Control or Abandon

I like what I don’t know. I just got on the Amtrak to San Juan Capistrano one Sunday because I just needed a trip. I feel free when travelling because what happens is not predetermined, therefore it can’t be wrong, or have been better or different. (I don’t do much research—therefore I don’t have expectations.)

I would wander until it was time to get back to the hostel. Only then did I pull out a map to see where I was and figured out how to get back to where I was staying.

In Paris, I found a local pub (or whatever they called it in France) and had a drink then went to find someplace to eat. In Lisbon, I was walking up a hill to the castle and smelled some really good food. I looked in the door and it was a mom & pop place where the locals ate. You ate what they had. I did and it was great! In Byron Bay, Australia I went to a swap meet to get a used wetsuit. Someone was selling avocados. “Do I know you?” she said. “Now you do!” I replied. After chatting a while, she invited me to stay with them for a few nights at their farm. In Oaxaca, on my way up to the mountains, I waited with a fellow traveler for the bus-driver’s friend to arrive before we could leave. With him, I watched a curandero, who’s day job was pushing an ice cream cart, cure a young girl by rolling an egg over her. I got to the mountain town when the office to my room was closed. I met two men that I had seen in the city Oaxaca. We said hello and they mentioned that the next day they were going to walk up a trail to a trout farm for lunch where you pick the live trout that you’d like to eat and would I like to join them? Of course! I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

I think the best story happened in New York City. On my way down to the Village where I was staying with a new friend, I missed my subway stop because I was looking at a Ravel string quartet score that I had just bought at Patelson’s. I walked up the stairs to street level and saw a bar that looked inviting. I opened the door and Telemann flute fantasies were playing. I took that as a sign and went to the bar and ordered a sherry. A man started talking to me about the music I was studying. When I told him I was a flutist, he asked me to come to his loft and play duets. I said I would but I didn’t have my flute on me. “Don’t worry, I have an extra Haynes flute. You can play that.” I had a great time and learned that he taught art in the schools. He gave me a record and I happily went back to my friend’s apartment. I told her, “I was invited to play duets and improvise with this great flutist. It was so much fun!” “Who is it?” she asked. “I don’t remember his name, but he gave me one of his albums. Let me see…Oh It’s Lloyd McNeill.” She about fainted. “I’ve been in town for years and have never got to play with him. You’re here for three days, and you do!” There are many more stories but that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about my love of not knowing and the wonderful things that happen because of it.

I could never be an orchestral flutist. There are so many great flutists and there is such a “standard” that one is compared against.

To be compared to an existing reference gets me anxious. I spend more time worrying about what I’m not doing “right” that I forget what I want to say.

I worry about my tone, intonation, if I miss a note. In an orchestra who do I tune to? The other wind players, the bass line, the violins, the person doubling my melody even if they are not in tune with the bass, the violins, the… Do I follow the conductor’s beat or how everyone else is interpreting the beat?

That is why I like improvising. What I am doing is only about what is happening now. It’s having a conversation. I don’t think about what someone else said or how is the best way to say it. What I say is determined by what is said before and with me.

If my intonation isn’t with another improviser, that’s a wonderful dissonance to play with. If I “miss a note” I can repeat that note and see what harmonic interplay develops. There is so much more room for the unexpected!

A certain amount of control is necessary to be able to adapt, problem solve, recover and have confidence to let go. The challenge with improvising is to be free enough to express ideas but not so controlled that I don’t have mistakes that take me somewhere unexpected. I cherish the mistakes and the paths they take down. Usually the unexpected happens when I am reaching for something just outside of my ability.

I love that! Then I know what I need to work on. I continually play written music so that I have a greater vocabulary when I improvise. I practice technique so that I have facility. And I travel so that I’m always faced with the unexpected.