Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part IV

It’s About Excellence

But Kurtz’s Practicing is quickly becoming an important way-station in journey that has caused me to question my earlier life-choice to bail on music. Discovering the tárogató was another as was the long-awaited acknowledgement from the music establishment in the form of a BC Arts Council grant, but Practicing condensed all these little positive experiences into a sense that I wasn’t the problem, and certainly music wasn’t the problem—in fact, there really is no problem that a little practising can’t solve. What I’d forgotten was just as music is a reward in itself (music has no goal other than to be music), my greatest satisfaction in being a musician was in the pursuit of excellence. Somehow that was skewed into the pursuit of perfection, but they’re utterly dissimilar. Where perfectionism is an unrelenting yet unattainable goal, pursuing excellence itself is the goal.

Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part III

…Continued from Part II

How do you return?

I was wrestling with the idea of playing music and (just like Kurtz) had the realisation that my playing back in the glory days hadn’t been especially great. The story I’d been telling myself was basically a victim one. I’d done everything I could and was cheated out of what I had deserved (there is a real story of deceit at an audition to prove it too)! But sitting there on the couch wrestling with the problem, I had a sudden dreadful thought. “What if I’m just mediocre?” I asked myself.

But as I listened, my heart sank. Rather than great potential lost to circumstance, I heard a harsh justice. The performance was not as good as I’d remembered. There were mistakes, of course. These were not what bothered me. Recordings accentuate finger slips. Few listners who aren’t also guitarists would hear them during the performance. The mistakes that bothered me now were botched prases, garbled lines that interfered with the music. There performance was full of musical ideas. But no piece was good from start finish.

Naturally, this deeply disturbed me although it was a fresh new thought. The next day, I took a look at that terrible question again and then asked myself “Now, do you still want to play music?” And like a rushing wind the answer “you bet I do” rushed through me. It turned out that the perfection I’d always aspired to was nothing but a chimera—the real goal was simply to play. In fact, to arrive is to die. It turns out that excellence is not a place (like a position in an orchestra), but it’s a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream—lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs. Is that time and effort, that talent and ambition, truly wasted?


Continued…

 

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part II

…Continued from Part I

When music breaks your heart

But now, I’ve read this book and realise that perhaps I’m not done. Or rather, I realise what it was that I was done with—and what it was was not music.

Concealed in all the careful tutelage of the conservatory system is an almost heartless contempt for the many who can never sustain such standards once they’ve graduated. This system is all about super stars and even more toxically, it’s about perfectionism and conformity. What isn’t destroyed by the conservatory system is put to the torch by the marketplace, which in my case was what I like to call the “Orchestral-Industrial Complex”.

In Kurtz’s Practicing, he once again reflects my journey back to music from the well-intentioned but highly destructive schooling that most musicians undergo. Like mine, his return isn’t a return to the audiences and certainly not the “music industry”, but to the soul of music itself. Practicing is about the musician’s journey back to his first love of music—the quasi-erotic sense of connection that is the essence of music.

As I play the theme of ‘Weeping Willow’ one last time, all my fantasies of success and all the flaws in my character rise again to the surface, my ambition and despair, concentrated in my fingertips. Each impulse, each need and doubt, clamours for expression, a little tyrant demanding its own way. And with each note these urgent demands collide with the limitations of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. It is the same thing every day, the same as it always was. Yet everything has changed.

Practicing reminds me of other times when I reconnected with that original love of music. Several years ago, I spent the summer playing only the recorder. The recorder has a primordial charm about it—it was the first instrument I played and the instrument on which I learn to read music. It’s also the instrument on which I first learned about Renaissance and other ancient music, and that’s what I spent the summer playing.

For a time, my road back to the clarinet only consisted of music that made me feel good. Instead of great works from the clarinet repertoire or, God forbid, scales, I play Danny Boy. 


More recently, a fusion has taken place as I have learned Danny Boy in all twelve major keys. Playing music and practising music are intimately connected.

Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part I

The pursuit of perfection

I have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing—A Musician’s Return to Music, a book I think should be added to the list of required reading for anyone seriously considering a career in music, or any vocation in which you give your ultimate all in the pursuit of perfection.

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better.

Kurtz describes a process parallel to my own (it even includes the classical musician’s obligatory pilgrimage to Viennawere we there within a year of each other?). He recounts the familiar stories of early promise, that music school optimism, the successes, the failures, and then the final and seemingly inevitable descent into musical oblivion. For Kurtz, a classical guitarist, graduation from music school meant a quick nosedive from the Elysian Fields of pure music into the sordid streets of making a living.

I was one of those orchestral players he mentions in his book (the ones who could look forward to a steady paycheque playing with an orchestra). And his take on it is partially true—I certaily held it that the only viable way to be a successful musician was to land an orchestral job. And I seemed off to a good start as after graduation, I landed a job as Principal Clarinet with the Prince George Symphony (a community orchestra with aspirations enough to hire several principal players). Two years later, I quit to follow five years of free-lancing with the Vancouver Symphony (the real deal except of course that I was but an extra).

I lasted only a little longer than Mr. Kurtz before I too lost heart. In my last truly professional year, I auditioned for the Edmonton Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Portland (Oregon) Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony managing to come in as semi-finalist with the Toronto Symphony and runner-up finalist with both the Edmonton Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic (in back-to-back auditions no less).

The following years were exceedingly dry for clarinet vacancies across Canada with nothing but a Windsor Symphony audition (it actually paid less than the Prince George Symphony) to keep hope alive. After crashing and burning on that one (spectacularly), I was done.

In fact, I would go on being done for several decades to come.


Continued…

Great work! What a powerful set of documents

“Yesterday in our working sessions with our inter-provincial customer, they complimented the product document suite. Not only are they starting to realise what a powerful set of documents it is for them, but they also said it presented a really professional image for our product — in fact, they asked if our actual product was as mature as we’re making it look. Great work!”
—Jon Chapman CEng PMP , Project Manager

The Tárogató Project – Wrapping It Up

If the Tárogató Project hadn’t wrapped up with the concert (30 April 2017), then it certainly did when I submitted the final report to BC Arts Council. Doing so reminded me of all the people and events that came together (and that never would have otherwise).

About the Tárogató Project

The Tárogató Project (aka “Building a uniquely British Columbian Repertoire for the Tárogató”) was intended to commission two BC composers to each write a seven-minute piece of music for tárogató, which would build on its contemporary concert repertoire while not losing sight of its traditional folk roots.

By tying the commissions with an historical event, the project achieved far wider interest than would have been possible with only the commissions. The historical event was the 60th Anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Vancouver, in particular about 200 faculty and students from the University of Sopron’s Faculty of Forestry. The alumni went on to have a significant impact on UBC, and forestry practices in British Columbia and the final concert was attended by several families descended from the original group.

The Project includes some notable artifacts

Listen to Arbutus by Jeffrey Ryan

Listen to I Will Stay Here by Adam Hills

Testimonials and letters: I received some importants letters of congratulations before and after the concert.

Also, I built a very cool new fingering chart for the tárogató, which is superior to anything I’ve been able to get my hands on. I offer it freely below.

Concert Programme

Big thanks to UBC’s Department of Forestry for helping to promote the concert and for coming on as a sponsor. Also, thanks to Vancity for providing some support with the concert itself. Their financial support helped St. Philip’s Church continue to offer such concerts without expending its music fund.

What I Learned

The entire process took a year and it carried with it its own joys and heartaches. I learned how hard it can be to work with musicians, many of whom function in some sort of off-the-grid pre-internet world, so arranging rehearsals was an extreme challenge. My 91-year-old mother is more reliable when it comes to responding to emails. On a brighter note, this project gave me something of great value to work at in music. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for excellence although time has worn of some of the downsides striving for excellence can bring. I understand my own perfectionist traits better and also my laziness. I’m learning on the one hand to chill out more, while on the other to quit wallowing and accept that some things require hard work to achieve.

 

The Boatman

I

It was an early morning yesterday;
I was up before the dawn.

I’d made a farewell to my father in the night,
and our farewell had the feel
that we’d not meet again.
I could have embarked with him,
but I chose to remain and let him go.
I was done
with hoping,
and waiting,
and instead I’d just come down to the ferry
to see him off.

I gave him a hug,
(but even that landed as a little perfunctory).
He seemed younger (he was a young man again),
but maybe it was I who was older.
The boatman was dressed as an Edwardian-era quartermaster.
The era was wrong. The error was mine.

II

And there was also a woman, my mother.
She had learned to fly
and was therefore suspected of witchcraft.
I knew the real story however.
After all those years chained to a wheelchair,
witchcraft was the last thing on her mind—
she just wanted to get away and be free.

Three men were tracking her as she made
her first attempts to fly.
I don’t know what they thought they’d accomplish following her—
perhaps they’d turn her into the authorities.
They waited too long though,
because all at once she gained full mastery of her powers
and flew up high into the night sky
and out over the sea illuminated
by the light of the moon,
the moon,
the moon,
she danced by the light of the moon…

Somewhere a muffled orchestra tuned up,
but my ear was preoccupied with a different earworm.

Like a ship without an anchor;
like a slave without a chain…

III

It’s funny how a thing can loop back on itself,
because I saw
far below
an outcropping of rocks in the sea
and as I descended,
a dock on which
my father boarded the last boat going somewhere.
Again I hugged him
for the last time;
Again it felt awkward.
For the last time.

As my father’s boat departed for its unknown destination,
my mother slipped along the top of the sky.
The moon hung limp in the darkness a moment
and then it too vanished.
I walked away from the dock.
“Now what?” I thought,
“They’re gone and I’m here”.

There’s a orchestra nearby
and I know
if I go there
I’ll be immersed in people,
and conversations,
and music of course,
and all the things of life.

Good-bye stranger,
And they danced by the light of the moon,
the moon,
the moon,
Good-bye friend,
and they danced,
will we ever,
by the light of the moon,
meet again?

Local Culture; local business

One of the most time consuming parts of producing a concert is getting the word out. When disbursing posters, the locally owned shops are better (because they get what local means); whereas, the megacorp emporia along the Cambie retail strip leave me negotiating with store greeters and those vacant McJob stares.

Also despite their large footprint, most megastores have no place for posting community and local events (although to their credit, Buy-Low Foods did offer to put a poster up in their employee lunchroom — so if I see a row of Philipino ladies at the concert, I’ll know my efforts were not in vain).

That’s why I have a special shoutout for Solly’s Bagelry for taking our concert poster after store hours and the great conversation we had about the tárogató and how Vancouver and the Hungarian Revolution overlapped and its importance to today’s refugees in Canada.

Everything Passes – Forgetting & Remembering

I have a habit of staring at Facebook just a little too long. I enjoy the jokes,and the concert updates, sometimes the politics, but eventually the full weight of the world’s woes overwhelms me. Take for example the story of how the Saint John City Council greenlighted the destruction of several historic wooden row houses, known locally as the “jellybean houses”.

Even Vancouver developers in their naked lust for property development opportunities would blanch at thought of knocking down such buildings (of course Vancouver’s historic stock barely pre-dates the 1940’s, where Saint John’s jellybean houses survived the Great Fire of 1877). So I’m mourning the loss of heritage and the passage of time.

That’s what I found so compelling about Mark Haney’s Omnis Temporalis performed last night at the Richmond Art GalleryOmnis Temporalis mulls over the transitory nature of life—everything passes—but in a very curious way.

By collaborating with graphic novelist, Seth (aka Gregory Gallant), Haney has set to music George Sprott 1894-1975, a graphic novella that follows the quasi-fictional life of television personality George Sprott.

Photo courtesy Seth

Set in a mid-sized mid-century Canadian city (here fictionalized as “Dominion City”) at a time when the bloom of post-war optimism was beginning to fade, the story maps out the last two weeks of George Sprott’s life, a descent into ignominy parallelling the decline of the city itself.

Photo courtesy Richmond Art Gallery

Photo courtesy Richmond Art Gallery

When I asked Haney how he sourced the music while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, he painted a vivid picture of the tiny medieval church along the route where he composed at sunset in the darkening church. What I was really looking for was “How do you conceive of such projects…and execute them?” Or put more crudely, “How did you get off of facebook and make art worthy of a packed hall?”

Photo courtesy Mark Haney

Haney is a thoughtful composer, but even with first-rate singers and musicians, it’s not the music that drives the show. I think about Orpheus’ journey and remember that—in a world so skilled at forgetting—the role of the artist is to make that descent and to come back with something. By drawing together a community and then sustaining the artistic vision over its long gestation period, Haney, Seth (and many others) takes us into our collective memories and then returns us a little richer than had we simply opted to forget.

jellybean-houses

Nerdy good times – a tárogatónist’s confessional

Nerdy-Good-Times

Quite apart from being unquestionably sexy and having a reputation as savvy trendsetters, musicians also have a nerdy side. When string players visit their favourite luthier to have their bows rehaired, they will talk with disturbingly fevered intensity about the relative merits of Appaloosa over Arabian horse hair required for the job. Pianists tie rubber bands to their fingers to increase dexterity, and are known to also have preferred rubber band manufacturers, about whom they argue on Internet forums. Of course, none are worse than oboists who have no social life whatsoever. How could they? They spend the greater part of their lives sealed up in basement cells shaving their reeds down to a microscopic fineness; then, emerge only to perform and complain about how much more work they need to do to achieve reed perfection. To a lesser degree, it’s the same for other woodwind players of reed instruments: As a rule, most reed players can’t tell a bad reed from a bad week.

By taking up the tárogató, I seem to have painted myself into a particularly arcane corner (even by musician standards), so it’s no surprise that I too find myself just as prone to the same sort of nerdy obsessiveness as what dogs players of other instruments. It was inevitable.

Studio

Working on Adam Hill’s “I Will Stay Here” for tárogató and electronics

When I commissioned my tárogató from Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, I was provided with a deluxe menu of options similar to what you might expect when purchasing a custom Tesla or investing in a teak plantation. I could choose the wood (cocobolo), the fingering system (I chose the German Albert system over the French Boehm only because I’d been playing a borrowed Albert system tárogató prior to investing in my own horn), and the mouthpiece style (I naturally chose one that would take a clarinet reed over one that took a soprano saxophone reed—there are no tárogató reeds).

My tárogató's birthplace - Budapest, Hungary

My tárogató’s birthplace – Toth & Tarsa, Budapest, Hungary

When my tárogató arrived, I was delirious with joy and didn’t mind some of its funky tuning (“hey, it’s a folk instrument!”) and its limited range (only two octaves compared with four on the clarinet). Gradually, however, that nerdy musician thinking started to peer into the room and make suggestions about how—if only I tweaked this or bought that—my playing would improve unstoppably.

All my neighbours are out of earshot of my practising, so it is to their good fortune that they missed out on the months of squawking that transpired as I attempted to extend the range of the instrument. While clarinettists can chose from a number of method books that contain vast anthologies of fingerings for every note on the clarinet (I have one such book with over forty fingers alone for the altissimo G#), the tárogatónist must contend with a miserable starter’s fingering chart displaying but one fingering per note. Working on the two new works I commissioned from Jeffrey Ryan and Adam Hill forced me to extremes, so thanks to them and a lot of aforementioned squawking, I have now amassed quite a handsome new chart of tárogató fingerings.

Tarogato-fingering-chart_Jason-Hall

Caution should be taken when attempting these fingerings as they have only been tested on the Albert system tárogató (nobody knows for sure what would happen on a Boehm system tárogató).

Just as tárogató reeds are not known to exist, tárogató mouthpieces are a rarity. You can’t just march into your local guitar and drums music store and demand to see their display of tárogató mouthpieces.

LOTR_tarogato

My tárogató came from Budapest with a pleasant sounding mouthpiece, but with nothing to compare it against, I really couldn’t be sure if it was good or not. My quest for a superior mouthpiece led me to Dr. Ed Pillinger of Middlesex, England.

Dr. Ed is a skilled craftsman who spends most of his days whittling away at custom clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. But every now and then, some tárogató-wielding colonial who’s heard he makes a good Stowasser copy, rings him up. I now have two “Pillingers”: one is pitched at about A445 (European pitch), whilst the other is pitched appropriately for North America at A440. The doctor and I had to find a cure in the latter one when the former one proved untunable and untenable with piano (or anybody on this side of the pond).

Pillinger-mouthpieces

Photographed on arrival (nothing makes social-media light up like the arrival of new tárogató mouthpieces).

With all this nerdiness now becoming a fixture in my life, I was instantly smitten when clarinettist François Houle let me try his new Ishimori Kodama II ligature (the thingy that holds the reed onto the mouthpiece). Smitten enough that I couldn’t be stopped until one of these babies was flying its way to me from Japan (of all places).

Ligature-instructions

Ishimori & Co. wins “World’s Shortest User Guide” award for 2017.

All of these marvels together has done much to strengthen the tuning of the instrument (no more excuses) and improve my confidence in the upper register. I’ve yet to start affixing tape into tone holes, a laborious practice to coax individual notes into pitch by adding successive layers of electrician’s tape (or as I’ve recently learned, “Kapton tape” available at any fine purveyor of model train accessories). Tone-hole taping will undoubtedly commence once all the new equipment has had time to settle in.

Tarogato-setup

A marvel to behold – New Pillinger mouthpiece with even newer Ishimori ligature.

So if ever you have romantic thoughts of the life of a musician as some care-free communion with the muse, think again: Musicians are about the nerdiest people you’ll ever meet.


Jason plays a custom Albert-system cocobolo tárogató made by Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, Hungary, a replica Stowasser mouthpiece by Pillinger Mouthpieces of Middlesex, UK, a Kodama II ligature by Ishimori Wind Instruments of Tokyo, Japan, and Légère Signature synthetic reeds formulated by Guy Légère of Montréal, Canada.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada