Saturday, 23 July 2011

Merrily We Roll Along

This post is partly by way of fleshing out some thoughts which are directly relevant to my book, but mostly as Dear Diary Catharsis.

It's now ten years since I committed myself to learning to make music. Not unusual in itself, but combine the fact that I started from scratch as an adult, and that I've actually managed to reach a competent standard (on which more later), and we at least arrive at a topic worthy of a blog post - How Did You Get Here From There, Mr Shepard? (Sondheim)

Briefly, I didn't have any significant musical tuition as a child, barring a couple of abortive attempts lasting a month or two: violin at age 7, drums at 11. Both ended for trivial reasons, which a simple kick up the backside (surely every child needs this?) would have overcome. There was a grand piano in the house, which was left unlearned. What a dreadful, dreadful pity. To avoid earning a #middleclassangst tag, happier times came at age 17. We attended the county youth orchestra playing Holst's The Planets, in which my friend was principal trombone. This left an indelible impression! This was Stage I: I Wish I'd Learned An Instrument.

Many people get to this stage.

I splurged my savings on a beginner trumpet. The excited, my-precious-stroking of the car journey home was followed immediately by a deep nadir which was to serve as a pattern for the years to come. Left in the cellar of an empty house, my few timid, muted notes sounded so awful that I couldn't bear the neighbours being able to hear them, so I cried, and put the instrument away again after only a few minutes. Stage II: Timid And Total Shit.

A few months of self-taught practice, and some Andrew Lloyd-Webber songbooks (my musical taste has progressed since then too!) brought me to Stage III: Confident And Shit. I didn't mind people hearing me, and lived in blissful ignorance of how terrible I was - though I at least realised that I was fighting the instrument rather than playing it. A trip to John Packer killed my interest with one note - even with my bloody-awful embouchure an experiment with a trombone was a hundred times easier and more satisfying to play. The trumpet then gathered dust. Stage IV: Got Nowhere And Gave Up.

I think this is where the story ends for most adult beginners.

Repeat the process for clarinet, and again for trombone, and we reach the point ten years ago, when I was 20. I desperately wanted to be able to play, and I knew I'd had the wrong approach, and that it was worth only one more go. I dusted off my trombone (Bach 300), booked a lesson, and promised myself that I would make it work this time. Stage V: Determined But Still Shit.

Early progress was rapid, but required a bucketful of determination. Most beginner music material is aimed at children, for obvious reasons. I hated hated hated playing Merrily We Roll Along (on the deep blue sea...) the fifty times it took to master. Throw in the gut-wrenching embarrassment I felt at people hearing my practice, and the burgeoning knowledge and self-loathing of my own incompetence, and we have a very steep hill to climb. Others may find this stage easy, but for me (personality summary: whore for people's respect) it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I persevered. Fast-forward a few months, and I joined the university wind orchestra, and had a crash course in ensemble playing, sight-reading, rehearsal geography ("upbeat to 5 before figure A" seems easy now...) and following a conductor. Stage VI: You're Shit And You Know You Are.

I practised obsessively. I refused to visit people for a weekend without bringing my trombone (now an 88H). I was very serious about improving. Too serious. I listened to a lot of my then-hero Christian Lindberg - himself a latecomer to trombone if not to music - with the earnest objective of getting as good as him. Yes, I really believed I would one day be able to play something as insane as Winter on a trombone. Within a year of starting, I was practising some serious solo repertoire (Ferdinand David, Saint-Saens, Hindemith!), oblivious to how horridly unmusical it was, even if I could play most of the notes. Stage VII: Inflated View Of Competence.

This balloon was rightly burst by a new teacher (now co-principal of the LSO, incidentally). I was forced to accept that I was still bad, just a different colour of bad. Self-loathing and embarrassment returned, never to go away fully. Fast-forward a couple of years, and we reach another nadir. Following an orchestra rehearsal at which I'd played very badly and was upset, I got a much-needed arse-kicking from my now-fiancée. She pointed out how little I enjoyed playing, and how unhappy it made me. Did I want to give up? Absolutely not. Then I would have to learn to enjoy it. I was in Stage VIII: Paralysed By Fear.

How did you get here from there, Mr Shepard? What did you have to go through?

No musical instrument can be played well by anyone who fears how it will sound. Brass doubly so - flaws in one-to-a-part fortissimo are blatantly obvious, and this does not lend itself to introspection. Anything less than total commitment will inevitably lead to split notes, wrong notes or wobbly notes at worst, poor ensemble balance or OK-but-uninspiring at best. I had to learn how to play without fear, and to do that I had to have fun in the process.

This took six years.

I deliberately stopped practising, playing only in ensembles. I forced myself to laugh off any obvious errors. I revised my goal down to the more realistic one of being a competent amateur player who is fixed to play for people. Sometimes (at the suggestion of the only sentence of The Inner Game of Music that was any use) I would wear ridiculous comedy underwear for concerts, because already feeling ridiculous freed me from fear of appearing so to others. Inch by inch I hacked my own mindset towards a healthier one, and my playing improved beyond recognition as a result. Stage IX: Enjoyment And Occasional Competence.

So we come to the present. I play regularly for two local orchestras, respectively OK and OKish in standard. Playing first trombone in The Planets was an extraordinarily satisfying experience, a dissonance that took 8 years to resolve. I've played as a guest for most of the other local ensembles, ranging from terrible to semi-pro standard and - crucially - am still on the fixing list. Probably, and justifiably, somewhere near the bottom, but good enough to invite back if needed. This means a very great deal to me.

Am I any good? I try to keep a realistic view of this. I've sat in sections with pro and semi-pro players and, if I did myself justice, made a positive contribution to the section and not looked out of place. In the lesser ensembles, I think and hope I stand out as a strong player. My solo playing is still dodgy, and to be honest I'm still too afraid of it to have a chance of being any good. There is a lot to improve upon, especially since I switched to bass (great fun, easier to play badly but harder to play well - Oh, 50B clone btw). One day I hope to be good enough to sit in the same good ensembles and actually be as good as the players next to me, rather than merely keeping up with them, but the learning curve is exponential and each jump forward is ten times further than the last - so I may never get there.

Begininning as an adult, by far the hardest battles have been fought inside my head, and the technical progress has happened almost as a side-effect. I've had to effect fundamental shifts in my attitude, and how I feel when I'm playing. I cannot express how torturously difficult this is. Embarrassment and fear of embarrassment have been my constant, unwelcome companions. They are still there, but sometimes I don't listen - you can't get from 'timid and poor' to 'confident and good' without going through 'confident and poor'.

My last two concerts sum this up nicely. The first, Tchaik 4 - a really plum and challenging bass trombone part, for the OKish orchestra. During the concert I was utterly fearless, committed to the music and thoroughly enjoying myself. I am immensely proud of how I sounded, which was, I believe, firm evidence that I can press on to become a properly good musician. The next day, the second, Brahms 1 - a short and moderate bass part for an excellent orchestra. Afraid of playing badly, I played badly and did not sound like I deserved to be there, even though I did. I was unrecognisable from the previous evening, and firmly in Stage X: Jekyll And Hyde.

I know of nobody else who has got this far from a similar starting point as mine, though I'm sure they're out there and I'd love to meet them. Even accepting my manifest flaws as a player, getting here has been no small achievement.

It's frustrating to be unable to play my best when it matters, but this is just the next problem to overcome, the next hill to climb. Probably another few years' worth, but nobody said this would be easy.

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