I’ve spent the last thirty years learning how to write for the orchestra. Considering that I’m probably never going to hear any of my orchestral pieces performed, it seems pointless to keep studying. But it just taught me a surprising lesson.
As I’ve been studying moments in orchestral music that particularly “get” me, like some of Strauss’ majestic proclamations in Don Juan, I’ve been noticing the instruments that are playing in the background, or the groups who play right before or right after the glorious moments. Previously I’ve been too distracted by the lead in the moment, the melody, the star of the show. Now I’m starting to understand how important all the other instruments are to the impact of the moment of stardom.
I always knew this in drama. The stars on stage are the least important part of the show. You have a whole crew that is operating the machine from behind the scenes so that everything flows like clockwork in that magical world where the stars walk around.
I also teach this daily to my piano students when I teach them the blues. I tell them that the solo, all that fancy stuff in the right hand, isn’t the music. It’s just the icing on the cake. The icing is pretty, and it’s the thing you notice, but you wouldn’t want to eat it by itself, and it’s only good on a really nice foundation. The cake is the left hand (or the band), which has to set up an unnoticed but vital groove. If done right, that groove makes anything you do in the right hand sound great.
I never thought to apply this kind of thinking to my life before. But I’m getting older and I’m starting to feel forlorn. I tell myself I need an adventure, I need to take more risks, I need to make myself noticed.
But really, it’s the stuff in the background I should be paying attention to. How is my family life? How am I eating, sleeping, interacting with the people in my work?
When these things are secure and solid, I can take risks, I can have an adventure, I can go out on a limb and expose myself for the attention hog I am. On the other hand, if I neglect my foundation, then risk, adventure and notoriety will be a very different experience.
I might go out and give this stellar performance on stage of one of my songs. But without the setup of the great relationship with the band, the long task of audience building, and the security of my personal and professional life behind me, that performance will always appear empty, not only to me, but to the people who happen to see it. I’ve experienced this a number of times in my life without ever really understanding it.
Yet while I’ve missed the lesson in one place, I’ve also trusted myself through the years to follow my path of learning obscure things like orchestration because they have set me up to learn it in another. Orchestration, songwriting, piano playing, all of these things which have failed to make me famous have been good foundations for the improvement of my thinking. What’s your foundation?
News From a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books
A shout out to Whiskey Gentry, whose last performance I attended last night at the Variety Playhouse. Lauren Morrow, their lead singer, is just stellar, and she and her husband and band-partner Jason Morrow are off on a new adventure. I'd highly recommend you follow them and see where they go.
Six features in the last two weeks:
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Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Author, educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net