Sunday, May 15, 2005

Speaking of Speaking in Tongues

Scene I: The hairstylist stopped snipping, shifted her weight to one hip, and looked at me in the mirror, "Conductors, huh? What's up with them? They don't really do anything, right? I mean, I've gone to concerts and thought, 'wow, the conductor has the easiest job!' They just sort of stand there flapping. And they don't even have to practice, right? They must have so much free time compared to the musicians." I smiled and tried to sound as if I were somehow agreeing with her, "Well, they do try to get everyone to see the big picture. There are the musicians, of course, and then audience; they actually have a lot of people to worry about." (Yes that's it, Heather, expand on her definition but elicit some sympathy; everyone can relate to the challenges of being "worried" and stressed-out.)

Scene II: At choir practice, while working on a portion of Handel's Messiah, the director attempts to correct our sluggish dotted-eighth, sixteenth note figures. He instructs, "What you need to do here, chorus, is a practice of double-dotting. It might sound funny to you--very extreme--but in the end the rhythm is perfectly placed. Nothing sounds like a sloppy triplet when you double dot." Curious stares. Skeptical eyebrows. Blank faces. A brave question, "Wait. So how long exactly do you count a double dot? Is that 'one-two-and-ah-ah' or..." The director and I look at each other, amused, perplexed. To us, the solution requires no further discussion. "Just...double dot. Hold the first note longer." He sings alternately some drunken triplets and hyper-caffeinated sixteenths so that the distinction is clear. The chorus seems unconvinced. The director isn't sure what else to say, "Trust me."

Moral: It is so easy for the career musician to forget that the musical language encompasses more than what might be learned from a wild weekend with the first three volumes of Practical Theory. The mastery of that technical language is one thing; a familiar sense for the whole world of music--a fluency--is another. Recently, a groupie at a rock concert reminded me that my worldview is not a shared worldview. Her bright voice emerged from the fuzzy neon-pink tendrils of a wild wookie jacket, "YoYo Ma? Oh, now what does he do?" "Ah, well, know, he's kind of...he plays cello." "Oh really! Wow! You know I'm looking for a cellist for my band! Let me give you my card." It's good to be pushed from my pedestal, to see the layperson's perspective. Music is a foreign language, an easy one to "put on" but a difficult one to speak well, for a thorough comprehension demands appreciating and understanding certain nuances, from the characters and players to their shoptalk of instrument repair and venue etiquette. For those of us used to this particularly music-laced vernacular, it is good to speak in a "common" tongue...every once in a while.


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