Thursday, July 19, 2007


I had an odd experience today that allowed me to look at two possible paths that my musical world could take. I was sitting in a bookstore coffee shop with my family, and I noticed a man at the next table reading Fanfare magazine, and I saw that he had the American Record Guide sitting on his table. In the 14 years I have been writing reviews for the ARG I have never actually seen a person reading the magazine or seen a person outside of my own family with the magazine in hand (or on table, in this case). I guess I don't spend much time in bookstore coffee shops: the closest one is an hour's drive away.

Anyway, I had the sudden inappropriate urge to tell the man that I wrote reviews for the ARG, which I stifled immediately because I didn't want to compromise his enjoyment of being able to read things people had to say about recordings in a private way. Sticking my face into his experience, like the way a foreign object can mess up a scientific experiment, could make him look at the whole classical recording magazine thing differently. That's too much responsibility for me. Besides, what I write for the magazine is information to let readers know what a recording is all about and whether it is something they want to listen to or buy. My reviews are not about me. I don't see why a person interested in buying recordings would be interested in me unless that person were buying a recording of something that I wrote or a recording I was playing on. As a reviewer I am proud to remain a name (and only a last name) on a page.

I think that keeping up a high level of humility is key to surviving in both the musical world and in the world at large. I get a daily dose of humility every time I pick up my violin or my viola because I know what those instruments could (and should) sound like. I get a dose of humility every time I teach, because if a student is doing something wrong it is my business to point it out and tell the student how to fix it. If the student doesn't fix it the first time, I have to figure out another way to present the information so that it can be understood.

I also get a dose of humility every time I write a piece of music. I still consider anything that is successful to be the result of a mixture of circumstances: mostly luck, timing, experience, and having the courage to get rid of the notes that don't need to be in the piece. It's kind of like cooking: if I have good ingredients I have to be careful not to burn anything, use the wrong spices, or do things in the wrong order. It used to be easy to write music, but the more I write, the more difficult it becomes. As a composer I have no idea the "direction" that new music is going. I only have control over the direction a piece I am writing is going. If someone enjoys playing, singing, or listening to the music I write, I feel happy. If someone plays (or sings) something really well, I feel humbled.

I believe that inspiration, musical or otherwise, comes from humility. If I start thinking about success (and I have had some small successes) my ability to write seems to vanish. When that happens I am miserable until I get back on track, so I turn to composers I really admire. There are really a lot of great composers to turn to, but sometimes in my search for humility I meet my useless old "friend" intimidation, and I get into an even more difficult spot to write myself out of.

Music is a very long path, and being on that path, going in any direction, it is most rewarding when your traveling companion is a healthy dose of humility.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Odd that I too have been thinking about humility and writing a post about it, but now I'll just reread yours with pleasure. However, I suspect reviews are as much about the reviewer as what's under review. And I'm not convinced that inspiration derives from humility, though I'd like to believe so!