Deep into a new instrument and an old one

My army of readers will perhaps recall that I have two new instruments with me in Mexico. One is the new/old triple horn I just bought. The learning curve for that instrument has been close to zero, with only a few minor issues to figure out.

The shawm/horn thingy, however, is another story. There is no etude book, no method, no teacher for such an instrument. There is no music at all for such an instrument. I am trying to figure out what kind of sounds the thing is capable of, and what kind of sounds I would like to play. So far, it is all improvisatory – well, not quite all, since I have tried playing a few horn solos from the orchestral literature on it. Amusing, instructive, weird.

Horn technique is a slippery thing. I have been teaching for over 20 years, and the more I teach, the more I realize that telling a student how to do something physical has limited results at best. My favorite metaphor for physical learning is walking. We all learned how to walk, and all without a private teacher [note: now there is a teacher for everything, and perhaps walking instruction will come soon]. Walking is fabulously complicated, yet we master it before we can even speak. I break the elements down as follows:

1. Observation. Everybody around me is doing this locomotion thing on two legs.

2. Decision. I’m going to do that, too.

3. Trial and error. Stand up, fall down. Repeat.

4. Success. Stand up, stay up. Take a step and take another.

I have come to the conclusion that this sequence is fundamentally how we humans learn to perform physical acts. For music, the steps are quite similar, just tailored for this particular task:

1. Observation = Listening. What does the horn sound like?

2. Decision. Here’s how I want to sound.

3. Trial and error. We call this “practicing.”

4. Success. I played it the way I want. Now do it again.

I’ll stick with the regular horn for a while, then relate this to the shawmhorn. Here are a couple of observations. First, most students don’t in fact listen to the horn very much at all. Recreational listening very rarely involves classical music. This is too bad. The classical repertoire is gigantic, and a student must learn a lot of it if he or she wants to be a pro. There are tremendous recordings of horn players out there, much of it free to students. There are also horrendous recordings from which much can be learned (“I definitely do NOT want to sound like THAT”).

Secondly, step 2 is complicated, even if it appears simple. “Here’s how I want to sound.” It is very hard to get a picture in your head of what sound you want to make. Note that even our language is against us here. Most of our imagination words are oriented toward our sense of sight. An image of my sound? A picture of my sound? There’s not even a good word to describe what we’re after.

Which leads to the worst step of all, #3. If I don’t have a concept in my head of how I want to sound, how can I get closer? And what the hell is “practicing” anyway? My son started piano at 4 and was supposed to practice. How is he supposed to know how? I don’t even know how. Here I go on my rampage – apologies – but most practicing goes like this: play it wrong, play it wrong, play it wrong … play it right. You play it wrong 9 times and then get it right and move on. You have practiced playing it wrong. Believe me, more hours have been wasted in conservatory practice rooms than can possibly be imagined. The lucky few figure out how to practice, and the luckier few figure out how to do it efficiently. In any case, it takes a long time and fierce concentration, and a powerful will to succeed.

This makes step 4 (“Success”) rather ephemeral. Do we even know when we achieve success? If we don’t have an idea (image? picture?) of how we want to sound, how can we know when we get it right? Is it enough to play the right notes? Answer: no. It is not enough. You must play musically. What does that mean? Let’s leave that to another blog.

We teachers are there to guide the process, but it takes a huge amount of initiative from a student to get from Point A to Point B (especially since Point B is hiding somewhere in the 6th dimension). At best, we are like a Zen master, offering puzzling clues while our students figure things out for themselves. Greater musical knowledge and experience we do have. But guidance in the physical realm is a pretty tricky matter.

Back (at last) to the shawmhorn. Step 1: listening. Well, there’s nothing to listen to. Nobody else plays this instrument. I’ve been listening a lot to the all-time master of the shehnai, Ustad Bismallah Khan, trying to get that sound in my head. I’m pretty far away. Step 2: here’s how I want to sound. Hmm. No idea. Step 3: practice. I’m playing a lot. It’s more of an exploration than anything else. It’s fun, and I think it is irritating my colleagues, which is also fun. Step 4: success? Stay tuned.

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