I grew up a marching band and indoor drumline kid. Throughout high school the marching activities were the focal point of my life. When I applied to schools for my Bachelor’s degree, I remember all the teachers being impressed with my technical ability and the difficulty of music I could play. The issues that got overlooked were my lack of aural skills or music reading ability, the fact that I played no drumset, and could not produce a quality cymbal crash or tambourine roll, and most importantly, my inability to produce a coherent musical phrase. To me, playing marimba, specifically, was all about memorizing the notes as fast as possible, then ripping through the piece with all the intensity in the world. While this did harbor strong technique and performing ability, I was not even close to the complete musician I now strive so hard to be.
When I started music school I was still playing through tons of technical marimba repertoire in the same way, despite suggestions from my teacher to slow down and pay more attention to other aspects of my playing. My sophomore year, however, I arranged a lesson with a well-known percussionist whom, at the time, I very much looked up to. I was excited to meet him and show him what I could do. During the first half of the lesson I performed for him a portion of a very difficult piece I had been preparing and he offered very few suggestions on sticking changes and small technical issues. I was frustrated at the lack of valuable feedback I was receiving until near the end of the lesson, when he shook his head and said, “I am sorry if I’m not giving the best advice, but honestly, there just isn’t enough music here to really work with.”
Naturally I left the lesson with rather low spirits. I was dissatisfied with what I got out of the lesson until I returned home and actually listened to the recording I had made during it. He was right, my playing was literally just a bunch of really fast notes, and, while impressive, was not forming any sort of coherent musical thought. The music I was making was only enjoyable for me to play, but not for an audience to listen to. What’s the point of trying to be a solo performer when you are unable to produce something worth listening to?
The following summer I began work on my first “really hard” solo piece, Merlin, by Andrew Thomas. I vowed to myself I would slow down in my learning of the piece and make sure it was thorough and musical. I would methodically learn section by section using a metronome, putting careful thought into my phrasing and tempi, and how my playing would sound to an audience. It was difficult at times to keep that sort of focus, turning practice into hard work, but I kept at it the whole summer.
I performed the piece the following semester, and it was by far the best playing I had ever done. Since then I have never looked back, and these practice habits and mindset have stuck with me throughout my career, while my level of playing skyrocketed from where it once was. It no longer mattered that I could play a certain piece, but instead how I played it. Anyone can play Velocities, but how many people have the discipline and drive to craft a complete musical product for which one would pay to hear in concert? I want to be that person.
This change in mindset affected not only my learning of the notes, but my approach to music in general. I find it extremely important when forming musical ideas to identify harmonic and compositional structure in addition to the historical or emotional contexts in which a piece conceived. The most important part of the performance is not the notes one plays, but the outside knowledge and ideas that come through on stage. Everyone who performs Velocities plays the exact same pitches and rhythms, yet each performance is different. A primary duty of the performer should be to understand what exactly it is that make his or her performance “different,” and how one can utilize such knowledge to transform a good performance into an unbelievable one. I consider it an obligation to the audience to fully communicate my thoughts and feelings associated with a given piece during every single performance, without exception.
Having been an “upperclassman” in a percussion studio for several years now, this all resembles the sort of ideas I offer to younger students when they ask me for critique. My goal is to change “Listen! I can play this piece!” to “Listen to how I play this piece!” I consider this statement to be the single most important lesson I have learned in my musical growth: It’s not about THAT you can play; it’s about HOW you play.