Sunday, March 3, 2013

I piloted a helicopter!

Part of my day job is to help facilitate clinician visits to school music programs (I have a good job, I know!). Last week I was able to accompany one of our top clinicians to a remote city in southwestern Utah. As a result of fortunate scheduling and some deep generosity, we were able to travel by helicopter.*

The clinic itself is worth at least a blog post, but for now I'll try to encapsulate what I learned from the flights out and back.

On the flight out, I sat in the back. Surprisingly, it was roomy and comfortable. The weather was beautiful, the pilot was experienced and we had absolutely no problems. I shot pictures and video, enjoyed the chatter - both radio and that of my companions - and just generally enjoyed myself.

The flight back was an entirely different story. I sat in the front and got a much closer look at how helicopters are flown. About fifteen minutes into the return flight, a question I hadn't even considered was shot my way by the pilot.

"Okay, you ready to fly this thing?"

What?! Me, fly?! I have to admit that about 99.9% of my body and soul was screaming, "NO! Of course I don't want to fly! What are you, crazy? We'll all die!" Luckily for me, the 0.1% that wanted to fly had a pretty strong argument - it was such a unique opportunity, I couldn't possibly turn it down. Besides, the pilot was there to keep me from making any serious mistakes. So, I took the stick and started to fly.

I was nervous, to say the least. From the moment I took over the stick, it felt like I couldn't put my eyes in enough places at once. We were only about 3,000 feet off the ground (compared to 25,000 for commercial airline flights), and there were what seemed like 50 gauges, meters, dials and other controls on the dash. It was a lot to handle, and it took 100% of my brain power.

The total duration of my piloting experience was only about 30 minutes, but it was amazing. It was a microcosm of any new experience, I suppose, because I viewed flight, helicopters, pilots and myself very differently at the end of that short time.

What does this all have to do with music? At least three things, and I'll try to briefly explain them below.

First, great musicians have the ability to focus - totally and absolutely. While flying the helicopter, there was nothing else in the world that seemed worth thinking about when compared to staying in the air, safe and on course. Likewise, in music, we need to develop the ability to block out any distractions or factors that aren't going to aid us in our music making. We can develop the ability in both practice and performance to, for a defined period of time, focus on nothing but music.

Second, I was impressed by the ease with which our pilot flew. He told us that over the years flying becomes, "second nature." His instincts, muscle memory and other mental and physical attributes and skills have been honed by hundreds and thousands of hours of flying, meticulous training and practice, and by never, ever allowing himself to be distracted by anything other than flying. As musicians, our course is similar.

Great musicians have honed their skills and musical senses over many, many years. Not only in practice, but in performance, we need to maintain the standard of only playing at our very best, highest levels.

As Aristotle famously opined, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit."

Third, and finally (for this blog post, at least), it couldn't have been more obvious that our pilot loved flying. He seemed free and ultimately happy in the air. As a result of his excellent preparation, trust in his helicopter, and years of experience, he enjoyed - even exulted in - flying. What could be a better example for musicians? The more you have control of yourself, your instrument - your craft - the more you will enjoy music.

At the end of the day both flying and music have many purposes, and both can take people to a higher place (literally and figuratively) in a way that nothing else can.

Make music. Be happy. Fly.

*This is a story in itself, but the short version is that we were flown by a pilot-owner who also happens to be a huge advocate for music education.

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