Martial Arts study taught me to be aware of different spheres of influence that are always present; a safe or un-reachable distance from my opponent, the distance of my initial contact, the preferred distance of greatest control, and too close.  I had a musical experience that got me thinking about these spheres not in a physical context but from a musical performance perspective.  As a performer, we are taught to listen, react and interact with what is musically happening around us.  (This is obviously a spontaneous, fluid activity not un-like a sparring match.)  I refer to these musical spheres as adjusting my musical antennae.  My intention with this article is to suggest that we as performers might benefit from listening in different spheres of influence and adjusting our antennae to the situation that we find ourselves in.

Recently, I played a two week run of a touring Broadway show.  The trend lately has been for the “live” pit to play along with a click-track to accompany the show.  This means that the entire pit is playing with headphones, which makes for a very sterile setting for making chamber music.  Another interesting point is that each player can dial in their particular monitor mix, meaning I can listen to what I want, or don’t want to hear while playing.  If I wanted I could have played the entire show listening to nothing but a metronome click!  My monitor mix could be and probably was, completely different than the player sitting next to me.  You can imagine that this could easily cause some subtle differences of interpretation.  Once I was comfortable with the show I started experimenting with my mixes and found that it had an effect on my playing.  For example, dialing in on just percussion and bass I found I played rhythmically tighter, cleaner but less expressive.  When I listened to the strings and winds I was more focused on pitch and nuance but not quite as driving and assertive.  For some reason it was very difficult for me (and other pit players I talked with about this) to get a clean overall headphone mix that felt like I was playing “acoustically”.  Primarily this was because I could always hear other players better than I could hear myself through the headphones so playing to blend was difficult.  By the way, some suggested that they prefer playing with only one headphone on.  That helps me hear myself but some weird auditory phenomenon happens and the headphone sounds lower in pitch than my open ear and that’s too disconcerting for me.

So, back to playing within your sphere; apparently, playing this particular show rhythmically accurate and consistent was of top priority, hence the click.  So, I dialed in my focus of attention, or musical sphere primarily on the metronome, drums and bass for pitch reference.  This way if others chose to have me in their mix I would hopefully be playing more rhythmically assertive and consistent; as my role as lead trumpet should be.  In this instance I brought my sphere in close in the attempt to have others use me as a reference and include me in their sphere.  Conversely, when I am playing a section part my sphere is larger, encompassing my section first then the rest of the ensemble.  When I am playing principal in an orchestral setting my sphere is the largest.  Here I try to have my antennae out there hearing everything I can then convey that musical information to the rest of my section.  I’ve described this in the past as having a listening priority list, or hierarchy.  I think both images of musical spheres and listening hierarchy work and serve a purpose.  However, the imagery of projecting my sound within these different sized spheres makes my playing project differently.  I don’t want to be playing lead big band trumpet in a jazz combo nor do I want to be playing duets in an orchestral section.  The sphere has to fit the musical situation and that imagery helps me create the appropriate “size” of sound.

Different spheres are required for playing in a duo setting versus playing in a chamber setting.  This holds true for both classical and jazz settings.  In a brass quintet or quartet (classical), my sphere is encompassing the entire group in an effort to create one homogeneous sound.  However, in a jazz quintet or quartet my sphere may shift and change within a given piece.  Perhaps for the head I am including everyone in my sphere then for my solo I may dial in on primarily the piano for a chorus then switch to the bass for a while for different inspiration, etc.

In conclusion, I don’t think that I have come up with anything revolutionary, ground-breaking or even profound here.  But relating another aspect of musical performance to a past life experience, in this case my study of Martial Arts, creates a tangible connection that I can draw upon in future musical situations which helps lead to a more confident experience.