Friday, November 15, 2013

Music: Ride the Lizard, Valkyrie, Ride It!

Years ago, when I was working as a program assistant in the Chaplain’s Office at Johns Hopkins, we got word that a new gospel singer was in town. Would we audition her, see if we wanted to sponsor her in performance? The Chaplain passed that job to me.

So I arranged an audition. At the appointed time she arrived at Hopkins with her. She changed into performance dress – a billowing white gown – and took her place near the piano. Her accompanist started, she joined in, and seconds later I had made my decision. That is to say, I made my decision before she finished her first selection. I felt no need to hear more.

I really don't recall just how long it took me to decide. Let's say it was 30 seconds – though it might have been a little less, or somewhat more, but not much more. Of that time, I figure most of it was taken up by my left-brain figuring out what my right-brain had decided after, say, only 5 or 10 seconds.

What was it that I had decided so very quickly? That she was a VERY musical woman. Nothing more, and certainly, certainly nothing less. That is, I had assigned her to a very high level of competence, and that was all I needed to know in order to recommend that we present her – which we did. Just where she was within that upper league was irrelevant to my purpose. And, I suspect, that if I hadn't placed her in that league so quickly, I would have had her audition longer. She might have put herself in that league later on, and she might not have. If not, then I may well have had a much more difficult decision to make.


But what, you ask, has that to do with lizards and Valkyries?

The Valkyries are in this clip, a segment from a master class in which player Thomas Leyendecker, principal trombone with the Berlin Philharmonic, coaches Carson King-Fournier on Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.

King-Fournier is the one who plays first. He’s an excellent player, but his playing lacks “guts” and “soul”. Leyendecker tell him that in those terms, but that’s what he’s getting at. There’s the notes, the music, and the deep music, the soul. You don’t get into a master class like this unless you’ve got the notes and music down cold. This coaching is about soul.

If you read through the comments you’ll see come folks complaining that Leyendecker is too harsh with this kid. But really, he isn’t. I mean he almost would have been justified giving him a good kick in the pants, might have goosed the lizard brain into action more directly.

Which is what this is all about. Lizard brain is a metaphor that Paul MacLean developed in talking about the brain. It’s that evolutionarily old part of the brain that regulates motivation and emotion. When you’re angry, it’s the lizard brain that’s driving you, but also when you jump for joy, or when you cry in sadness, even when you smile.

Notice how easy it is to tell the difference between a real smile and an artificial one, a forced smile. We can force smiles at will, but real smiles happen spontaneously. The lizard doesn’t take orders from the mammalian brain, much less from the reason and the will.

That’s why King-Fournier is having such trouble producing the nuances Leyendecker wants from him. The notes and the music can be controlled by the mammalian brain. But there’s no direct way to get the lizard moving, and it’s the inner lizard that gives music its guts and soul.

So how do you prod the lizard brain into action? Beats me. But that’s why Leyendecker’s telling King-Fournier what’s going on in the opera at this point. And listen to his tone of voice; it’s not neutral. There’s emotional nuance in his Leyendecker’s voice, the kind of nuance he want to hear in King-Fournier’s playing.

So, we’ve got warriors on the battlefield, men are dying, blood’s flowing like the Ganges in a monsoon, and these big lusty women, in full battle armor, are riding around on massive horses, whooping and hollering, and they’re grabbing up fallen warriors and hauling them up to Valhalla. “What you played was much too nice. It’s absolutely not funny and it’s not beautiful. It’s very very bloody and I’m not talking about some drops of blood. They’re standing in the blood ‘till here [indicating a point half way up his shin]…” And then goes on to talk about the rider marches of the time, that is, marches intended to accompany or mimic men on horseback rather than on foot, and to evoke a sense of horseback riding.

Several times Leyendecker makes it clear that he’s not talking about playing louder or faster. What he’s after is something else. “More character.”

Hear when Leyendecker’s stomping his foot and snapping his fingers while King-Fournier’s playing (c. 10:05 or so)? He’s trying to light a little fire up under his ass, get him driving forward. Watch his body movement when he starts talking again. "

“It’s really evil. It’s Darth Vader evil. It’s really really bad what’s going on. And it’s still much too funny what you play. It has nothing to do with playing louder. It’s serious, it should be darker somehow.”

* * * * *

Now let’s take it back home: What about that gospel singer I auditioned many years ago? It’s simple, really. If she’d sung like this very excellent student is playing the trombone, she might not have gotten the gig. I would certainly have asked to hear a second and a third number. I wouldn’t have reached a negative decision after only one number. But I wouldn’t have reached a positive decision either. I’d have asked for more and the decision would have been harder to make. As it was, she sang like Leyendecker (played the trombone), and, remember, he’s the principal trombonist with the Berlin Philharmonic. One of the best in the world.

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