Thursday, May 31, 2012

Finding the Sweet Spots

Finding the Sweet Spots

My very first flute teacher told me that every note on the flute was like an Oreo cookie.  It has to have the cream in the middle!   Right then and there, I took her advice to heart and have been searching for the sweet spot in every note, ever since.  As I’ve grown older, more educated and have learned so much about life and music, I find myself searching for the sweet spot in many ways.  In music, there are all kinds of sweet spots a performer must find, none more important than the other and all of them related.

Every practicing and performing flutist is on a journey to find their ideal sound.  Even those flutists that seem as if their tone was sent from heaven still learn new things about creating a beautiful sound every day.  Some days we feel as though our sound sings and other days it seems to fall, sometimes literally, flat.  Sometimes we are able to incorporate teacher advice and practice inspiration, other times we are scrambling just to play with a sound that is even somewhat similar to the ideal in our imagination. Finding, and especially keeping, the sweet spot in our tone, on every note, has everything to do with our practice routine, our listening skills, our inspiration level and our desire to find it. One way that has worked especially well for me is to create a sound sheet (see Sound Sheets on my blog).  Sort of like a message in a bottle to my future self, a sound sheet is a place to capture all the elements and pieces I discover that fit together to form a tone as beautiful as I crave it to be.  

Have you ever heard the musician’s joke, “Sometimes B sharp, never B flat, always B natural?”  Flutists on the journey to truly understand and master playing in tune with themselves and other musicians are constantly searching for a sweet spot.  A little above the sweet spot and the sound is a bit jarring, sort of like an alarm clock sounding when you’re not quite ready to wake up.  A little below the sweet spot and the sound is pitiful and droopy.  Ah, but when you find that sweet spot!  There might be nothing on earth as lovely as playing with another musician, your tones blended together in harmony.    

Skeptics might say that the only sweet spot for a rhythm is found when playing it accurately.  But what is accurate?  Sixteenth notes played exactly in time may not have the drive they need to convey their Agitato description.  A triplet played perfectly may seem square compared to the passion it could communicate.   Whether behind the beat for a jazzy melody, on top of the beat for a Sousa march or just exactly on time for a brilliantly executed passage, finding the sweet spot for a given rhythm is anything but predictable.   

Forget the editor’s tempo marking!  The sweet spot for any tempo of any piece has everything to do with what works on your instrument, your venue, your perspective and your vision for the mood and style of the performance.  A tempo right in the sweet spot for you is a blend of tradition, instruction, experimentation and spontaneity in the performance. Don’t believe me?  Just browse iTunes for your favorite classical piece.  Listen to five versions and you’ll find five different tempos, guaranteed.

Some musicians move a lot, others barely move at all.  An exquisite, tender slow movement can bring tears to the listener’s eyes whether a musician sways with the gestures or strikes an elegant pose.  A lively, sparkling Finale can quicken the hearts of the audience whether a flutist moves her body with the intensity of the passages or not.  The question of a sweet spot when it comes to movement has everything to do with personality and sincerity and very little to do with protocol.

In order for a performer to effortlessly bring together the language of the composer, the spirit of performance and the execution of the musical concepts, does that musician have to study, practice and perform for a lifetime first?  Absolutely not.  A seventh grade band student can find just such a sweet spot of understanding  if he practices with his ears open, his curiosity peaked and his technique fluid.  Great composers write pieces that everyone can connect with on some level.  One of the wonderful things about music is just how many sweet spots are available, at every level of understanding.  

Though all sweet spots are important and all sweet spots are related, connecting to a piece of music, especially in a performance, is perhaps the sweetest of all sweet spots.  Connecting with the essence of a piece, the true cream in the middle or gooey center of the music, is available to any musician who seeks it out.  One of the greatest gifts music can give us is connection to sound, to our audience and to ourselves.  It is more than worth all the practice, frustration, setbacks, and stumbles along the way.  Keep going, no matter what, until you find it.  Connecting with a great piece of music will always be sweeter than any Oreo ever could be.  Even the double stuffed ones :).