Music-making in search of other spaces
Last night, I was practicing flute when these ideas came rushing in about a post. So I started writing, as if I didn't have a 6:30am shift the next morning. After that shift (and a nap), I recorded some original music, which inspired me to write the middle of this post.
Do you remember a time when you started to talk about something, but unexpectedly teared up?
Whatever you were vocalizing, maybe you had never let yourself feel the full weight of its meaning until the moment it left your body in a trail of language.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend about music. "I used to believe," I began. My voice thickened, vision blurred. "I used to believe..." Silence.
I used to believe the sound I created as a Western classical flutist was a sign — some kind of mandate from the heavens — that I was meant to play the flute. As long as I could produce such a sound, I was a musician. Since I could create something so beautiful, I had a duty to share it. This became one of my purposes in life.
All throughout college, when I repeatedly fell short of classical music's perfectionism, the beauty of my sound remained a source of solace, strength, & validation.
For the most part, I believed this until last month. Or a week ago. It's hard to say when this belief unraveled, but I do know why. I've never gone so many months without performing, experiencing how my presence as a musician matters to others. I've never spent so many months alone, in the space of my own sound.
When you spend too much time in a space, it becomes stale. This year, struggling to maintain the quality of my sound & discouraged by the lack of opportunities to collaborate or perform, I slowly let go of the belief that animated my music-making.
In September, as some means — any means — of reigniting my interest in playing, I started to create multi-track recordings. I decided to record one every week, then to share them all in my monthly newsletter for everyone who supports my work on Patreon.
I've only created four so far, but my goal is to keep them short — less than a minute — and low-pressure. For me, this means improvising, piecing tracks together as I go, and using as many first takes as possible. It also means dedicating no more than an hour to the whole process.
This evening, I sat down to record my fourth. I knew I wanted to emulate the opening of one of my favorite pieces as a girl, Maurice Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2" (mostly because a page of the flute part had fallen across my stand). Within minutes, I was putting a lot more pressure on myself to record clean takes than intended. Somehow, it came together within an hour. You can listen to all 33 seconds below.
Through these "sound doodles," I've opened a new space — of hope, beauty, expression — within my sound. (Multi-track recording adds a dimension, as does the "Edit mastering" option on BandLab.)
Until today, I felt bitter about the sound doodles I'd created so far. I couldn't forgive myself for the less-than-perfect intonation, as if this project were about perfection & not creativity.
Even as I forge my own spaces in music, I'm not invincible to misplacing my worth in the abstract cloister of perfectionism.
When it comes to perfectionism in classical music, I've written plenty. In starting this blog, I wrote all about reclaiming my purpose & worth as a musician. About sending roots into my own values and goals, however deviant from conventional ones.
Over a year later, I've continued to write posts about this — most of them saying the same thing. For all my words, I still don't fully believe it.
To some extent, I believe lies such as, "I don't deserve to call myself a musician unless I check certain boxes." "Other musicians will never take me seriously unless I sound a certain way." "My music-making is worthless unless it meets the highest standards."
These insecurities point to the precarity of an art — or anything valued on a creative, spiritual (or otherwise intangible) dimension, rather than a concrete & measurable one. To thrive within the intangible, we've built structures for evaluation. Like good rhythm. Intonation. This notion of craft.
Rather than discarding aesthetic standards or dismissing the notion of craft, I want to explore how they can coexist with notions of liberation, radical acceptance, & vulnerability.
There's so much about my playing that I want to improve: more consistent intonation, stronger rhythm, greater sound control. A more sensitive, nuanced approach to phrasing. The ability to blend gaps — between phrases, between notes, between sound & silence.
Whenever I practice, I reach towards these standards — partly because they've been engrained by years of training, but also because I've decided this is part of how I grow as an artist.
At the same time, it's okay (and healthy!) to make music outside the space of relentless self-criticism. Again and again, I've had to relearn how to make music from a place of joy, of abandonment to the spiritual and emotional dimensions of sound.
In sharing videos of my practicing on this blog, I've gone further & etched these moments of freedom from perfectionism — of acceptance of imperfection — into virtual space.
I see these videos not as static representations of my worth as a musician, but as glimpses into my approach to music-making. It's an approach that searches for, reinvents, & navigates the space between practice & performance — a space between perfectionism & imperfection, judgment & liberation.
Below is a clip of me playing solely for fun, based on my memory of "Sunbird" by Filipina-American composer, percussionist, & sound artist Susie Ibarra. Usually I post audio clips instead of video for a better representation of my sound, but yesterday it was healing to see the joy I still have access to in music.
I want to believe that when I make music, my ancestors & all my grandparents smile from heaven. I want to believe they are proud of me for being a musician. Not necessarily a Western classical musician, not even a musician who gained access to incredibly elite spaces of knowledge & creativity. But simply, a musician whose craft bridges the material with the spiritual.
Lastly, below is a clip of me practicing music by J.S. Bach. No matter how many times I play this, or how long it's been since I last played it, this music takes me to such an expansive, indescribable place. (Though if I were in better shape, the intervals would be less choppy & the transitions would be more effective. Among other details.)
After playing the second half of the movement for fun, I took a short break & then started practicing the first few phrases. (The plants are my housemate's & not mine, before anyone assumes I am put-together enough to keep house plants alive.)