The Augmented Fifth – 1/10/2019
Thursday, January 10, 2019
The Art of Losing Your Self by Melissa Ngan
Early this morning, in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, a third grader with a big smile and a hot pink flower in her hair (it was her birthday) asked me, “What inspired you to start playing the flute?”
Each of us has our own “creation” story about how we started on our instrument of choice. Perhaps it was a popular friend who played the piano, so you started studying to be just like her. Or, it was a performance you experienced live, on TV, or on a recording that made you say, “WOW – I want to be able to do that!” Or maybe, as with some of my younger students, the answer is a sullen, “My mom made me do it.”
To me, the interesting part comes not in where we start, but in why we commit. Somewhere between when we are inspired to begin our practice and when we reach professional status, the process of improving as a musician can start to become an achievement-based, strategic trajectory composed of chair placements, auditions, summer festivals, competitions, conservatories, and generally playing higher/faster/louder than the next guy. There’s a system, a path
in place for training the next solo or orchestral superstar, and we run up those steps as fast as we can in the hope of achieving our goals. I highlight those words because they are important.
In high school and college, I was completely consumed with the desire to excel on my instrument through achievement. This week, I’m going to challenge my way up to first chair. This semester, I’m going to audition my way into the top group. Next year, I’m going to get into the conservatory of my dreams. In four years, I’m beating everyone else out for that orchestra job. Me. Mine. Gimme!
When I think back to this time in my life, I realize that my primary motivation for bettering myself was fear. I would be afraid of getting yelled at in a lesson, of a conductor ripping me apart, of being seen as the weakest player in my studio, of losing the competition, and of ultimately being one of those sad souls that “doesn’t make it” as a musician and has to go work at a desk. As a result, I was a wreck. I suffered from tendonitis, requiring weeks away from my instrument. I was physically ill for a week before every recital. I couldn’t eat on the day of any major audition. I questioned whether I wanted to continue as a flutist, mostly because I was convinced I’d never be good enough.
And then, I left school.
Despite my generalized state of panic, I did win an audition to land in Chicago as part of the Civic Orchestra. We performed glitzy concerts at Symphony Center playing wonderful music with some of the world’s leading conductors. At the same time, I also volunteered to participate in the organization’s MusiCorps program. Through this, I coached youth orchestra sections and performed chamber music in intimate, non-traditional spaces throughout the city.
During one of these chamber concerts, for the first time I took a moment to look at the audience. Until that point, the thought of doing that would have terrified me. What I saw was a room of people who were engaged: listening, smiling, closing their eyes, moving or still, but overwhelmingly hanging on every note.
Something had changed. I was no longer in the bubble of my musical peers and teachers. This was the real world.
In that moment, I began to realize the beginnings of what it means to play music, and what my real purpose is in this larger space, outside of the training zone. Music is a gift. I don’t mean a gift as in a talent, I mean a gift – the kind you give to someone else with both palms open. As we consider what it means to be a classical musician in a changing world, and the skills necessary to re-imagine the traditional model of professional success, I would argue that one of the most essential lessons that today’s artists must learn is the most simple, yet the most contrary to the process that gets us here.
In short, lose your Self.
As a flutist, this means that I practice to perfection for the benefit of my audiences, who have given their valuable time and money to be with me. They deserve to hear the music flow straight through me with the freedom that only comes with impeccable preparation, not to hear my anxieties about whether I’ll nail a difficult passage. I practice for my colleagues, who deserve the pleasure of coming to rehearsal with a partner who is ready to explore musical ideas, not one who needs to be taught the basics of her part.
As an entrepreneur, this means that I have a hand in crafting concert experiences and educational programs that are audience-centric. In Fifth House Ensemble, I’ve built an organization that listens to the needs of its audience and community, builds partnerships with artists of all types, and produces the kinds of concert experiences that truly do bring classical music newbies into the fold. We invite audiences inside the creative process, enlisting their help in telling stories for our programs, or tweeting responses during a show. We build educational programs that support teachers’ goals while empowering students to listen, create, and perform. We serve.
While these activities might be done in service of others, the benefits to me are immeasurable. Whereas before I was afraid, now I am fulfilled. I am inspired by the children we see each week, and by the audience members who share the reasons they love Fifth House with us after each show. On the practical side, failing economy be damned, I haven’t gone hungry a single day in the last 10 years of my professional life operating this way.
So what does it take to build a career in music? Do what you love, in service of others. The greatest success can be found in the intersection between what fulfills you the most as an artist and what serves the needs of those who experience your art. Reach inside yourself to find the former, take the time to listen to discover the latter.
Ten years ago, I would have considered a photo shot like this to denote success:
Today, one of my favorite performance shots of all time looks like this:
A room of kids with no musical training, listening to a piece for the first time and showing with arm motions that they understand which instrument has the melody as it passes through the ensemble. Hands in the air, smiles all around.