chamber music

Chris Chaffee makes a record

 It Begins.


            It seems so simple.  Set some goals, make a plan, apply yourself, and then you are done.  Of course there are setbacks, failures, some unexpected twists and turns, that week where you just “weren’t feeling it,” a “life event” that derails you for awhile, and so on, but you made it happen, right?  You said that starting January 1st you would lose 20 pounds in one month, starting this summer, you would finally learn Mandarin, starting tomorrow you would tell your wife you love her once a day, by the end of the year you will finally send that novel to the publisher, etc. Yeah, bullshit.  It is not that easy, and it does not happen that way a majority of the time. I know- I am a slowly recovering overachieving goal setting high-strung musician.  In my student days, the start of every academic year was that big salient date that was supposed to be the start of all the grandiose plans.  This goes all the way back to High School, and for full context, I was a four year student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, a wonderful pressure-cooker of high artistic and academic standards where we used to make fun of the “B” students for not keeping up, the exact opposite of peer pressure in the real world.  Before my senior year, I remember telling myself the week before school was “the calm before the storm,” and making lists of all the goals- competitions, school auditions, personal achievements that I was sure were in my grasp with just the right amount of focus and discipline. The list was insane and impossible.  And, every subsequent year well into doctoral study? Repeat.  “This is going to be the year that I….” 

            Crash.  I did not meet my own expectations. Yes, I turned out just fine- I have a stable career, I have been a productive member of the music performance and education community for quite a while, and even at my worst, I can still function as a member of normal, everyday society. Mostly. Thankfully, somewhere around the end of my time as a student, I started to realize that things would come to me one day at a time, one small step at a time, and once I stopped looking, I’d find what I was looking for.  Before I had this epiphany, I had many unhappy years. 

            Why the hell do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we think that we can simply flip a switch on a given day and everything will start moving in one direction? What’s worse, why do we fall for the “quick fix?”  This holds true in music as well- I am always equal parts amused and annoyed when I see my professional colleagues offering clinics that promise a “complete flute makeover” or “30 days to your best tone” or “unleashing your inner artist in 3 steps” Again, Bullshit.  Face it; just because today is some random day on the calendar, say, 1 January, or you gained some fresh new wisdom from an “expert” in a masterclass or whatnot, you are not a brand new person.  You are still the same person tied in the same knots, with the same strengths and weaknesses you had the day before. You are still the person who sneaks down to the fridge at midnight to sneak a few pieces of cheese, still the person who cuts corners when you practice your scales. Change, for better or worse, is part of life.   Make your choice – decide which way you want to go, and enjoy the daily ride.  Recognize that change will occur with time and effort and learn to be content with small accomplishments.  I often joke with my students that I am still learning to play three notes in a row in tune with a good tone.  It’s really not a joke.  To do it the way I want to, i.e. on a high level that very few others can achieve, with a sound and a way of phrasing that makes me stand out from all the other musicians vying for attention in my incredibly competitive yet tiny world- it’s much harder than it sounds. 

            What does this have to do with making a record?  Simple.  I have an opportunity ahead of me that is rare, wonderful, and challenging. For the 2014-15 academic year, I have earned a Professional Development Leave, also known as a sabbatical, from my university. I started planning for this more than a year ago, and I am proud that my competitive bid for this opportunity was successful. Better still- I have a grant to make a record while I am on leave, so I get to combine a period of professional improvement with an important musical milestone- my “debut” recording.

            I have to remind myself on a daily basis not to set unreasonable and stupid goals for this project. I have more free time than usual, and I intend to use it. Along the way, I am exposing the entire process to the public- I live-stream my practice sessions online, we will live-stream portions of the recording process, and I will continue blogging as the process unfolds.  I could go into hiding, go thru all the ups and downs behind closed doors, make a really nice (highly edited) record, and then emerge and hand it to you and say “look what I did!”  Nope.  I want everyone to see the process, start to finish, warts, swear words and all.  Yes, I expect it to be on the highest possible level, but I have a much better idea of how to get there than I ever have before.  I have denied myself all thinking that “today I will start my new practice regimen and in 6 months I will be better at this, better at that, etc.”  I have a plan, I will stick to it, but I do not expect that I will be new and better than ever, I will just be a more polished, and content version of the artist I already am. 

            Recently, I told a student that she needed to “spend time everyday looking at clouds until you stop using words to describe them.”  In my journey ahead, I want to be able to practice what I preach.  I want to find the clarity of vision it takes to be the artist I believe I can be. 





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