"Up is up. Down is down."
Hello readers! Very sorry for the delay; I know I haven’t posted a new blog post in close to six months (since December), but it’s mainly due to my busy (masochistic?) schedule. I played with the New World Symphony, took a couple of professional auditions, bought a new bassoon, and gave a recital to finish up my first year of my master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, so it’s been a productive second semester to say the least.
I’ll write about all of the recent activities that I’ve mentioned above in the blog soon, but I decided to write about something more current that’s had one of the biggest impacts on my musicality as a whole this past year, and I’d like to share it with you since I believe this concept of music should be universal in all great performances.
The concept is simple: “Up is up, down is down.”
The following phrase was coined and pioneered by John Mack, previous principal oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra appointed by George Szell from 1965 to 2001. CIM knows and deeply respects the teachings of Mack and takes pride in his association with Cleveland as a whole for his enlightening teachings and immaculate recordings he has with the Cleveland Orchestra.
So, what does “Up is up, down is down” mean exactly?
In a basic, diluted sense, when the notated music goes up, you give more in volume and presence. When the notation is written in a downward motion, the inverse is achieved. It’s almost a little puerile to be told this, but the results after one considers this concept viable (and is almost necessary) are very stark.
While the concept is simple, it can add so much to one’s musical ideas; orchestral passages and excerpts, solo repertoire, and even new music, can all benefit from this practice of understanding the contour of just a simple line made up of black ink on white paper.
Let’s look at some examples:
While the passage above contains no dynamic marking, and scarce dynamic markings, oboists still consider this passage one of the most iconic and important solos in all of the orchestral oboe repertoire. Why? Because the music lies within the contour of the line, thus making it more human and logical.
Instrumentalists rarely think about their voice. Of course, they think about the voice of their instrument, their reeds, bows, how their sound is being perceived in the hall, etc., but the first thing that should pop into their head when playing a passage should be “Wait, how would I sing this like a vocalist?”.
And that’s where “Up is up, down is down” comes in. Some of the most heart-moving and inspirational performances I’ve seen were from opera productions, and they rightfully should’ve been, seeing as how the voice is the most natural instrument of all. (And it’s technically a double reed!)
Here’s how I would interpret the passage from “Don Juan”:
This is a watered version of what one might come up with for this excerpt, but it’s a start to something that comes across as more humane and vocal than coming from an inanimate object that has no soul or heartbeat, which can sidetrack our musical ability if we think about the nature of our instruments too much. That’s why I respect vocalists so much in their field; They’re able to pile on all these sorts of concepts into their performance, yet what they do is the most artistic way of just being human.
A lot of instrumentalists say things like “I would’ve played that line better if I had a better instrument.”, or “My musicality would’ve made more sense if I had the right reed.” No, it wouldn’t have; your musical ability is something that’s destined for you to take control of, rather than having your equipment do for you. If you ask any musician in the Cleveland Orchestra what their instrument is, they’ll immediately say it’s their tool, just like a professional grade camera; there’s different settings you can use, and certain mechanics like lenses and hair triggers that can be beneficial in your art of photo capturing, but that camera is only the tool in a grand scheme of capturing the product desired in your quest to make something great. The Product is the final result, not the tool.
I fell in love with this idea when I first moved here to Cleveland, and hopefully you find that this practice helps you find a more meaningful, tender performance in your musical career.