From Nora Shulman, principal flute of the Toronto Symphony, I, as her flute student in high school, learned that sticking out your lower lip makes your sound sparkle. It was her approach that helped me perfect double tonguing, a technique used to articulate notes quickly (think the syllables tuh-kuh repeated over and over again) needed for such works as Saint Saens' Volière from Carnival of the Animals and Mendelssohn's Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream. As I wasn't born with a bionic tongue like flutist Michael Gordon of the Kansas City Symphony, who can single tongue (syllable tuh repeated) at the speed of light. It's kind of sexy (yes, I am jealous).
In her second floor studio at the Eastman School of Music, Bonita Boyd often squeezed a garbage can between her thighs to form an oval shape. Somehow — although none of her students have been able to decipher why — the imagery of the plastic container as a vocal cavity combined with a slight upward movement of the palm of her hand was all you needed when you were out of whack flutistically.
Hours of pounding the flute's low register followed during which you produced honking sounds akin to a raging fog horn in heat. It was a test of masculinity in defiance of the cylindrical metal instrument's cheeky stereotype. She taught us to be fearless.
Martha Aarons, of the Cleveland Orchestra at the time, bestowed upon her students superhuman breath control. I practiced lying in bed while parsing the natural tendencies of the body's organic movement while inhaling and exhaling. At the Aspen Music Festival and School, Nadine Asin emphasized the beauty of articulation. Not vibrating atop a phrase would be met with a judging glare — we knew better.
And Shepherd School of Music's Leone Buyse, who celebrated her 66th birthday on Thursday (she hasn't changed a bit in 10 years), drilled that nothing could be transcendent if it was out of tune, out of rhythm or played with an unfocused tone. I had to rehearse standing firmly against the wall; I revisited the way I held my flute.
I listened to Perlman with different intent, with naked ears.
On the path to becoming a professional musician, it's the experience of most students that the process can feel like a game of Jenga. You never knew when a slight adjustment that promised to heighten your playing could send a note tumbling down. Somewhere along the line you morphed into a scientist whose trial and error experiments documented the positive and negative effects on sound, breath, intonation, rhythm and technical dexterity.
There's no going back after you uncover the complexities of musicianship. When I listen to music, I can't help but resort to this type of taxonomy to appraise a performance, whether for review or for personal understanding.
It's not a choice for me; that's just how things are.
A recital to remember
Thursday night was an exception.
I wasn't planning on offering commentary on Itzhak Perlman's recital with pianist Rohan de Silva at Jones Hall, presented by Society for the Performing Arts (click here to read my interview with Perlman). How dare I talk about a man whose métier was part of daily life growing up? How could I attempt to contribute to the piles of articles already on record about his life and music? What, if anything, would I have to say? And who would care?
Mid concert, I figured it out. I wasn't thinking. And that was significant.
I wasn't paying attention to his opulent sound, intonation, wicked left hand technique, warm vibrato, flowing bow arm or his quirky facial expressions. I couldn't tell you if there were inconsistences. I couldn't tell you if his delivery was flawless.
It may have been a large hall for an intimate recital, yet his witty commentary and light hearted quips shifted this venue into a private salon, the kind where Heifetz may have offered his art to close family and friends.
From the onset of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major, I listened to Perlman with different intent, with naked ears.
Perlman, 68, presented himself as a metaphysical storyteller whose aesthetic, though rooted in a traditional segment of the genre, breaks free of its own milieu. His nuances take possession of your faculties, grab you by the hand, and off you gallivant to an alternate universe where art becomes the passageway to a familiar domain that may or may not exist. Whether real or imaginary, possible or impossible, one thing is for sure: You were elated to be there.
In that moment, the elements of music ceased to be the focus.
You hear laughter, surprise, jokes, explanations, questions, answers, trials, tribulations, joys, sorrows, cuteness and seriousness meshed in a non-linear allegory where minute subtleties evince meaning sometimes inexplicable with words, at other times vividly narrative and picturesque.
Call it poetry of sound, a tuneful painting or notes in motion — whatever metaphor best works for you. It's how, be it the triple meter or the teasing appogiaturas, one conjures up scenes of peasants merrily churning butter somewhere in the German Alps — not Italian — during the last movement of the Beethoven. It's why when César Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major's first movement theme returns in the Recitative-Fantasia, you feel as if the remembrance of an old romance coddles you with sunshine — briefly, fleetingly.
I supposed that's what happens when you live with a composition for more than 50 years.
It may have been a large hall for an intimate recital, yet his witty commentary and light hearted quips shifted this venue into a private salon, the kind where Heifetz may have offered his art to close family and friends. Fittingly, on the program were Tartini's Sonata in G Minor "Devil's Trill," Kreisler's Tempo di Minuetto in the Style of Pugnani, Wieniawski's Caprice in A Minor for two violins (the second violin score was performed by the piano), John Williams' Theme from Schindler's List and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor (arranged by Joachim).
In my old age, when I am bitter, senile and delusional, sitting in my front porch yelling at young'uns to get off my damn lawn, this recital will be imprinted in my vernacular as I recount a collection of life stories that begin with, in my good ole days . . .