Hi everyone, thanks for having me. My name is Hannah Marks. I’m from Des Moines, Iowa, and I’m a senior Jazz Studies Double Bass major at the Jacobs School of Music. I’ve been been playing music since 3rd grade, and by 9th grade, I had fallen in love with the feeling of jazz and the welcoming community of musicians that came with it. From then on, my goal was to become a professional jazz musician. You may have seen me playing around town with various jazz, folk, and singer-songwriter groups, but my main project is a band called Heartland Trio. We formed about a year and a half ago, and just released our first album of all original music and arrangements a few months ago. Naturally, I’m going to talk about my passion for music, the bass, and what I’ve learned from my time in Heartland Trio, among other things. I’d also like to talk about an unintended passion that I recently stumbled upon…
So--I loved music growing up, but sports were a different story. After getting kicked in the face with soccer balls as an elementary school goalie and coming in near-last place many times as a middle school cross country runner, I swore off sports until recently. Last spring, however, I started rock climbing at the local Bloomington climbing gym and surprisingly, really took to the sport. I’m now at the gym 3-5 times every week, and I see more and more parallels with music as my involvement in rock climbing progresses. I’d like to share these parallels with you all today.
First, I’d like to emphasize the importance that teamwork plays in both music and climbing. These activities require incredible trust in your partners, and my trusted circle is very small, with about 2-3 people that I work with per activity. Now, this might seem exclusive, but it takes a lot of work to maintain and deepen these relationships. I don’t want to climb with someone inexperienced, because they control the rope that holds my life! By the way—when you rock climb, the person that controls the rope is known as the belayer. As a belayer, I know my partners’ strengths and weaknesses and can anticipate their moves. I also watch for any hesitations, which means a fumble or fall could be ahead. We’re in constant communication with each other, and I am as verbally supportive as possible, especially when my partner is attempting a difficult climb.
Similarly, I want to feel comfortable taking risks on the bandstand with my musical partners and know that they always have my back. We’re all tied together with a common musical rope—the song. I can’t jerk my bandmates around by playing things that don’t fit the song; we all have to advance together, measure-by-measure. The music we play is incredibly close to our hearts—how do you think I came up with the name for the band?!—and it can get pretty emotional sometimes. Onstage I’ve smiled and laughed, I’ve yelled, and maybe even shed a tear. Ultimately, I’m incredibly lucky to share the stage with my two best friends (“Barclay Moffitt on the tenor saxophone and Rocky Martin on the drums!”) that are in it for the long haul.
Second, there’s definitely a creative art to climbing. Each route is set up differently, with varying degrees of difficulty. The easiest routes feel like climbing a ladder. They’re a breeze once you’ve been climbing for few months. The harder ones can get pretty involved, though. A recent route entailed me clawing my way up a 60 foot wall at a 45 degree angle. It took me a few times to perfect my sequence, to get my hands and feet flowing in an order that felt good to me, and to not get freaked out about dangling 60 feet in the air. The satisfaction of finishing a route like that is akin to what I imagine a great mathematician must feel when solving a difficult problem.
Just like climbing, there’s a often specific sequence and order of events that need to happen when playing with Heartland Trio in order to make the song feel good. One of my biggest challenges with the band is playing our same repertoire (which is about 30 songs of original music and arrangements) and making something magic happen each night. Once you do it for long enough, it’s easy to get lazy and go through the motions when playing the same music over and over again. Making music is a problem—it’s problematic in the best kind of way though. The creative aspects of each activity really shine when we are presented with a problem and find a new way to solve it. “Hey, that different drum beat sounds really cool in that section—or, wow, this route works even better when you start with your right foot up higher. It’s a triumph and a joy to get to make music with an amazing group of people, and the effort should be lauded, in the same way that I congratulate myself after finishing a hard climb.
Finally, I think I’m getting used to putting my whole body and all my strength behind my musical endeavors, as I do with climbing. My bass playing in Heartland Trio has become more and more physical over the past year because our performances are very high energy and demanding. I’m completely drained afterwards. I know I’ve played a good show when I’m just as fatigued afterwards as I am after an intense climbing session. In the immediate aftermath, both contribute to an almost catatonic state, only to be solved by a huge meal or bath.
Patrick Tape Fleming, a local rock and roller from Des Moines who was one of my heroes growing up, once told me to “play every show like it’s your last.” That may sound incredibly cliche, but it’s good advice. This “play every show like it’s your last” mindset is a must for climbing, as there is a chance that you could seriously injure yourself every minute you’re on the wall. Not being 100% focused can lead to potentially dangerous mistakes.
Fortunately, I have the ability to leave the climbing gym whenever I don’t feel completely into it. But as a musician, I don’t have that option. It is my duty to the audience to “play every show like it’s my last.” Looking through the lens of a rock climber has greatly helped me to hone in on what matters most in my music making. I have to put the same effort into every song as I do every climb, as if my life depended on it. Because it’s true—my artistic soul does depend on it, and the audience deserves the music that results from this focus and dedication.