Month: October 2009

Putting the Play Back into Playing Music

I’m writing this blog today from the great room at Bjorklunden, Lawrence’s northern retreat lodge. It is 7:00 AM and the sun is rising over Lake Michigan. The day is glorious and I am looking forward to it with great anticipation. It is the final day of our Low Brass/Composers retreat, and I’m not sure exactly what will happen, but I know it will be interesting, joyful and inspiration. Why? Well, because Stuart Dempster is here! For the last four days, Stuart Dempster, trombonist, didjeridu player, composer, sound gatherer, master musician, and inspirational teacher, has been on campus and at Bjorklunden, doing what he does best: putting the “play” back into playing music. It is a lesson that can benefit every musician from the new beginner to the seasoned veteran.

Stuart helps remind all of us how musicians are a lucky lot. Who else gets to “play” what they do in life? A scientist doesn’t play and experiment. A lawyer doesn’t play a case. A teacher doesn’t play a lesson. But we musicians get to head out to the Conservatory and play, play, play! What an amazing thought. How lucky we are. But few of us actually approach our art with this attitude. Instead of playing with music, we play against music; doing our best to try to beat our poor instruments into submission as we try to conquer one particularly hard passage or another. When we perform, the audience can seem like the worst critics, just waiting for us to mess up. So we withdraw on stage.Buried in our music, we focus on technical perfection, just hoping we can get through the piece without a disaster. At this point playing music becomes anything but “playing” music!

Stuart reminds us all that not only do we have to put the play back into music, but we also need to put the play back into every aspect of our lives. Stuart has been my mentor, friend, and musical collaborator for the past 19 years and I can say without hesitation that Stuart plays life. His lesson is simple, but it is amazing how quickly all of us can forget about infusing what we do with joy and playfulness. I think that often we musicians equate playfulness with a lack of respect for our art; that somehow opening our minds to the wonder and joy of music inevitably means we aren’t serious about our ever-so-serious art. All week Stuart has been showing us that this absolutely doesn’t have to be the case at all.

He has shown us that technical prowess, stellar musicianship, and hard work do not have to exist separately from wonder, joy and play. The concepts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that for musicians to reach true greatness, they need to figure out a way to integrate that play into even the most difficult practice session; the trickiest passages; the most daunting high note. Stuart is a seriously playful musician. Stuart is a playfully serious musician.

In his performances there is not one second of doubt that he embraces and welcomes his audience. As soon as he walks on stage the performance is a collaboration: Stuart sharing his musical vision with the audience, the audience sharing their energy and support with Stuart. This cycle has an amazing ability to lift the performer and audience to new heights of musical experience. In his recital Thursday night, we all witnessed this amazing phenomenon. There were ten wonder-filled pieces on the program, but I’ll focus on just one. A musical dialogue developed between Stuart on trombone and Lee Tomboulian on accordion that developed into a theatrical masterpiece. As the music flowed back and forth the two musicians stood up and began a musical fencing match that had both men literally chasing each other around the stage! The music never stopped, the audience energy levels rose. By the end, Lee was motionless on the floor and Stuart was towering above the stage balanced on a chair. The standing ovation was immediate and prolonged!

So was this just an example of meaningless comedy that whipped the audience into a frenzy but had little deeper merit? Absolutely not! The audience that night witnessed a true musical dialogue between master musicians. Unscripted, unplanned, unrehearsed, and energized by the audience, “Play” took over and reminded us all what we too often forget, that play is at the very heart of what we do, and we need to honor and embrace the joyful, playful, wonderful side of our art. Thanks Stuart for reminding us of what deep down we already knew. May your lesson resonate in our Conservatory for decades to come. Many thanks Stuart!

Submitted on 10/10/09 from Bjorklunden

By Brian Pertl, Dean, Lawrence Conservatory of Music.