Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Zen of Drumming

Hah. That's a pretty ambitious title for a blog post, especially for someone who has no clue about zen (or drumming, for that matter). However, after having spent a few hours playing the same four notes in the same rhythm tonight, I came to some pretty startling conclusions about music, and about life, and I'd like to share them with you, loyal reader.

To explain further, I have been rehearsing the third movement of Steve Reich's "Drumming" for an upcoming chamber recital. Of the four players in this piece, I play one of two parts that are rhythmically "static". This means, in short, that they do not "phase", or accelerate out of rhythm, during the course of the movement. This position is arguably as difficult as the position of the players who DO phase, however, because the two players who do not phase are forced to keep mathematically perfect tempo and not adjust to the other players, as is typical in small ensemble settings. With that in mind, these are the insights that I have gleaned.

The phasing sections are a bitch. I mean, a REAL bitch. They are hard to play. I tried a number of different strategies to try to play these correctly. First, I ignored everyone around me. This didn't work. I could never block everything out completely, and, even on the rare occasions where I could "trance out" and achieve a state of focus, I found that my tempo would falter dramatically, usually slowing, as my body and mind relaxed. So, that was no good. Next, I tried listening to the other player who was playing a static part. Again, no good. While we were doing the same thing, we reacted and fed off of each other's tempo inconsistencies and, eventually, our mutual lack of confidence in a single tempo resulted in failure. Next, I tried listening to the patterns of the two guys phasing, trying to discern where their downbeats would eventually line up. This didn't work either. I would end up anticipating where they were going to place the downbeat, and, when I adjusted myself to line up with them, I would screw them up and the whole thing would fall apart.

Finally, in frustration, I just gave up. I said to myself: "You know what? To hell with this. Nothing I listen to is going to work, so I'm just going to hope that my tempo is right and let things go." And you know what happened? Everything worked great. I played in time, the guys around me played right, and everything came together perfectly. What's more, I experienced the phasing sections in a whole new way: whereas I had struggled with them before, when I just let go and let the cacophony of complex rhythms reign, I was introduced to a whole new beauty, one of radiant, glowing timbre.

As a percussionist, one of the hardest things for me to let go of is my sense of rhythm: from day one, percussionists have the all-consuming concept of "time" beaten into their heads. However, it was only when I let go of that concept that I really understood Drumming, and, to an extent, minimalism, for the first time. When I thought about it, it seemed like maybe my experience drew some parallels to real life, too.

Remember when I tried to ignore everyone around me? It failed completely. In just the same way, you can't ignore your peers, no matter how hard you try. They'll always be doing something different, something more interesting, something that challenges you. If, by chance, you do manage to exclude them, your own shortcomings become so self-evident as to consume you with error and doubt. That's no way to live.

What about when I listened to the guy who was playing the same thing? Our mutual inconsistencies fed off of each other, and, eventually, the things that neither of us realized brought us down. In life, you can't just hang around people who think and act the same way you do. If you do, your shared shortcomings, whether you're aware of it or not, will be amplified by your shared presence, and bring you down. It's not bad to have like-minded people around, but you can't have them around to the exclusion of others.

And when I listened to the phasing players? I failed there, too. I absorbed their work, and tried to anticipate their next moves. Inevitably, I failed to predict accurately, and, in turn, my plan collapsed. I wasn't focused on myself at all, and so my playing failed as well. In real life, you can't ever predict what someone else is going to do, nor can you shape your actions around what other people are doing. Eventually, you'll guess wrong, and the whole thing will come tumbling down, or you'll realize that your intense attention to their actions has diverted attention away from your own work.

So what worked? It was when I decided that I was going to be responsible for my own playing, and just let things happen. Note that I didn't just decide to let things happen entirely of their own volition. I made sure that I was doing my job, but, removed from that, I didn't try to influence or pay undue attention to any one thing. When I took a step back, I realized that the world of sound around me was amazing, and, when I learned to appreciate the chaos around me, everything fell into place. I experienced the piece in a whole new light than I had before. If we just all did our work to the best of our ability and then took a step back and observed the totality of experience around us, not trying to exert influence, but merely trying to exist in symbiosis, we would be able to appreciate so much more, AND we would achieve our goals, both personal and mutual. And, the best part of it is, we would get a whole new, fantastic perspective on the world around us.

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