How many people do you know that play oboe, clarinet, English horn, violin, five-string banjo, bass, piano, saxophone, flute, guitar, musical saw, mandolin, balalaika, bassoon and the banjolele? How about someone that works as a musician, dancer, actor, stuntman, singer, choreographer, acrobat and martial-artist?
There is one and only and his name is Colin Maier. An original.
If the medium is the message, then variety is the spice of life. Here are some of his thoughts on music.
Q: How do you like to warm up?
I play the same note to start, which is usually a Bb or a D, just to hear how it feels and sounds. I’ll do chromatic scales, and I’ll improvise. I’ll play whatever I feel like. Sometimes I’ll hear a song in my head that I heard on the radio that day and I’ll just try and play that. I’ll do anything that puts my brain in the right mindset for practice.
Q: What are your best practicing tips?
Never panic or stress when you practice, this only leads to tightening. Relax, walk away, come back and try again. Play your piece differently every time. When you experiment, you often find new things. Relocate to a different room in the house. Play in front of a person. Do a videotape. Challenge yourself to find a new setting where there is a different viewpoint. One of the best ways to practice is to perform. Do it as often as you can. Practice is really 100% failure. You need to keep plugging away at your failures until you get it right. If you keep reaching for your personal best, you continue to raise your own standards.
Q: Do wind players need to be physically fit?
Every musician needs to be physically fit. You need to be strong to hold the instrument for extended periods. Cardiovascular training is important for sustaining the breath. You need to have a physical reserve when you play. Your body must be able to handle the increasing tension to avoid developing repetitive strain disorders. Nothing is as tiring as going to the gym and getting a full workout. Physical training makes playing easier and more comfortable. There is also a psychological benefit that comes from being fit and knowing it. Your confidence levels increase. You feel positive.
Q: Playing an exercise over and over again can get monotonous. By changing some elements and keeping others, we can experiment with the material. Is good practice really just good play?
It’s all about playing and experimenting. Never play your piece the same way twice. We put pressure on ourselves when we try and re-create a perfect performance every single time. Imagine trying to recreate the same conversation you had ten minutes ago. Circumstances constantly change: the reed, your mood, inspirations. When you switch things up, you learn the piece more fully.
Playing from memory is vital. Suddenly you are hearing the music. Quartetto Gelato performs from memory and it allows us to focus on communicating with each other. Imagine going to a play where the actors are reading off their scripts. It would be awful. Playing from memory is a freeing experience, it allows you to live in the moment, to perform in the moment.
Q: Each instrument has a set of standard pieces from various musical eras that are internationally acclaimed and universally admired. Practicing to perform these pieces takes a lot of time. Why do it?
There is tradition in all the music that we play. It’s important to respect that tradition so we can build on it. To be considered a reputable musician you have to be able to play what everyone else has played for hundreds of years. You need to be able to do that to fit in.
There is a huge trap in classical music today. The process has become re-creative rather than creative. It is critical for musicians to find a way to interpret the standards for themselves, otherwise there is nothing; no drive, no heart.
Learning the piece is just the first step. The goal is to make it your own.
Q: Do faithful recreations of classical repertoire help us learn how to uncover universal notions about art? In other words, does learning to articulate the ideas of the composer teach us how to think about expression?
Of course. If it had just been up to me, and nobody said that I had to practice Lutoslawski’s Oboe Epitaph, I would not have tried it on my own volition. Learning the classics provides you with a technical training that expands your artistic range and your ability to be expressive. Your art becomes more universal.
However, if you want to enjoy playing your instrument, you must also find a sense of ownership. That comes from the environment, your teachers, your peers and your basic personality. You can learn a piece inside-out and practice emulating other great musicians, but there comes a time when you must become your own artist.
It is also important to spend time learning obscure new works, creating your own compositions, trying new instruments and new styles. All these activities broaden your understanding and your ability to express.
Q: Why is live performance important?
I don’t think that in the age of robotics and automated cars that live performance will ever go extinct. There’s a feeling, a vibe, a buzz, a live energy that emanates from people who are performing. The audience wants escape. That’s why they go to live entertainment of any kind. They want to see something happen, and to live vicariously through whoever is on stage. That’s our job, to give the audience entertainment and escape. When you are a musician, you are an entertainer.
Q: In live performance, who benefits the most - the performers or the audience members?
It should be a symbiotic relationship. Great performers feed off the audience and constantly try to draw the spectators into their world. If the magic is there, both performers and audience members will enjoy the experience.
The audience gets their escape, their entertainment, and a stirring of emotions that can elicit everything from laughter to tears.
The performers benefit from a totally new group of hearts and minds. The reward comes when the performers embrace the uniqueness of the situation, play in the moment, with an honesty and a freshness. The audience will respond.
Groups like Quartetto Gelato and the Canadian Brass have been so successful because they put the audience first. It is important to take your audience seriously. They will love anything you do if you are up there doing it honestly, connecting and interacting. That is showmanship. That is the art of performance. You have an enormous freedom in what repertoire you program when the audience is top of mind.
Q: When does a music concert or recital become too theatrical or is that impossible?
Once Ozzy Osbourne rips the head of a chicken off with his teeth, I think anything is game. Imagine if Cirque de Soleil created and produced an orchestral show. It would be incredible! It is impossible for a concert to be too theatrical, there is just good and bad. It‘s in the presentation. If a concert is produced by the the best in the business, it will be great. Modern music can be very abstract, very unpredictable. A theatrical presentation can be enormously helpful because there is a visual to lock onto. The music starts to make sense.
Q: Tell us about your latest recording, The Fabulist.
A fabulist is a storyteller. As the featured instrument, oboe is the thread that weaves the music together. I also sing and play thirteen other instruments, everything from the balalaika to the musical saw. It would be difficult to classify this recording by musical genre. The selections come from classical, jazz, rock, pop and celtic styles. The basic sound palette keeps changing, so if you listen from start to finish, your ear is constantly surprised. Like a live concert or a compilation album, it’s all about contrast. The last piece on the the recording is called, The Fabulist, and it was composed by the incredible Rebecca Pellett. She’s created a musical fable, full of quirky characters, each represented by a different instrument.
On career options and choices...
Q: Your career has been quite eclectic, and the path less academic than some music professionals. Has success come from following your own instincts?
Absolutely, I’ve built a career around following my own instincts. I enjoyed extensive arts training in and outside of school. There was singing, dancing, violin lessons and then I started playing the oboe in band class. All the other instruments I play have been self taught. Basically, I say yes to everything. When opportunities arrive, I say yes, I’ll do it, even if it means teaching myself an entirely new skill. At one point, I was working half the year in theatre and half the year in music, and some people advised me against this. They could not envision the possibilities. The truth is, there is no path. You have to make your own path. You have to be lucky, you have to be opportunistic.
Q: Do you think it’s a good time to be involved in the arts? Music careers have traditionally been viewed as unstable, but so much work now is part time or on contract. Jobs that were once stable and secure have disappeared. Do you see new possibilities emerging in the field?
New opportunities are always evolving. It’s about keeping your eyes open. You have to be an entrepreneur and realize that you, as an artist, as a musician, are a business. The only way to be great is to put your soul into it. Music can, and has to be a passion, a hobby and a job, all at the same time.
Q: Have the arts made you a better person? How?
No, the arts have not made me a better person, but they have made me more confident in who I am. The arts have allowed me to be myself. At the core, we are all kind of quirky, awkward and weird. We try not to project those traits. But those are the things that make us great in the arts. People want to see you be yourself, to be self-realized.
Short&Sweet Quick Answer...
Cats or Dogs? “Neither, I like guinea pigs.”
Favourite Colour: “My favourite colour scheme is the Reese’s Pieces colour scheme, orange, yellow and brown all together.”
Favourite Meal: “A nice salmon.”
Best Time to Practice: “The minute you feel inspired.”
Favourite Pop Star or Band: “Amy Winehouse, Simon & Garfunkel, Men at Work, Bruno Mars.”
Best Thing to do on Sunday Afternoons: “Absolutely nothing. Nap time.”
Favourite Hockey Team: “FLAMES! Calgary Flames.”
Favourite Composer: “Rebecca Pellett.”
Best Part of Being a Musician: “I’m expected to be myself.”
Do you play a wind instrument? Colin is adjudicating the wind classes at the RBFMF on Tuesday November 10, 2015. He would love to hear you play! In addition to the competition, there will be a free workshop. Colin will work with students on topics addressed in this interview like improvisation, memory work and developing a stage presence. The first twenty wind players who sign up to participate in the Festival will receive a free digital download of The Fabulist. Sign up at www.rotarymusicfest.org
Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction