I spend a lot of time with any piece of music I am preparing, as do all musicians. If I’m learning, say, a Beethoven sonata, you can bet that I will be spending many more hours with it in a week than with any single human being. These hours are solitary, introspective, emotional, intimate. Therefore, a piece of music that I commit to becomes the object of an ever-evolving and fluid, sometimes mercurial, relationship. I’m often amused by how much these relationships are like romantic relationships.
Sometimes, I sight read through a piece of music and think, “Wow, I never want to see THAT ever again.” [akin to swiping left on Tinder]...
There’s the first-dates stage, where every single newly noticed detail in the music is fresh and exciting. There’s also a lot of mystery and anticipation here. [Wow this seems perfect! What could possibly go wrong, it's all unicorns and butterflies!] And then the further into the relationship, the more complex and rich the relationship becomes. It also becomes a lot more problematic, of course, but coming up with creative solutions is half the game.
There are those relationships that I stick with for a few months longer than I probably should have, for the sake of the challenge. I exit those relationships knowing that although the time I invested is a sunk cost, I’ve come out learning something new about myself and about music. And who knows, maybe I’ll come back to the piece in the future and it will work out better.
And then there are the keepers.
There are those I have known for years and years. Those that have taught me so much, that I have struggled with on epic scales and still could never leave, for the payoff was greater than I could’ve imagined. Every time I come back to such a partner and face it again after a few months or few years of absence, I find that I still have much to learn about it and myself, that there’s so much room for growth. But it’s this process that means everything, not the final outcome. And regardless of the challenges and struggles, it’s an abundantly joyful process.
“I thought I knew you” is a sentiment that often runs through my mind. When I go on stage and the piece catches my breath with vivacity and beauty I’d never experienced before. Or when I get a little too comfortable, going on stage with a piece I thought I knew inside out, but it ends up playing tricks with my mind and it all goes to hell. Or hearing someone else play the same piece and feeling a little shocked and jealous at how differently it’s behaving in different company.
I recently was lucky enough to be introduced to Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings (Thanks, Luke!). One of his points that has stuck with me is that all relationships are based on images that you have created in your mind. These images are based on memories and the past, and are never current. They act as barriers between you and the object of the relationship, keeping you from seeing and experiencing the other in the present.
I’ve been trying to keep this in my consciousness while I go about my daily life. If someone’s actions frustrate me or strike me as uncharacteristic, I remind myself that this is because I’m holding them up to my expectations based on my memory of their past selves, and that it is not fair to hold them to such frivolous standards. I hope that this awareness will make me more open hearted and receptive to others’ imperfections. In times of conflict, it helps me to keep in mind that I am probably as much of the problem as they are.
It is the same for any piece of music. When we go on stage, we aim to play a piece as if we are discovering it for the same time - this is what we’re always taught, and this is what we want so badly to be able to execute on command. But this attitude is sometimes more difficult to execute depending on an endless set of factors. Keeping Krishnamurti’s lesson in mind puts a different spin on this goal - what we knew about a piece of music is simply an image of the past, and does not exist in the present. This is true, of course, because music is temporal. Your experience of a piece of music yesterday, even if it’s of a recording, will be different from how you will experience the same recording today, because you are no longer the same, and the world around is no longer the same.