One of the great joys of my life is that I can read an orchestral score. Orchestration for me is one of the three or four huge things I’d like to master before I die (the others include writing poetry, playing a jazz solo, and perhaps one or two others thing that seem so unlikely they’re not worth mentioning today). Yet after 30 years of wrestling with the subject, I can confidently say I have only a general understanding of it.
That doesn’t mean I’m giving up. If I’ve come this far, I can surely keep improving. Hopefully I’ll not only get better at writing for the orchestra, I’ll get smarter at learning how.
I had an insight about that today that I thought was worth sharing. I was looking at a page of a Tchaikovsky Symphony where the whole orchestra is playing and I thought, “I want to learn how to write passages like that, where all the forces are engaged in communicating a single idea.” Then I realized I’d never actually articulated that specific desire before, and how knowing exactly what I wanted to learn might empower me.
In other words, for years I just told myself “I want to learn how to write for the orchestra,” the way you might say, “I want to throw a dart in the direction of the dartboard.” It never occurred to me that, rather than just diving into the subject and floundering around, I might pick one specific thing I’d like to learn first and focus on it. In fact, it took me all these years to understand the subject well enough to articulate something specific I wanted to know.
This is a restatement of the common wisdom that asking the right question is more important than answering it. In this case, however, it’s interesting to me that one has to have at least one of two things to ask the right question: first: enough of an understanding of the subject to know what you don’t know; or second: a teacher who can pose the questions for you.
Now that I have that understanding, I can use it to master some of the other long-standing conundrums I’ve been wrestling with. The jazz solo is another one of my great stumbling blocks, on which I have also spent 30 years. Yet I have never articulated exactly what I would like to know how to do, other than “solo.”
Perhaps expressing much more specific desires like, “I want to be able to effectively solo over a ii V I” would get me farther. Or “I want to sound like Bud Powell on ‘Un Poco Loco’ when I solo.” All of these specific goals dispel the notion that soloing is a one-size-fits-all activity.
As much as I’ve learned, and as hard as I have gone after these things, it’s embarrassing to admit that I have missed some questions that much less experienced players have asked and answered. But what can I do? The answers are all out there, but the questions aren’t.
So what about you? How do you eat the elephant, or take the journey of 1000 miles? Do you just move in that direction, or do you have a way of making the trip more efficient?
Adam Cole is an author, educator and performer who blogs weekly on creativity and artistry. To view more of Adam's work, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net