by Richard Birk
(May 27, 2020)
(Things I’ve Known But Sadly Took For Granted and The New Discoveries I’m Making)
My musical mission statement for years has been “I want to make good music with good musicians.” But…I NEED OTHERS TO MAKE MUSIC! I’m a trombone player, bass player, conductor, and composer. Without others to help me make music, I’m pretty worthless.
Let’s break it down.
Trombone (as well as every brass instrument) is a harsh musical mistress. Without the everyday diligence of putting the mouthpiece to your lips, the physical fitness required to play instantly disappears. I’ve been willing to put in that daily grind for years because of the regular reward of getting to make music in an ensemble. (And wanting to avoid the pain and embarrassment of being out of shape when playing in an ensemble.) COVID-19 has shelved ensembles – temporarily I hope but the end is still somewhere in the distance – so it has been a struggle to muster the motivation to maintain the daily trombone grind. I still practice (a little) most days but it is far from inspired and productive. Also let’s face facts, nobody wants to hear solo, unaccompanied trombone. The novelty of a beautiful melody fades pretty quickly when there is no other sonic relief.
And if solo trombone isn’t sad enough, then there’s the tragicomedy of solo bass. The importance of bass in an ensemble couldn’t be more opposite of its insignificance as a lone voice. NOBODY wants to hear just the bass part of ANY song and that includes all of us bassists. ‘Nuff said about that.
As unrewarding as it might be, at least with trombone and bass I can make some music by myself. As a conductor, all I’m making these days is silence. 1 conductor x 0 musicians = 0 music. Talk about worthless without others…..
Well what about the inherently lone venture of composing? I do have time and I could (should!) be creating new works to share with the world. Aye, but there’s the rub…. Without others transforming those notational symbols on paper into living and breathing sounds, all I have is the soulless machine rendering of a computer. Not particularly inspiring or motivating for this someone in his isolation funk.
Contrary to the above whining, I haven’t given up on making music. I am investing my musical energy into the piano. I have been obsessed with the piano for a few years now but making time for it was a challenge….and Lord knows playing the piano takes time! Let me be clear, I suck as a pianist…but the good news is my piano goals are modest (e.g. church hymns and jazz standards). I’m slowly (and I mean SLOWLY) getting better*. When I sit down at the piano all by my lonesome, I can make melody, harmony, and rhythm (okay, it’s slow rhythm). But oh my, the harmony! Lush, thick, crunchy, spicy, transparent, stark HARMONY! This single line playing trombonist and bassist just sits and wallows in all these lusciously different flavors of chords. I’m discovering that the simplest voicings are glorious while at the same time the secrets of the universe are contained in some dense jazz chords.
I’m loving playing the piano but I miss making music with others. And I miss making music FOR others. Music is about human connection. So many of my dearest friendships have been forged through shared music making. There is an inexplicable but powerful bond that occurs when music is created together. I have been overwhelmingly blessed to have lived out my musical mission thus far in my life of making so much good music with so many good musicians. It’s all these fond musical memories that make my heart ache for more chances to recapture and share this joy of making music.
I close with a prayer of thanks and a prayer of hope:
Thank you God for all the musical experiences and human connections with which you have blessed me. I am truly humbled by the abundance of these rich blessings. And I pray that You prepare my mind, body, and spirit to honor, value, savor, and cherish whatever future music making you have in store for me.
*I recently read and highly recommend the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. It explains the processes involved in acquiring skill and why it’s so challenging to become skilled at something new after the age of 50.