"Play me something!"
As almost any of my students would tell you, one of the things they inevitably experience at a first lesson with me is being called upon to, “Play me something!”
This is sometimes greeted with a rather puzzled look and perhaps a question. “Do you mean, like, a Rochut?” Others will proceed to take out and unfold a piece of music. But this is not really what I want. “Well, what do you want to hear?” they may ask politely. My answer? I want to hear anything you want to play!
“Play me something!” embodies one of my primary approaches to playing. Indeed, it is the essence of musicianship to be ready and able to play at least a snippet of music for a waiting listener. Whether a simple melody or song, a phrase or two from a sonata, a catchy tune heard on the radio recently, an improvised lick, a brief “up, down and around the horn” – if you are not ready to play a little something, why are you standing there holding a trombone?
You would be surprised at how many accomplished, sometimes even professional instrumentalists hesitate or even falter at this simple request to play something.
“Hmm, well now, I don’t actually have anything with me that would…”
“Let me go fetch a music stand.”
“I don’t have my reading glasses.”
Although many of these people are able to perform at a very high standard, and capable of playing some of the most difficult written passages for their instrument, they can be stymied by such a simple request. You don’t want to be like that.
Let me put a positive spin on it:
Imagine that someone you would really like to get to know – perhaps an attractive young lady or a handsome gentleman – happens across your path as you approach the practice room with your instrument.
“Oh! You play an instrument! What is it?”
“Why, I play the trombone.”
“Wow! I’ve never heard one. What does it sound like?”
So – there you are. What are you going to play? We can sure do better than a b-flat scale, right? Depending on the circumstance, I’d be careful about the Ride of the Valkyries!
Now, the whole story has more than one moral. As we see above, being ready to play something might be helpful some day. The confidence factor involved in being able to play something should also not be overlooked. Just think – even if the lights go out, you could keep playing! But seriously, knowing that you have a repertoire of things ready to go is a real confidence booster. Just imagine being able to play a variety of songs, knock out an etude or three, perform your standard excerpts – all by heart!
“By heart” – I like that term better than “by memory”.
Now, I would like to know what it is like to scroll through a photographic memory, but only the very fewest of us are blessed with this ability. Maybe it is like having your own teleprompter at your constant disposal. I don’t know. The rest of us rely on all of our senses when learning something by heart. And when you know it that way, you truly “own” the piece. It is yours; you have internalized it and are able to enhance it with your personal musicality when you play it. You are able to fully slip into, even personify the role.
There are different ways of memorizing things, and we all have our own tendencies in that area. I have known teachers that insist that you learn the piece away from the instrument. Others rely on almost countless repetitions. Personally, by the time I have practiced and prepared a piece I usually have it almost memorized already. That is what I call the osmosis process. A slight extra effort helps me to completely commit it to memory.
But – let’s now look at the whole thing from a different perspective.
“Play me something!”
How about a tune that you have known since you were a child? It could be a patriotic song, a children’s ditty, a cowboy song or similar.
“Well, I haven’t really memorized anything.”
Now I have you right where I want you.
Play it by ear!