Playing the Fool

Over the past few weeks, I spent a large amount of time preparing for a musical in which I (and several of my unwitting music students) became increasingly involved in the action on stage. The original thought of having two bands for the show – one electric, one acoustic – turned into my acoustic band being fully costumed and on-stage for the entirety of the two-hour show. I suspect that, had they known that they would end up portraying members of the Bohemian revolution, my students may have been somewhat more hesitant in signing up. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this production allowed for the development of an important skill for musicians. One evening, as I was sambaing around on-stage with an accordion strapped to my chest while sporting a rather pointy moustache, it occurred to me that there is something to be said for standing on a stage and, knowingly, making a fool of yourself.

In Be Brave, I wrote about how musical performance gives us the opportunity to build uniquely personal and human relationships with our audiences. However, there is nothing to say that these relationships need to be serious. Some of the most memorable performances I have seen have been those given with a twinkle in someone's eye and a quick flash of a grin. The stakes are raised in such performances, however. Looking silly when you perform is one thing, looking incompetent is another. As performers, our egos may be easily bruised when others question our technical proficiency. Thus, in order to reach the stage where we can have the comfort of acting absurdly, we need to play well enough that we aren't worried about hitting the right notes at the right times. As Amy Poehler has said,

There’s power in looking silly and not caring that you do.

That power is twofold. First, you have the power to deliver that performance with a certain level of technical control – you know what you're doing and can almost go on autopilot if need be. Second, you have power over your own ego. You can temporarily release your insecurities to allow you to pursue a greater artistic goal. If we commit to a performance enough that we simply don't give a damn how silly we look, then we help pull our audience in. Whether out of amusement, fascination, or simply curiosity, they will watch simply to see what happens. Likewise, as was the case of the misadventures of my Bohemian band, the audience may watch – and mirror – your joyful immersion in making music.

The question for me is how far you can take this concept. What do you think? Have you ever acted the fool for an audience?

I Sing the Body Electric

In the past month, things have changed dramatically for me as a bass trombonist. After years of talking about it, I broke down and bought a Silent Brass mute not to practise with, but to use in combination with effects pedals. Upon experimenting with a variety of bass pedals borrowed from colleagues, I experienced a sound world completely unlike anything I had encountered before. This new set of equipment forced me to reconsider not only the technical strategies needed to play my trombone, but also my approach towards performance in general. Whilst there are many complexities inherent in this new system, I have an immense feeling of freedom about my playing.

Why should I feel this way? What cognitive baggage has accompanied my prior approaches performance that has prevented me from feeling so empowered?

Upon contemplating these questions, I concluded that acoustic instruments exist within a realm of nuances. Every aspect of the music – even the most microscopic – regularly comes under scrutiny. Training as a classical musician demands an attention to detail which could be considered obsessive. Looking back at my education, I remember many days where I obsessed over making my 'ka' articulation match my 'ta' articulation so my double-tonguing would be even. I remember recording myself on my computer and looking at the resulting waveforms to make sure that my notes decayed evenly. I remember trialling different breathing patterns within a phrase to my friends, just to see which one helped carry the phrase more. These activities were normal amongst my classical colleagues, and it was expected that I used such techniques to fine-tune my ability to perform.

When I put my trombone through effects pedals, however, all of those nuances went out the window. Adding effects allows my performance decisions to shape the resulting music in vastly different ways. Exploration and manipulation of timbre has become a joy, and I surprise myself regularly by the ease at which I can make sounds that bear no relation to the typical 'vocabulary' of a bass trombone. With a few small adjustments, I can sound similar to a trumpet, an electric guitar, an electric bass, an organ, voices, percussion, a synthesiser… the options are seemingly endless. However, I do not believe I should make myself sound exactly like any of those instruments. If I want to use the sound of a distorted guitar in a recording or performance, why spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to use a trombone when I could just use a guitar? What is unique about the sounds available to use is that even though they carry superficial timbral features of other instruments, I still behave idiomatically like a trombone. This results in what is almost an aural uncanny valley, where the normal means of identifying instruments through recordings may be confounded by mixed information.

This isn't to say that nuances in timbre, articulation, delay, and so on do not exist when I use effects pedals. Rather, they become overshadowed by sonic variables of a much larger magnitude. These new variables have been thrilling to explore, and have provided the cognitive friction to spur on my creative output. To be honest, I'm starting to consider my trombone as more of a wind-powered synthesiser than a brass instrument. Why not?

The results of this exploration can be heard on my forthcoming album of improvised duets and trios with drummer Andy Edwards and electric bassist Steve Lawson, both fascinating and deeply inspiring musicians. Keep checking the website for further updates on this exciting project!


Be Brave

As musicians, we shape people's experiences. We mould them, structure them, craft them into tangible moments within time. The better control we have over our instruments, the more they disappear, allowing our thoughts and expressions to manifest in sound without hindrance. To make music that people want to listen to is not good enough; we should make music that people cannot help but listen to. We should strive to make music that captivates, that transports, that lifts people into beauty.

The process of developing a performance is like constructing a house. As you begin to visualise what you want, you start structuring it and filling in the details. Rooms start taking shape, evolving from simply spaces for things to go into places where you want to live, places that have meaning for you. You start putting more time and effort into it, and along the way traces of you are left in the colour of the wallpaper, the way the window lets the light in just so. No one can build this house but you, and you can build no house but this.

When we perform, we make a promise to the audience: we will give you something special, something remarkable. We take them by the hand and lead them through the house, showing them around, pointing out the details that we are particularly proud of. There's no way that we could show them everything, but they can see our eyes light up when we lead them from one room to the next, excited to share the results of our hard work. Our performances should mirror that excitement, that intensity, where we open up ourselves and take our audiences on a journey through time. Even if you have spent countless hours preparing, if you lack intensity during a performance you only let the audience peek through the windows. They can get glimpses inside, and perhaps an appreciation that you have clearly worked hard, but they lose that personal connection. They miss you in your performance.

The thing is, opening up through music (or any art, for that matter) in this way is a dangerous thing. We become vulnerable – not because what we have made is somehow inferior or substandard, but because we are scared that our audiences will see who we really are. They will see through the armour that we put on every day, past all of the things we do because we thing society will treat us better because of it. Buried within all of that is the little kid who finds happiness in the small things and wants other people to be happy, too. When we perform in such a manner, we risk the comfort of people passing us by. At the end of the day, though, isn't all art worth the risk?

Take your listener by the hand. Promise them something special. Make your playing irresistible in your own way, whether that means creating intensity of emotion, technical mastery, or just pure wonder. Practice will provide you the means to do so, the tools that you need. Connect to your audiences. Take their breath away. Be brave.