  She kept asking to see the music but for the most part I kept saying, "Say what you know and we'll go from there."  I certainly didn't expect "perfection" but what I did want to encourage was thoughtfulness and complete engagement and she accomplished what I was after brilliantly.   This type of work terrified, and probably really annoyed her, but as the music has gotten more and more complicated and she has still managed to work out how to accomplish what I'm asking for, she has gotten more and more confident.  She has also started making more decision of her own regarding musicality, pedaling, and the like because she understands the tools and the techniques.  For me it is thrilling to see how much she can process with just a little help and guidance from me and it leaves me speechless when I see how surprised she is by her own ability to comprehend music as a language after only one year of lessons.  She does not need to keep looking at all those notes and scribbles on the page.  She can see it as a language and use her head, heart, and not necessarily her stomach, but her ears to guide her music-making.  At today's lesson she had several moments where she seemed genuinely shocked by how easy it was to play the music by letting go and thinking of the music as a language.   But this takes trust and I believe we need to practice trusting ourselves at our instruments.

Which leads me to the title of the movie and one of my favorite things about it.  As many restaurants do, the Indian restaurant in the movie has a sign that hangs in the window to list the daily special.  One day when Samir comes to work he sees that Akbar has listed this instead of an actual dish...
Trust me
Exactly.  Trust me - trust you.  It takes courage but trust me, there is incredible growth and creativity that comes from letting go and trusting all your senses - not just your eyeballs.  Speak the language of music, not just notes.  It's worth it.
Trust me.
You will hear more, feel more, love more...and so will your audience.
Trust me.


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