'Ma'

Updated: Mar 15

In a 2002 interview with famed animator Hayao Miyazaki, Roger Ebert praised what he called “gratuitous motion": moments where the characters’ actions aren’t dictated by the plot, giving the audience a “sense of time and place and who they are.” Miyazaki responded to this praise with an elaboration on the concept:


"We have a word for that in Japanese. It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally… If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb."


(To read the full interview, please visit: https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/hayao-miyazaki-interview)

How would you conceptualize ma in a musical context? In what ways (if any) does it permeate your daily musical life as performers and/ or teachers? What experiences (both musical and extra-musical) have shaped your perception of ma?





If life in modern society could be reduced to a series of aphorisms that describe our hierarchy of values around the concept of success, “time is money” would undoubtedly prevail near the top. Life is fast-paced, and continuous productivity is the expectation. As musicians, we often witness the iceberg illusion of solely seeing the career success of our personal heroes, and perhaps become subconsciously conditioned to believe that every hour of our day not dedicated to our musical advancement is time unwisely spent. Perhaps a sense of guilt or anxiety creeps in after having been continuously exposed to the notion that a day in which we are not growing musically, someone else is inevitably working diligently.


The concept of ma, a deliberate emptiness, manifests itself in my life as the necessary daily removal of oneself from all that is musical - a temporary pause - in order to most effectively inform a holistic continuation of the musical. In my early days as a student, I believed that the “road to Rome,” in terms of achieving expressive musicianship in performance, was singularly obtained by refining fundamentals in the practice room for hours on end. I eventually arrived at the realization that by consciously deciding to increase my personal life experiences away from music, I would paradoxically gain a wider spectrum of ideas to draw from in order to craft an inherently musical performance. By essentially removing myself from the business of constant musical expectations, I allowed “gratuitous time” in my life for introspection and to truly digest what I was learning in exclusively musical settings, thus gaining material worthy of instrumental expression in the process.


Ma often presents itself to me in the form of solitary walks in nature and a desire to establish deeper personal connections with those around me. Walking at a comfortable pace that allows a full appreciation of the different colors in the trees. An awareness of the faintest of cricket sounds. An appreciation of the wind swaying through the branches, against one’s hair. Leaves rustling upon one’s steps. Listening to others with a genuine curiosity to learn about their life without an expectation of reciprocity, but simply enjoying that particular moment in time and being present.


Embracing the idea of silence and listening may appear counterintuitive to the demands of a society that values constant participation and leadership. Yet for me, it has proven to be an essential component for truly digesting the musical knowledge gained in the midst of the business of life, as well as for indirectly enhancing the life skills that can allow me to be a more sensitive performer and educator. For me, ma is slowing down life to its most essential components and enjoying the simplest things that it has to offer in order to be able to express that which music ultimately aims to portray: our uniquely human experiences.


-Juan Alonso



(Image credit: Howl’s Moving Castle. © 2004 Studio Ghibli - NDDMT)



When I think of ma, the first thing that comes to mind is the use of silence in music. Lamento by Sofia Gubaidulina would be an exemplar. I interpret the use of silence in Lamento as a means of pacing as well as a dramatic device- the absence of sound creating a pause for reflection. Another way you can infer ma in this work is the juxtaposition of sections with a strong (or rather consistent) rhythmic pulse and sections that lack a rhythmic pulse. I don’t think of ma in a musical context as the sonic phenomenon of silence, but rather an invitation for introspection and the establishment of interiority.

The philosophical implications of ma prompted an evaluation of the daily routines of musicians, particularly those that place emphasis on fundamentals. For a creative process (like music), our practice can be inherently uncreative. When we are working on fundamentals, how many (creative) decisions do we make? There are many texts out there that try to bridge this gap. David Vining’s Flow Studies and Patterns and Snippets by Brad Edwards are two books that effectively package a fundamental workout in a musical context. These are great etude books to work out of, but the problem persists: what we practice and how we practice it has, to a significant degree, been decided for us.

It brings to mind the moral of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. To (greatly) summarize, Camus illustrates the absurdity of existence. He finds that the way to overcome it is to tackle it head on- to become an “absurd hero.” He uses the myth of Sisyphus- a king that was punished by the gods and forced to repeatedly roll a boulder up a mountain only to have it fall back down- to illustrate this point. As he observes, while the gods banned Sisyphus to this arduous, banal, and physically-demanding task, they did not prohibit him from enjoying it. He closes this essay with the famous line: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Through my modest experiences and observations, it seems like most of us have been conditioned to maintain a focused fundamental routine. We incorporate a standard series of fundamentals (lip slurs, long tones, scales, etc.) into our daily practice session to aid our quest towards mastery and perfection. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder, this journey towards technical mastery of our instrument is ceaseless.

I don’t mean this to be a criticism of routines and the practice of fundamentals (or the texts listed above)- fundamentals are necessary to develop the technical facility that help us realize our musical ideas on the instrument. I myself maintain a daily fundamental routine and practice exercises from Patterns and Snippets regularly. However, I don’t consider myself to be an Albert Camus Certified Absurd Hero (trademark pending). Most days I don’t enjoy this routine- it can feel like I don't have a significant degree of agency over my own playing. The notion of honing a subjective process through an objective lens can feel restrictive to me. This is where the concept of ma comes into play. William Lucas, a professor of trumpet at the University of Michigan, advocates carving out time in your practice session to improvise- to simply play. In my practice session, I use this as a reprieve from my regimented fundamental routine. This is pure creation unmitigated by the burden of expectation. Sisyphus wishes he could be this happy.


-Nick Beltchev



(Image credit: Spirited Away. © 2001 Studio Ghibli - NDDMT)



Miyazaki’s response immediately reminded me of a phrase that one of my first teachers, Dr. Martin Cochran, would say to me throughout the year I studied with him and almost every time I played for him after that: “Don’t confuse passion for musicality.” Young Matt equated highly expressive playing with highly musical playing, regardless of context. Bach cello suites, euphonium concerti, romantic transcriptions, all of these were unable to escape the approach that Dr. Cochran coined “expressive euphonium guy.”

Throughout my graduate study, I began to focus more on the long-form interpretation of a work as opposed to my younger self’s method of trying to sound as overtly expressive as possible all of the time. In this focused interpretation, I find ma. I frequently look at works through a theoretical and formal lens, not to determine where to crescendo or how much vibrato to use, but to assign aesthetics to various parts of a work’s form. These aesthetics usually come in one-word ideas that carry a significant number of stylistic consequences, but the major function is to create as much contrast within one work.

My favorite example is a work that many will know: Gordon Jacob’s Fantasia for Euphonium and Band. I love this piece and have worked with a large number of students on this seminal piece of repertoire. The work has a number of contrasting sections within the single-movement form, and each section has the musical potential and gravity to cover the full scope of interpretation and musicianship. For the sake of avoiding a novel-length discussion (thanks, Nick), I want to discuss the interpretive ideal of ma within the first section of the work (the beginning to rehearsal D).

The work opens with the hollow sound of the adagio’s eighth notes followed by a highly subdivided euphonium line.




The marking of espressivo used to be a trigger for my transformation into “expressive euphonium guy”: vibrato galore and as much action and motion as I could muster. Now, I see this as the perfect moment to build tension through the stillness and emptiness of ma. Not only is this opening haunting in it’s harmonic content and meandering phrasing, but the stillness presented by a vibrato-less and dark presentation will propel the following section with the intensity needed to create contrast within the opening.



Color, motion, vibrato, dynamics, articulation, tempo, and rubato are but a few of the musical tools available, but the common misconception is that our musicality is determined by how overt and intense these tools are utilized. Artistry occurs when these musical tools are used in appropriate levels to create contrast between and within sections of a piece. In this approach, we find the difference between passion and musicality. In this approach, we find the importance of ma.


-Matthew Kundler

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