Friday, October 8, 2010

Authority Vs. Creativity

All my best learning has stemmed from sharply negative experiences. But isn't that always how it works? People whose autos never break down never learn about cars. Those who've spent hours troubleshooting computer disasters and nursing broken hearts come away knowing far more about computers and love than those who've sailed right through.

But the apparently smooth sailors hit snags of their own. We all do. Whoever you are, life is nonstop friction, offering a
choice between relaxing into it all, come what may, or recoiling in anxiety. Whichever you choose, friction will surely find you, so you may as well accept and learn!

This week I had illuminated, as if with a precise laser beam, the crux of much of the friction I've encountered in this world. I can't say it was pleasant, but the resultant "Eureka" will help me transcend this particular recurring source of pain and frustration in the second half of my life.

I've been playing with a few bluegrass string bands. Now, a bluegrass band needs a trombone like a fish needs a waffle maker. But I don't really consider myself a trombonist. Instead, I'm a wannabe singer who can only perform by holding an unwieldy metal contraption up to my face. That's what a trombone is to me: a prosthetic. I don't walk into musical situations thinking like a trombonist; I just aim to boost and elevate the musicians around me with my mechanically-assisted singing. It's spontaneous and unambitious, but sometimes results can be magical.

It's been working well. I play softly and sparingly, with an almost prayerful attitude, calling no attention to myself, but letting flow whatever seems to be called for. Fresh new strategies bubble up for fitting my odd cog into bluegrass music via inventive new angles. I paint with a note or two here or there, or I wield pregnant silence. And when I solo, it's brief and there's no intent to impress. It all feels infinitely more musical than in the old days, when I had a big stake in how people perceived me. And I come and go as I please, because I'm just sitting in. I pack up when I get tired of hearing a trombone - which is thankfully always before the musicians or audiences grow tired of it. The players are always glad to see me (more so, in fact, than back in the days when I strived for esteem).

But as I've said a number of times here on this Slog, stuff has a way of sneaking up on you. That damned Snake can entice even the most ingenuous Eve.

A few weeks ago, a bluegrass musician who'd heard me in some gin mill invited me to play a big concert with his group. The concert's guest artist would be a musical hero of mine, and the fellow told me he'd be honored to have me. I got excited.

At this point, since you're probably not a musician, I'll switch to metaphor.

Let's say one night you've blundered into an all-Korean party with no English spoken. Mustering creativity and charisma, you manage to fit in beautifully. You make friends, have a great time, and, most surprising of all, you find you've made the party better; everyone leaves exuberant. Let's say you then start getting invited to other Korean parties, where you somehow repeat these results. You're delighted and amused by your unexpected role as a sought-after Korean partygoer.

Then let's say someone offers to pay you to attend a really important Korean party. And he calls a few days beforehand to say:

"Some of the party-goers are uneasy about having a non-Korean there. I'm sure you'll be just great, but would you mind if we talked through things, so I can convince them to give this a try? Ok, first, don't talk too much for the first half of the night. We want to introduce you to the party gradually. And don't mention Korean food or sports or music. Maybe could you recite some limericks when I point at you? And remember how at last week's party you threw the grapes up in the air and they landed in your mouth? That was great, please do that when my wife comes in. And go sit in the kitchen between ten and eleven, because we want to discuss purely Korean matters at that point. And, just in general, speak softly, because no one likes a loud American. And don't stand near the window. And don't talk when Mr. Kim talks. And we're so happy you're coming; we can't wait! It's going to be awesome!!!"

And then at the rehearsal for the party (yes, I realize the metaphor's breaking down), let's say he keeps signalling "Not now!" each time you started to interact, and "Ok, GO!" each time your instincts told you to hold back.

Let me ask you: would you be able to create any magic at all?


Dave said...


joshi said...

good grief. you'd think a bluegrass ensemble would KILL for a non-assertive trombonist honeying things up. you can't command that.

and on the trombone-as-prosthetic: in indian classical music, the highest achievement is to be a singer - a sitarist, for example, would probably have to wait for re-incarnation before getting there.

Jim Leff said...

"you'd think a bluegrass ensemble would KILL for a non-assertive trombonist honeying things up."

No, no....the leader was genuinely, sincerely, excited to have me, and appreciative of what he'd heard me do. But the essential thing is, just as I referred to my "temptation", he was done in by the same.

I should have bolted right after I'd heard that preamble....and never should have gotten excited about the big gig, the big star, the big everything. It was the trap of "trying to DO something with this", and it's a trap I've fallen into time and again. Better to concentrate on beauty, and remain oblivious to all the other

The bandleader, by contrast, fell into the trap of feeling like this was a really IMPORTANT gig, and therefore the situation called for tight control. And you'd have felt and done the same. Do you really think you're cool enough that, in a career make/break moment, you could be all spontaneous and loosey/goosey?

Me? I'm intentionally avoiding such moments. I just want to play thoughtful notes. Though sometimes I get caught a little, as I did here. It was just the slightest bit of grasping on my part, but the universe, exasperated by having to teach me the same frigging lesson multiple times, is lately on hair-trigger.

"in indian classical music, the highest achievement is to be a singer - a sitarist, for example, would probably have to wait for re-incarnation before getting there."

Yeah. But, of course, the reason we're all still reincarnating (i.e. mucking around in this never-ending dream) is that we're thinking in terms of achievement, and trying to "work up the ladder". You can get rich or laid like that, but you certainly can't get off the treadmill!

Looking, to just a teensy degree, for "achievement" is what caused this particular knee to the groin for me........and, to a much less subtle degree, for the bandleader (who certainly didn't get the desired result).

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