Tonight was the first pit orchestra rehearsal for The Wizard of Oz at Billerica Memorial High School. I was hired to play the flute/piccolo book for the production.
Playing in pit orchestras is pretty much my favorite side gig. It perfectly synthesizes my childhood love of ensemble music with my adult love of being able to pay my bills. The music is often challenging, the rehearsal pace is fast, and the revolving cast of characters is always good for a laugh.
Also, even after all these years I still get a kick out of the fact that people pay me to play my instrument. I know there are lots of parents out there who have palpitations at the thought of their child pursuing a career in music. The common perception is that it is impractical and unprofitable. I find this interesting, because in my ten years as a professional musician I have not wanted for much.
Of course, I had a few advantages in my professional training, starting with a rather unusual sort of parent. Unlike the parents who steer their children towards more “practical” careers, I think my mother would have been sorely disappointed if I had chosen anything else. From my days in utero until my commencement ceremony she groomed me as a performer able to compete in a demanding field. This led to more than a few moments of conflict, including the time she forced me to start piano lessons (I didn’t see the need) and the times she chided me for failing to take my practice seriously (she was right.)
By encouraging and supporting and occasionally forcing me to rededicate myself to my practice, my mother and my music teachers were imparting invaluable lessons about setting goals, sustaining focus, and pursuing excellence. My path towards gainful employment was paved with recorder recitals, band rehearsals, intensive summer programs, and countless auditions.
Discipline is not the only benefit that I acquired from my musical training. Recently I have been reflecting at great length about the value of listening deeply. It’s a value that I fear is not shared by many of my contemporaries. I know that it is incredibly challenging for my students. A series of recent conversations about the lyrical content of popular music has illuminated this fact for me.
Success in music requires sustained, active listening and, accordingly, constant assessment and adjustment. In high school I learned a concept called intonation. It taught me that there were degrees of precision in musical pitch, and that achieving accuracy demanded more than simply pressing the correct keys on my flute. I had to position my mouthpiece and regulate my air flow in such a way that my pitch frequency was not just in the right ballpark but absolutely perfect. We started each rehearsal by playing a single unison pitch, using a tool called a tuner to quantify our level of accuracy.
In college I was shocked by the discovery that even blowing a pitch into a tuner did not guarantee good intonation – it was a revelation to discover that every single note on my flute had a unique tendency, and that it was possible to play out of tune with myself! This led to dozens of humbling hours playing long tones in the solitude of a practice room. I needed to train my lips, lungs, and ears to work in perfect synchronicity, for I discovered that what I had once accepted as accurate was now just plain wrong!
On this blog I have bemoaned the superficial reading and listening habits that lead us to misinterpret one another. I believe that the cultural, ethical, and spiritual implications of such superficiality are grave. Learning how to effectively process information is a vital skill.
Many educators, parents, and pundits have lamented the lack of retention typically exhibited by American students. Some people blame our multitasking tendencies and our technology-induced laziness. Some point their fingers at standardized testing and grade inflation while others blame the increasingly cutthroat competition for college admission.
I will not attempt to single out the culprit (frankly, I think they’re all to blame) but I will say this: the long-term cultivation of an artistic discipline promotes the habits of mind that are crucial to academic success. While we worship at the altars of superficiality and convenience, the arts teach us to look closer, listen deeper, and to make sense of what we observe.
As it turns out, making music may just be the most practical skill that I have.