The other day while playing a new piece of music on piano, I realized that I had been augmenting the opening 32 bars with a left-hand accompaniment. The only trouble is that there is no bass accompaniment; the entire opening is for the right hand only.
The opening certainly does not need any added accompaniment; it is “Ashokan Farewell,” a sparse and mournful tune (written by Jay Ungar) that Ken Burns repeatedly used throughout his epic docu-series, The Civil War. The melody is instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard it. The opening notes evoke another time, another place. It harkens recollection of a time gone by but still, as the series reminds us, evocative of our era.
Ignoring what’s in front of us
Why I had insisted on playing a non-existent accompaniment did not come to me until later. Three reasons. Inattention. Habit. Ego. Each of them has a role in my misinterpretation, and I think they give us a reason to discuss why sometimes we fall into those traps.
Inattention. Laziness is a failure to pay attention. Since nearly all music I play has parts for both treble and bass, I played the bass part, even though it does not occur until later in the composition. I was not paying close enough attention.
Habit. Because I have “always” played the bass part, why not keep doing it? After all, why stop doing what’s working? Or, more accurately, what I think is working? Some habits (exercise, proper diet) are good; other habits like forgetfulness and sloth are not.
Ego. Even after I recognized the error of my playing, I kept playing the left hand. Why? Because I thought was making the piece better. (Ahem.) Playing the bass before when it appears in the score undercuts the spareness of the work. The opening highlights the beauty of the melody. My addition did nothing to enhance it. It may even have diminished the richness of the piece when the bass line finally does appear.
Invention for its own sake
Music is endlessly creative. Improvisation is to be encouraged. Jazz, many will argue, is nearly always played improvisationally, even when the score is written and arranged. Musicians are encouraged to do their solos as a means of expression and find new ways to bring a tune to life. What I was doing with my left hand was not “wrong” in a musical sense. But it was unnecessary.
We all have moments where inattention, habit, and ego are present in our personal and private lives. Unfortunately, these negative traits are part of our human condition. Our challenge is to hold them in check. To avoid such habits, consider two questions:
Am I inattentive to the need for change? Doing something new is hard at first. There is comfort in our habits. There is virtue in them, but when we keep doing things repeatedly because we are not thinking or too lazy to change, we may be shorting ourselves.
Is my ego speaking louder than what people need to hear? Ego is essential to leadership. It can be the inner call to action, which says I am ready to take charge. But if you are always in control and deny others their right to assert themselves, ego precludes team growth. A boss who never shares authority is a boss who never learns.
Music is a process of interpretation, and so too is leadership. It would be best to learn when to improvise and when to hold fast to what makes the best sense. Experience can provide answers. And in time, we may gain wisdom for a chosen course. But to do that, we must keep a watchful eye on inattention, habit and ego.
Post-script. Watch Jay Ungar, the composer and fiddler, play “Ashokan Farewell.” (Note to self: Listen how Mr. Ungar plays the opening without accompaniment.)