A car dealership is not the type of place one would expect to find musical inspiration. A few years ago I was sitting on a cold pleather sofa trying to pass the time while my car was in the shop. It was early in the morning and the lobby was painfully quiet. My phone battery was low, and there seemed to be no other form of distraction nearby.
In a rare moment of clarity, I decided to try a listening exercise I had read about in a book a few days earlier: spending ten minutes writing down every sound I could hear. At first I thought I would run out of sounds in the first thirty seconds. I noted the intermittent hum of the beverage machine, the squeak of an office chair in another room, and the vacuous sound of my own boredom. Another minute passed and my ears sharpened. I heard the playful chatter of some sparrows in the shrub outside the window, the dress-shoe-clad footsteps of a man walking down a back hallway, and the hurried traffic in the distance. Soon I couldn’t keep up with all of the sounds around me, so I began to focus on the details of each sound. I noticed subtle pitch changes as the vending machine cooler woke up or went back to rest. There was even a noticeable difference between the way the chair squeaked when the desk clerk moved to the left and the way it squeaked when he moved to the right.
Around this time, I heard a man come in from the shop and pick up the phone to call a customer. His tone was rhythmic and pointed, conveying his confidence in his findings. Then his voice changed ever so slightly. There was a small hitch in the regularity of his rhythm along with a softening of his tone and a rise in pitch. He was telling the customer how much the repairs were going to cost. I wondered if the person on the other end of the phone realized how much the repair man disliked this part of his job.
A few days later I was listening back to a practice session I had recorded on my phone. As my ears focused in, I realized that I could hear exactly how I was feeling about each passage. (This was to my own horror: My audience should hear the excitement and joy of the music, not my concern with clean articulation!) I wondered what else had been audible over the years. With narcissistic curiosity, I listened back to several of my old recordings. Sure enough, I could hear a range of experiences in my playing from how I felt about a collaborator to how insecure I was about a given technique. It wasn’t all negative though. In that experience I heard something I had never really heard before: I heard myself.
I began to wonder, at what point does one’s personality become audible? Is it at a certain age? Does it happen at a certain level of proficiency? Or is it always there? At the time, my youngest flute student was a seven year-old boy who had been playing for about six months. (He was very bright and also studied piano. According to him, piano was much easier. He was playing a con-cert-o) He was playing his way through one of his melodies and I was listening to make sure he had the right rhythm and tongued at the right time. He was trying not to breathe after every note. I began to listen differently just for a few moments. What did HE sound like? Then I heard it: he sounded utterly unselfconscious, joyous, and innocent. He sounded seven!
Musicians and critics will never agree on how much of a performer’s personality “should” come through, especially within classical music circles. However, I believe now that the essence of a performer is always there, whether they intend it or not. The best performers are those who learn to be present in the moment so that their intention and the musical intention are one; their feelings and life experiences fuse with those of the composer to create something unique in that moment. As performers and as teachers of performers, we work to overcome our difficulties and insecurities so that they do not compete with the music. How can we hope to address these things in ourselves or our students unless we are willing to listen deeply? It isn’t easy. Much of what we project in our playing isn’t musically appropriate, and the sound of a student struggling through a passage isn’t pleasant! Yet when I think about the way my student sounded that day, I can’t tell you if the sound of seven was appropriate, but I can tell you that it was beautiful.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of the Texas Flute Society Newsletter.