Over the course of our pursuit of excellence toward honing our craft, we are consistently taught it is the "3 T's" - Time, Tune, and Tone - which are our pathway to mastery. Whether it is these words you use or others such as "Rhythm, Pitch, and Sound," these 3 fundamental aspects of our playing are recited as verse, and rightfully so. Without Time, our pronunciation and flow isn't quite right. Without Tune, the words chosen don't truly speak. And, without Tone, our fluency in music and our voice seems as if it is speaking in a different phonetic syntax.
But do the elements of Time, Tune, and Tone define truly encompass what music is as a whole? While they certainly are essential building blocks needed to produce music, they do not include all of our priorities. To me, herein lies our problem: with our emphasis and focus in practice on the grammatical and fundamental aspects of our playing, - Time, Tune, and Tone - we may have forgotten to purposefully include one more letter that puts our musicianship, song, and art amongst these values.
With a heightened and trained focus toward Time, Tune, and Tone, our skills as musicians strengthen and flourish. With the technology we use to keep us in time and in tune, and a greater access than ever before to world-renowned musicians' playing at our fingertips, we are constantly able to absorb what great Time, Tune, and Tone are. In the musicians we look up to, there seems to be an elusive, undefinable element in their playing that has the power to astonish us. While flashy passages and incredible control certainly may illicit that reaction from us, the most inspirational musicians among us are able to do this not only because of their diligence to the 3 T's, but because of their diligence to something else.
They can create a moment in time that is able to make us feel a certain way yet you may not be quite able to describe it. It is an inexplicable quality to their playing we seem to address more often than not only once we have addressed and polished the 3 T's. It is as if we have mixed our batter, baked our cake, let it cool, and only now we add the frosting to it. It is this element we must treat as the flour to our cake and begin with it instead of frosting our cake only once the cake has undergone the technical process.
So, allow me to propose a Fourth T: "Theme."
Think back to what gave you that initial spark to pick up your instrument. For me, it was the sound of the band at Roosevelt Middle School in Oceanside, Ca - where I would learn about music and the trombone for the first time - that I heard for the first time as a fourth grader. My mom brought me to hear the band ahead of making our decision in the fifth grade of whether we would enroll in Band, Chorus, or an extracurricular course called "Explore." (I'm still not quite sure what that course entailed). I don't remember what pieces we heard that evening, but I remember sitting in my seat astounded by the sounds and energies filling the multipurpose room where the band performed (and we hosted gym and lunch on the rare rainy day in southern California).
I remember looking around at all the neat instruments seeing some that got hit to make a sound, many that used what I then called "buttons" to produce their pitches, and one peculiar looking instrument that moved band-and-forth to create its sound. Hearing this group of band-and-forth instruments (which I'd later come to learn was called the "trombone") play together and trying to figure out how moving it without buttons could create a sound, I was captivated. To me, it sounded the most special, the most unique amongst them all, and, the closest to my voice.
Now that we've taken a moment to walk down memory lane, do you remember that spark? Do you remember that inexplicable moment that pulled you toward playing your instrument? The feeling that persisted no matter what you did away from the instrument, you couldn't stop thinking about how you felt or how you needed to be a part of creating that sounds?
To me, the unexplainable feeling, that reason "why," is Theme. Theme is the reason we play our instrument. Theme is what called us, beckoned us, to make music. Theme is what we say through music which we are unable to say otherwise in words. Theme is that inexplicable quality that resonates and connects with everyone no matter whether they're a trained musician or someone who may think "Hurdy Gurdy" is just a funny couple of words, where, in addition to being fun words to say, is an instrument which came to the fore in the Renaissance. Theme is the reason music exists and the reason we exist to make music.
As central as Theme is, it is not a constant; it is something we can never take for granted. In a culture and society with so much at our fingertips - a society that consistently shows us perfection in life contained in squares you scroll through on your phone - it is ever more important we foster and cultivate Theme in the manner in which we nourish Time, Tune, and Tone, - diligently, consistently, and constantly - or we risk burying our meaning, our why, our Theme, under layers of technique, scales, and articulation studies for the purpose of technique, scales, and articulation studies.
So, how do we ensure we cultivate Theme the same as, if not more diligently than our current 3 T's? It's important to start at the beginning, and, to me, that means from the beginning of each day, each time we open our case.
It is the duty of all of us as musicians, teachers, and students, to be responsible for our focus on Theme as a priority, a topic we discuss before we've looked through and completed our Arbans, Kopprash, Rochut, and others. While technical studies and etudes lead us to better capabilities as musicians, they do not inherently make us better musicians if our focus lies on them alone. Time, Tune, and Tone are our essential vitamins. Without them, we may exhibit weaknesses; to take them in excess, we will only create problems. But, take the right amount with the guiding purpose of Theme and we thrive.
In our work with scales, technique, lip slurs, and legato, it is important to remind ourselves of why we do what we do. Refreshing our inspiration on a daily basis by listening to musicians we look up to is a great way to keep that spark alive and continue fanning our flame. Asking what purpose, for example, our lip slurs serve for creating art more beautifully, can help the seemingly mundane become a thrilling exercise we become eager to start the moment we rise in the morning.
For the process, itself, is immensely important, but, without loving the process, our journey becomes a destination without directions. Like the sailors of centuries past, it is our Theme that serves us as musicians as the North Star served them for guidance amongst the open seas. It is our Theme that shines light upon our purpose even, and most especially in, the darkest of times.
Therefore, I would like to propose a modified order in which we talk about honing our craft; a way in which we teach our craft; a way in which we are ever mindful to explain and show the hierarchy of our path; a way in which we are consciously sure to always include our unrelenting purpose which draws us to make music in the first place.
In this order we can accurately and truly see the meaning, reason, and purpose we make music. Our Time, Tune, and Tone are but a means to an end. Without them, our goals impossible, and, only with them there exists no greater purpose. It is the Theme - our calling and inexplicable desire to create art - which drives our passion and leads us to become the best we can be. With the Theme as our guiding star, our journey is not only safer but more fruitful.