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Learn Your Instrument, Not Just Pieces

I’m not a great cook. I try, I really do. Each week, as my wife and I are divvying up the dinner responsibilities, I rack my brain and revisit my bookmarked recipes in Safari in hopes of landing on something that maybe, just maybe, I can execute well enough to present to my family.

Believe me, my shortcomings in this area aren’t for lack of effort. I get the recipe. I study the directions. I prep the materials, making sure everything is ready to go so that I can grab and use at the appropriate time. I take a monumental breath and then jump in.

For me, executing the recipe (otherwise known as ‘cooking’ to normal people) is many times a full contact, sweaty sport. It ends up taking twice as long as the directions indicate, the kitchen is left an absolute disaster, and if anyone tries to talk to me during the process I become agitated, confused, and entirely ineffective.

You’d think I was performing open heart surgery, not just cooking fish tacos.

In the end, I present the meal — a perfectly well-intended, imperfectly executed mass of food objects that somewhat visually resemble the target recipe I saw online. And I wait, trembling internally, as my wife lifts the first forkful of food to her mouth, convinced that I’ve either used not nearly enough salt (almost always) or that the ‘doneness’ of the protein is highly suspect, and on and on and on.

Following the meal, I clean the dishes (this I CAN do well), hanging my head in varying degrees of defeat, pondering where I went wrong and frustrated with the process. I followed the recipe, the directions, I did what I was supposed to do. So why am I responsible for another domestic food outing gone wrong?

I am no cook.

Now rewind about 25 years. I’m a sophomore percussionist in my high school band program. I’ve got a little bit of talent and in the early stages of doing what we all do as musicians — I’m building my repertoire. In Texas, this would happen in a few predetermined ways. The first was via a collection of études we prepared every year for the All-State audition process. And the other, where we had a smidge more freedom, was the Texas State Solo and Ensemble Competition.

So I would get the piece (or pieces) and start preparing. If it was the All-State process, these were prescribed, so there was no choosing. If it was the solo competition, I was often drawn to pieces that someone older than me had previously played, that I thought were cool (or, more importantly, would make me look cool), and that nine times out of ten were too hard for me.

And sure, I suppose I would sometimes look through the piece, get a vague sense of the required ingredients, maybe have a listen to a recording or someone else playing it, and then embark on my own journey of learning. But if I’m being really honest, most of the time I probably just put the music on the stand, gave a look to measure number one, put my head down, and started cooking, er, playing. 

There were mountains of things I never realized during that process. I never realized whether I had fully developed that particular technique needed to execute that particularly challenging passage in the cadential moment of that particular phrase. I never realized that trills and ornaments actually have a ‘way’ or ‘ways’ that you can/should interpret them according the style and historical time period in which a piece of music was written. I never realized that dynamics might be relative to one another, that forte isn’t a universal mandate to blow someone’s face off. I never realized that my teachers’ urgings to ‘be more musical’ should amount to more than just an arbitrary riding of the volume knob, an up and down sea sickness-inducing musical gesture that I’m certain was my calling card for ‘musicality’ as a teenager. 

You see what I’m saying?

I didn’t realize the sauté pan wasn’t at the perfect temperature for the particular food I was sautéing. I didn’t realize that marinating times actually matter (1 hour does not equal 4 hours). I didn’t realize (and maybe still don’t) the supreme beauty of a perfectly salted and seasoned dish. And dammit, I definitely didn’t realize that the timing of putting the garlic in the pan is so unbelievably crucial and yet, to this day, I still burn the garlic. Every. Single. Time. 

You see, everything I do in the kitchen is done in a vacuum, completely devoid of context, with no knowledge of a bigger picture. I’ve never practiced sautéing onions and garlic for the sake of learning how to perfectly sauté onions and garlic. I’ve never practiced making a roux, over and over and over, because what the hell is a roux and why do I need to know how to make one?!? 

And yes, that was me in the practice room too. I was operating without the slightest awareness of the larger context I was hoping to inhabit. What was I trying to get better at? What exactly was the bigger picture? I had no clue. I wanted to be able to burn a piece at the suggested tempo (or faster, probably) and make All-State or make a ‘1’ at the solo competition. 

And I carried this approach with me into my undergraduate percussion studies. I was learning pieces, not learning my instrument. And those are two decidedly different things.

Here’s how I found out my approach was off. I was looking into grad programs and taking some lessons around the country. In one of my initial run-ins with Bob van Sice at Yale I played a rather challenging marimba piece that he had commissioned several years prior. I played it specifically because he had commissioned it and I wanted to impress him. So I practiced it a bunch, I followed the recipe, and I presented it to him. And just as I can see the disappointment on my wife’s face as she chews on a piece of food I’ve prepared for her, I swear I saw this same look on Bob’s face after I played for him. 

Now, I’m not sure of his exact response, but the memory of the quote and gist of his message was this:

“Todd, it’s surprising how well you’re playing that piece considering you have no idea how to play the marimba.” 

Dayum.

But he was right. 

I ended up studying with Bob for several years thereafter. Perhaps he fancied me a charity case or his heart was softened by the fact that the both of us grew up in Texas. Whatever the reason, he took me under his wing and we journeyed together through what was for me, some truly transformative learning.

Bob’s message was clear. Learn how to play the instrument, don’t just learn a bunch of pieces.

“Can you stand behind a marimba at a dinner party for an hour and entertain a room full of people?” he might ask. 

And in my head, I starting calculating the timings of my solo marimba repertoire. Well, let’s see, I could start off with Time for Marimba, that’s sub-10 minutes, then maybe I could play a little Bach. . . but I only know that 90-second Gigue, alright, better believe I’ll be repeating BOTH the A section and the B section, then maybe I could do some chorales, because those take a lot of time and I can maybe play them slower than normal, and ooooh, I’ll finish off with that new piece my composer friend is writing me, but again, I think that’s only 6 minutes long. So let’s see, add that all together, carry the 1, and hmmmm, shoot, it looks like I only have about 24 minutes of solo marimba repertoire I could piece together for that hypothetical dinner party Bob wants me to play. 

Oh Miyagi Sensei, how I missed the point! (And what sort of dinner party was this anyway, that I thought Time for Marimba would be an appropriate musical selection for the guests?) 

Bob was trying to Miyagi me into understanding something greater about the musical universe I was pathetically trying to inhabit and I was nothing but an immature Daniel-san. He was all “paint the fence, sand the floor” and I was all “when on God’s green earth are you actually going to teach me how to play Velocities???”

In the end, he didn’t teach me how to play Velocities, but he did teach me the beauty of context, the value of a good roux, and what a perfectly seasoned dish can taste like. He taught me how to play my instrument, and not just a list of pieces. 

Is your instrument an extension of who you are as a musician? A vehicle for saying exactly what you want to say, when you want to say it? Is it in the service of your musical voice? Or is it an adversary you’re attempting to conquer in performance? Is it a recipe list that you try to piece together time and time again every time you step on stage. Unfortunately, too many times it seems it’s the latter.

In a follow-up blog I will lay out several ways in which we can approach learning our instrument, understanding context, and keeping things under control in the kitchen.

Todd Meehan is the founder of Liquidrum. He currently serves as the Associate Professor of Percussion and Division Director of Instrumental Studies at the Baylor University School of Music. Todd has performed as one half of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo since 2006 and was a founding member of So Percussion.