Perception is a major aspect of a musician’s life. We perceive sound, rhythm, and phrasing and relate it to all of the stimuli around us, from our fellow musicians on stage to the drone of an air handling unit. Hopefully, our attention is focused and blended with those around us. Often times it is not. And we can get pretty fussy about the score and the notes that are within, claiming some sort of ultimate authority on the subject. But doing so without regard to different options, interpretations, and traditions can create assumptions that may actually block creativity. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:
“Our human species…is distinguished by the fact that the action-releasing mechanisms of its central nervous system are for the most part…”open.” They are susceptible to the influence of imprintings from the society in which the individual grows up.” –Joseph Campbell, the Importance of Rites, 1964
Our music teachers, conductors, and the times in which we live all provide a large measure of our awareness and perception. These people influence how we conceive and execute our music. I am eternally grateful to the many teachers who told me what to listen to, who to listen to and who the authority was for a particular composer or style. I am also thankful for the many friends and colleagues who have expanded my horizons with suggestions and ideas. This, of course was determined for them by someone else and subsequently passed on to them. Of course, personal likes also have something to do with it. If we like something (for whatever reason) we are likely to seek out others who have the same interests. This is how a style becomes codified. Which is good. It is also how style can become stagnant, which is not so good.
This idea that there is only one way or that a different way is inherently wrong is the bane of musical expression. It represents an orthodoxy that is stifling. Luckily we live in an age that allows for the shattering of this orthodoxy. Recordings abound, both historical and current, proving that different is possible, if not preferable. Scholarship and discussion are at an all-time high for all types of music: classical, popular and ethnic traditions. And we can often have the freedom to experiment and grow by learning new instruments or trying cross-over styles different from our training.
My colleague Pedro De Alcantara is in the middle of a series of Blogs regarding perception and music. Here’s a memorable quote:
“When Johann Sebastian Bach played the music of J. S. Bach way back when, “Bach was Bach.” When I play the music of J. S. Bach today, “Bach isn’t Bach.” He’s . . . a hybrid, a body-snatched 300-year-old Brazilian-Prussian undead mutant.” Pedro de Alcantara
Pop on over to his site here. It’s worth a visit.
The awareness that there is more out there is extremely important to musicians at every stage. It helps us to become “unstuck.” Healthy musicians are continuously evolving, an important aspect for honest expression. Styles would not have changed, composers would not have created, and fundamentals would not have been altered had this not occurred. And it occurs to me that we need reminding of this.
“God [is] not the exclusive property of any one tradition. The divine light [cannot] be confined to a single lamp, belonging to the East or the West, but enlightens all human beings.”
― Karen Armstrong
Copyright, 2013 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat