Someone once told me that you couldn’t get grant money just to have fun. I’ve had to move beyond describing TACO as “fun” and actually describe what we do that is musically, intellectually and emotionally important.
I know deeply there is enormous value in what we do by gathering to play music for the joy of making it together. I call that “fun!” I have struggled to define what is so important to me about that process.
It’s easier to say what we don’t do and why. We don’t practice to perform. We don’t meet weekly. We don’t work our music over with a fine toothcomb. There is value in that process too, working on music with in-depth understanding and detail to play the best you can, and to eventually share it with an audience.
On the other hand, TACO meets monthly, we play a lot of music, and we have a new set-list each time. Why do we do it?
There’s the obvious social support and networking, learning to play with an ensemble, playing with family members, keeping up your instrument at least once a month, playing a second or third instrument, and more. But what’s the value in sight-reading versus performing?
Sight-reading is a musical and technical skill that takes time and effort to master with lots of benefits. You learn to decode a piece of music on the spot, going through the challenging mental process and translating that to a physical one.
You start with the composer and placement in history, which gives you hints about sound and style. You make note of the time signature and key signature, looking at the overall structure of the piece. You check for repeated patterns, in melody and harmony, looking for scales or arpeggios, paying attention to note values and patterns in the music.
You find rhythmic problem areas and have to work them out mathematically, subdividing, in your head and body before you can play them. You are always on the look out for changes in speed, volume, and accidentals where individual notes change from the key signature.
You have to breathe and stay relaxed, brush off mistakes, stay focused and stay on tempo. With the orchestra especially, deep in concentration, you have to keep going when you make a mistake, sometimes drop out, follow along, count, find a place to join again, get back on board.
Sight-reading orchestral music is something you can only do with a lot of people playing a lot of instruments in a big space. It’s a hard, challenging mind and body game, satisfying when it all comes together, and very gratifying when you’ve stayed in the game! It is a practice in mindfulness followed by exhilaration. And, it is pure fun!