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Play The Indicated Pitches At The Indicated Rhythms

It's pretty easy to romanticize creativity. An artist or a writer, a poet or an engineer - humans yearn to make, and perhaps through that have impact. The possibilities are endless, and so the framing is often fanciful - creators are visionaries, turning chimerical dreams into fantastic realities.

Music is a particularly romanticized institution - not just commercially, but in the personal experiences of those who study it. For many it isn't simply an extracurricular interest or a hobby, but a defining aspect of their identity, both socially and privately. It requires dedication (and luck) to achieve professional success with music, but its spiritual fruits are much more accessible.

Anybody who has been a member of an educational or community ensemble can attest to the verve typical of conductors. Inspired by masters such as Leonard Bernstein, they don't simply cue and keep time - they emote, act, and invest in the expression of art. It's easy to see why - Seinfeld's "The Maestro" is an able parody of the genuine prestige and satisfaction enjoyed by those who lead even modest ensembles.

I have played in more than a few such ensembles, and their conductors (and members, and supporters and audience) deserve much credit. But romanticization often goes a step too far - we pay so much attention to what something could be that we lose track of the steps it takes to get there.

One conductor I had, though still prone to bouts of whimsy, had a particular way to express this blunder - "Play the Indicated Pitches at the Indicated Rhythms."

As a direction to a musician, this is purely mechanical - align your body and your instrument in the right way at the right time. Some may even consider it demeaning - there is no emotion, you're just playing something that's been written. But, that is needed to coordinate with others. If you made it your own, maybe you could make it something more, maybe not - but either way, you'd probably mess it up for the rest of the group.

Getting those things right - playing notes with good tone and intonation and at the correct time - is nontrivial. It's an achievement to perform with technical competence - not just with flash and speed, but slowly as well, and at a variety of dynamics. It requires a focus and diligence that comes with repetition and conditioning, a fluency that is taken for granted yet hard to achieve. Even (or really, especially) improvisation requires structure, planning, and practice to be pulled off well.

Does this sap the "fun" from creation? For some, perhaps - but if the goal is to aspire, then quality counts. Have big ideas. Romance reality. But when implementing, follow the details and do the work.

Play the Indicated Pitches at the Indicated Rhythms.

I have found this mantra to resonate in unexpected circumstances. Considered broadly, many things have a pitch (something they "should" be) and a rhythm (a correct time or place).

I will leave it to you to personally apply this allegory, but note that it is not meant harshly - creation is risky, and meaningless without room to fail. Those who aspire deserve all the romance they can muster, and leaders who successfully manage and rally them truly are visionaries.

But they still have to Play the Indicated Pitches at the Indicated Rhythms.