Forest Through the Trees
February 19, 2017Forest Through the Trees
When I was an undergraduate at Boston University I studied with the great Doriot Anthony Dwyer. (Google her if you don’t know her, amazing firsts from her and her ancestors) One day Mrs. Dwyer instructed me to attend the traveling exhibition of Claude Monet at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She indicated that it would help with my flute playing, though how was a mystery.
I dutifully set off to the exhibit with massive swarms of others eager to see the large body of work from this master all in one location. There were so many people packed in (I would have preferred a tin of sardines) it was difficult to move around so I cleverly worked the system by hovering around the perimeter to view his work. In those days you could get very close to the paintings and close I was. I was engaged by the mesmerizing colors and brush strokes but became bored. After shuffling around the edges of the rooms and gazing upon many paintings up close I had had enough. Being the snot nosed kid I was I wondered why Mrs. Dwyer thought seeing these dreamy colors mushed together on canvases, some nearly as large as the wall, would help my flute playing. I doubted a connection between art and music and figured I would just do what she said so I could report to her that I had obliged, and yes, oh yes, wasn’t he marvelous, and yes, oh yes I understood the universe thanks to art, and well I had it all planned as I fought my way around the perimeter for the last time as I hurried toward the exit ready to breathe fresh air and escape the cool, calming colors. After all, I reasoned, I had more important things to do than walk around in cattle formations ooh-ing and ah-ing over some French painter. I needed to practice!
I was just about to exit the last room when, suddenly, I felt terrified that I wouldn’t have anything insightful to say to Mrs. Dwyer and I really didn’t want her angry, or worse yet, disappointed in me. I flung my body around one last time in despair to view the wall of colorful strokes to see what an absolute fool I had been.
I could barely breathe as I laid eyes upon a truly awesome vision. Then I actually felt like the world’s biggest idiot. Then I felt incredibly relieved that I saw this before leaving so I didn’t betray my stupidity to Mrs. Dwyer. Then I stopped reacting and started looking (hmmm, try/do?????)
I was staring at a massive canvas filled with all those colors and brush strokes that had been at arm’s length while touring room to room. What I had missed, of course, was the point of all those details-gorgeous, dreamy, soft edged, WATER LILIES! I thought I had worked the system so well by being up close and personal with the canvas that I had nearly missed this impressionist’s big picture (literally;)
Mrs. Dwyer had done it again, challenged me to connect dots on my own, or in this case strokes. I gained a wee bit of awareness of how (in abstracts;) the sum of details (oh, the thousands of strokes in different patterns, depths and intensities) added up to the most gorgeous unified vision. Was Mrs. Dwyer teaching me about phrasing? Was Mrs. Dwyer teaching me about French music? Was Mrs. Dwyer teaching me about practicing? Was Mrs. Dwyer teaching me about sound? Was Mrs. Dwyer teaching me about life?
I bolted into my next lesson ready to discuss what I had learned. I announced I had attended the exhibit and awaited our deep conversation. Instead Mrs. Dwyer asked for my Andersen Etude. I began playing the etude, not getting very far (ok not far at all-like only the first note, oh, ok, like only the preparation for the first note for a long while) Finally, Mrs. Dwyer urged me toward establishing the first articulation a very particular way. Her instruction eluded me and I felt panic and embarrassment by not being able to produce what she wanted. And then I remembered the strokes, colors and ultimately the lavish oneness of the paintings (I had shoved my way through the exhibit rooms a second time once I realized what had happened). At last I grasped that Mrs. Dwyer was teaching me a single brush stroke. It was a tedious, confusing process but at some point during the hour I got an “almost” from her. Joy-rapture! I was on the right track even if I was the only one in the room who couldn’t see the track. It started to come into focus that this single articulation was the beginning of the entire phrase and how could one exist without the other? I understood that in music (and, hey, in life actually) there are short and long views, sometimes within plain view, and those details feed the long line and that the entirety is essentially made up of all the littles. Mrs. Dwyer allowed me to self discover this lesson. It’s possible she had an entirely different outcome in mind for me but I’ll never know. What I do know is that when I practice with the short and long views in mind I am more effective and efficient. I strive to live my life that way, too, even though the short view can often feel overwhelming. When the short view starts closing in on me I think of Mrs. Dwyer and Monsieur Monet for this most important lesson learned
take a step back and look up because you never know when you might find your water lilies.