Friday, June 02, 2006

Whatever gets you through the night--or orchestra rehearsal--it's all right

This quarter, I have had the experience of playing principal flute with our university orchestra. Don't worry, I'm not bragging or anything--I was asked to take over for the original prinicpal flutist who is suffering from tendonitis this term (I was the only other flutist at school that was available). The last time I played in an orchestra was about seven years ago at CSC. I remember really liking orchestra and playing the challenging flute parts for Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. What happened between then and now I'll never know, because I'm stressing out and not enjoying playing in an orchestra as much as I used to. Don't get me wrong--I love orchestral music, and our conductor is awesome: a young (okay, he's my age and went to the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory of Music) Japanese guy who says funny things while conducting like, "One-two-Captain Crunch!" And has mentioned that he watches the Colbert Report and Arrested Development. He's a very good conductor and kind--he doesn't get too mad if you mess up. But this whole orchestral experience is stressing me out and I'm trying to figure out why. I think it's because I've been playing flute so long that I feel like I should be able to play these stupid runs and fast passages in the music by now--that I'm entitled almost to play well, even though I've never been a good or consistent practicer. When I screw these runs up in rehearsal I get very upset and flustered and swear under my breath, and sit there on the verge of tears thinking, why can't I get this? As the first flute player, it is very hard to hide behind other players--I'm very exposed and most orchestral music tends to have tricky little licks for flute players.

I've been talking to my flute teacher about this, and he showed me a few short cuts, like for fast runs, it doesn't matter what notes you play so long as it sounds like a gliss up to a certain note, and alternate fingerings for tricky passages. I was telling him that I noticed that if I sat up straight in my chair with my left foot planted firmly in front of me, and tried not to lift up my eyebrows while playing that I feel more relaxed, or in charge anyway, and do slightly better with the nerves and the tricky fingerings. He said, just do whatever works, and convinced me I wasn't crazy for adopting a "lucky" pose--akin to rubbing a rabbit's foot or knocking on wood 5 times or any other physical manefestation of obsessive compulsive disorder. He made the point that if certain performers get nervous enough to throw up that that is a sign that mental bullshit can manifest itself in a very physical way. Therefore knocking on wood or trying not to lift the eyebrows while playing doesn't seem so crazy because it works the other way too: by concentrating on changing the physical, the mental seems to follow suit. This may be a whole field of psychological study I'm not yet aware of, but I do read a lot of Dr. Weil and his ideas about mind-body-spirit connection. I have a theory that if I work on my physical self (i.e. exercise more and try not to eat so much sugar) my mental self will stop being so crazy. All of you who know me know that I drive myself insane with over-analyzing every aspect of my life--especially those questions like, what instrument should I focus on, should I be a writer or artist, should I be a painter or photographer, should I teach in the schools or privately, etc. I've gone back and read journals that I've written over the years and they are filled with mental crap such as this--and it's always the same questions over and over again. My brain actually feels sore sometimes after thinking so hard. I'm afraid if I don't stop this I'll go insane. So maybe I'll test my hypothesis to see if it actually works.

But the point of all this is that I have realized that playing music well has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with learning how to deal with, and get over psychological brain freezes and mind-games. I know that when I look at a page of black sixteenth notes my brain freaks out and it manifests itself in my right eye squinting and my left leg swinging over to my right side (when I'm standing). B, my flute teacher, has pointed these things out and pleads with me to stop doing them and to look confident even though I don't feel confident, and to play with conviction even though I'm unsure of the notes. So I've been telling myself, when a rough passage is coming up, that I don't care and I'm just going to play as shitty as possible. And you know what? This little trick works most of the time. Unfortunately I still have to practice because I'm not a great sight reader.

It really is a chore to drag myself to the practice room (the dingy, dirty, fluorescent light-bulbed practice rooms at school with trumpet dribble on the floor). I'm lucky if I get an hour a day in--not because of time restraints, but because of just not feeling like it. If I found a way to enjoy it then I'm sure I could get in 2-3 hours a day. B, again, reassured me by saying that people who practice 8 hours a day are not normal, and are probably slightly mentally ill. This was news to me because we have been told, as musicians, that if you want to be successful, you have to practice 6-8 hours a day! You have to practice before you can have fun, my piano teacher at CSC told me. It was a huge relief to hear him say this, and to also say that it takes a certain sort of person who actually wants to be isolated in a practice room for 8 hours a day--and that this type of person probably also has no social skills as a result, which leads to diva syndrome: when classical musicians get persnickety because the piano is two inches too far to the left, or if their cello strap is not properly placed at a 90 degree angle to their chair, or if they were left Dasani and not Evian water for their oboe reeds to soak in (believe me--I have seen this and worked with this bullshit--I am one of the stage managers at our school for weekly performance hours, and some of our faculty fit this description to a tee). B said that since they can't control how perfect their performance is they feel they have to control
every little external thing that they can change, i.e. the angle of the piano and so forth. See how f-'d up this all is? Anyway, I was so glad to hear that I am normal, and that normal people would rather socialize and sit out in the sunshine then put themselves in a practice room with Brahms for 8 hours. In fact, he told me a story of a cellist he once knew who broke down her 8-hour practice session for him. Apparently she spent about one hour lifting the bow up and slowly bringing it down to the strings as soundlessly as possible. If she made a sound she'd start over and then do this 100 more times or so. Then she would practice scales for 2 hours. If she made a mistake she'd start over from scratch. Sounds a little OCD, doesn't it?

So what is the answer? How can I enjoy practicing and orchestra more and not freak out about pages of black notes? I think I'll do it by not practicing 8 hours a day, and by meditating and eating my greens and by taking a walk and watching squirrels.