Cake Walk – Performance and Practice

Cake Walk
Cake Walk by I Nancy, on Flickr

Bay Area photographer G. Dan Mitchell recently wrote a blog post entitled “Music and Photography: Technique and Interpretation”. In it he explores the similarities of being a musician and being a photographer and notes how many people he knows who have accomplishments in both. Ansel Adams was an accomplished pianist and I, myself, an accomplished oboist. (There, I did it! I put Ansel Adams and myself in the same sentence.)

His writings struck a chord with me as I am often attempting to explain to others how I feel when I do photography. There is almost nothing that I do in my life that is not influenced, somehow, by my intense study of, dedicated practice, disciplined weekly music lessons, and performance of music. I started my study at the age of 9 with a single focus through the age of 23 after which I continued to perform and teach for another 20 years. The analogies between the two areas explode; whether it is learning, practice, performing, teaching, or presenting. But the most interesting part for me are the analogies between photography and music in the area of performance and practice.

In both music and photography there are two distinct, and opposite, activities – the time you spend alone working things out, repeatedly if necessary; and time you spend on the stage where nothing is forgiven, an instant cannot be replayed, the moment is gone. The interesting part, is that in music and in photography these time periods are reversed.

In music you practice and rehearse, playing things over and over in preparation, and then, only on the stage, is each moment unique with no return. In photography, however, you play your performance first, with the camera, and then concentrate in the dark/light room to work the image and turn it into your masterpiece. Even in landscape photography, where the mountains and trees don’t move, the perfect light, the glow in the clouds, may last only a few fleeting minutes.

I find these two areas of photography fascinating. I always feeling the same adrenaline and awareness while shooting that I used to feel while performing. The need to be think quickly, react quickly, and be hyper-aware. When truly focused, the time around you stops. I used to tell my music students that the way to play more quickly was simply to make time go more slowly. This sounds all metaphysical, but in truth it is about intense focus.

After the shoot is the introspective act of finishing the creation. Another lesson I tried to teach my students was the difference between playing and practicing. Playing may keep you in shape, but practice is where you get better. Sure, playing can work on the endurance aspect of music (you did know that playing a musical instrument is a physical sport), but practice is introspective, calming, nearly meditative, and about reinforcing the feedback between what you do and what you hear. I get this same feeling while post-processing my stuff. This is the time when deep exploration occurs. I do not mean technical exploration of this or that slider. I mean exploring what you want from the image and then determining how to make that happen. Reinforcing the feedback between what you saw and what you captured. What is the point of focus? How do I accentuate these points? Working and reworking your nuggets of gold to a refined jewelry.

I really enjoy street photography for two reasons. There is no denying that street photography allows me to explore how our society works and capture its little snippets. I like to point out to others what they may miss in their hustle and bustle. But secondly, because of the adrenaline of the performance. The act of going out there, alone or in an ensemble, and concentrating with a focus that is hyper-aware and can almost stop time.

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