“When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.” – Yo Yo Ma
A few years ago I attended a cello concerto by Yo Yo Ma at Powell Hall in Saint Louis, Missouri. At the time I was studying classical guitar pretty seriously and was doing a lot of thinking about how old the music was that I was studying. Hearing and seeing Yo Yo Ma play that night was inspirational because it brought home a very real sense of timelessness. His program that night was made up of music from many different time periods, cultures and styles, yet the way he presented them made it seem as though they could have all been composed by the same composer in the same year, from the same place. I realized that he had the ability to find the essential human quality in each of the pieces he played and communicate that somehow in the way he expressed each and every note. This is testament both to the great cellist that he is and to the timelessness of the music he had chosen. His music made the time honored walls of Powell Hall ring out in sympathetic vibration with centuries of composers, performers and conductors who had gone before him.
It made me realize that when we practice music we should try to find what it is about the piece we are practicing that speaks across the generations. What is the basic, primal human feeling or emotion that the composer is trying to communicate with the composition? This can be done whether the piece was written five hundred years ago or five years ago. The impulse to create is a basic human urge and has been with us since the dawn of time. Styles may come and go, but the reason we practice has been the same all along.
We all know music fans who won’t listen to or admit to liking music that is more than a few years old. For this type of fan, music is more akin to a fashion statement than a timeless art. That’s okay. Everyone has their own reasons for being drawn to music. Those who see music as something more than disposable pop culture have no problem embracing it for its own sake and not just for whatever the latest, popular take is on it’s cultural significance.
If you choose classic material that has stood the test of time over many generations, you can dedicate your entire life to a piece and never worry that it will go out of style. This is one of the many benefits of studying classical music. The music has stood the test of time and has found a way to reach out and touch generation after generation of listeners. The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia once said about Bach’s Chacconne that “one should never attempt to perform it before the age of fifty.” That was how much respect he had for the demanding nature of the piece and the value of working an entire lifetime to perfect music that you love.
One of the biggest obstacles to mastering a piece of music is to get bored with it before it is fully synthesized and memorized. Usually it is not that the music itself is boring. Something inspired you to want to play it in the first place right? Most likely there is a technical hurdle that is keeping you from fully realizing the piece. Often times that technical hurdle is really just a failure to understand what effect the composer was trying to communicate. Instead of giving up, ask yourself, “why did the composer include this or that type of passage in this particular spot? What is the feeling they are trying to evoke? Why is it important to the piece? If you can connect with the intention of the composer you stand a much better chance at solving whatever technical problem you may have. Examine the parts of the song where you continually get frustrated or stuck and ask this question. By overcoming one small problem, you can transform a piece from being a source of stress and fear into perhaps being your signature musical statement.
In practical terms this all means that you need not feel compelled to always be practicing new things. If you truly enjoy a piece, practice it as often as you like and know that it will become better with age. Resist the feeling to give up on it or pass over it because it has been played so many times before by so many other artists. There is a reason it has been done so often. Besides, it is much better to know a few things very well than many things poorly. Choosing time-tested music need not be limited to classical music. Enough time has gone by since the dawn of blues, jazz, rock and country music that there is now plenty of material to include in the “classic” category.
Imagine that before you die, you will get the opportunity to play one concert for the world on your way out. Ask yourself what songs would be on your list and never stop working to perfect them. Choose music that you love and that expresses all the fun and adventure that drew you to music in the first place – regardless of when or where it was composed. Be true to what inspires you musically. If you do this you can be sure that you will never tire of practicing those same old songs. You may have played a particular piece a million times but remember, much of your audience may be hearing it for the first time ever.
I have learned to embrace older forms of music by recognizing that music does not come from, or exist in, a specific time or a specific place. Music transcends not only time a space but it also transcends any particular individual’s thoughts or emotions. Like a great novel, poem or painting, music reaches out across generations and communicates things about the nature of the human heart mind and soul. Ancient music reveals the imagination as it was then, and modern interpretation brings it back to life for us in the here and now. In the hands of a true artist, a musical statement can be just as relevant now as it was then. It can last for eternity; or at least for as long as there are those who wish to listen and to care.
“To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations – such is a pleasure beyond compare.” -Kenko Yoshida