I teach music as a profession, presently as middle school band director. Teaching ballads to young bands is pretty difficult, because it requires them to access a component of their musicianship that transcends the “little black dots on the page” (that would be the notes). Some directors skirt the issue altogether, but I believe that young players can play expressively if prompted properly (contrary to popular belief, middle schoolers do have emotions). For this particular piece, however, I have been struggling to give this emotion a name, or even try to describe it.
Currently, I am in San Antonio at the Texas Music Educator’s convention, and today I pondered this problem as I visited the exhibits. However, as I looked through the scheduled events, I saw that Ed Smith was doing a vibes demonstration. Now, I was fortunate to have had many great teachers during the course of my music studies, but Ed Smith has been a constant source of musical inspiration to me since I played in his Gamelan at UNT. From a purely musical standpoint, I never, ever, ever get tired of hearing him play. The truly inspiring thing about Ed is that he seems to be in a constant state of wonder about the world in which he lives. For me, this comes out clearly when he performs.
Anyway, I decided to go support him and he, predictably, blew my mind - especially with one of his original pieces. The piece was inspired by John Cage’s prepared piano work and the playful “Calder’s Circus” exhibit/performance. He placed beads, toys, and other objects on the vibraphone, playing with them by striking them or dragging them over the key, or striking the keys and allowing them to buzz as where they sat (there is no video of this one. If one turns up, I promise you will see it). As he played, the things he played with also played the instrument in their own way. The youthful exuberance of the performance really moved me, and as I listened and sort of choked up a little, the emotion that I feel when I hear “A Childhood Hymn” in my head came to have a name.
The feeling is best described as passionate, unconditional conviction – the kind of conviction you feel when you absolutely and completely have faith in something that cannot be empirically proven or when you believe in your heart that something is inarguably true.
Maybe it’s different for you, but that’s what seemed to make sense to me. Even from a practical standpoint. After today’s convention, I had the opportunity to play shakuhachi at the Austin Museum of Art. I intentionally tried to access this feeling during my performance and it seemed to open up new and musically gratifying ground. So thanks, Ed, for continuing to inspire me and, undoubtedly, many, many others.