Performance reborn

A followup — more constructive, maybe — to my multicomment-inspiring post on the East Coast Chamber Orchestra. (And Janine Jansen.)

Call this another in my “solutions” series.

So let’s say we agree that many classical performances need to be reinvigorated. Not because they’re awful, not because they’re not committed and vigorous, but because there’s something somewhat impersonal about them. That would have many causes; the emphasis on precision, and the emphasis (in music schools) on playing in proper style (so that classical music becomes a forest of “don’t”s, instead of a picnic of wonderful things to do). And the emphasis, in music schools, on analysis, which implies that the power of the music lies in technical details of form and harmony.

And, finally, the idea that classical musicians exist to serve the composer, and that their own individuality is submerged in a search for the composer’s intentions.

Which isn’t to say that great performances didn’t happen under all these conditions. In the ’50s and’50s, I’d say, this approach was truly invigorating, as a reaction to what seemed like the uninformed romanticism of the decades before World War II.

But now we’re in another time. Conditions have changed, people think differently. So here are some thoughts on how to make classical performances more personal.

Study acting. A pianist friend of mine did this. He took a couple of years’ worth of acting classes. When you study acting, you learn (among other things) how to bring your emotions to the front of your being. You have to do that, if you’re going to make emotional moments in plays come alive. Some of them jump to life in an instant. Your emotions have to do that, too. And they have to show.

Take movement classes. Free your body. Your feelings will follow. In rehearsals, or when you’re practicing, try to dance the music for a while, instead of playing it. Imagine a chamber group doing this! Or an entire orchestra. Or the cast of an opera. You don’t even have to take classes, if you really throw yourself into this. The idea isn’t to move like a dancer. It’s to bring what the music is doing alive in another way, so you gather more feeling and energy to put back in the music.

Work with a stage director. Not on stage movement, or acting. (Though many classical musicians could use some training in how to handle their bodies onstage.) But you might work with a stage director to work out the flow of feelings in your performance. Are you bringing out, as you play, everything you feel? Directors deal with that question, when they rehearse with actors. There’s no reason they couldn’t do the same with musicians. And not just with soloists. Above all with ensembles. Imagine what might shake loose if musicians had to talk about their interaction, had to work on the emotional tone and content of it, the way actors do.

Tell stories. Talk through the music. Recreate the pieces you’re playing as stories. Talk through them out loud. Don’t worry about literary quality. You’re not doing this for anyone else. You’re just getting inside the music in another, potentially very vivid way. Especially if you get carried away a little, and started to speak with excitement and feeling. Then you go back to the music. Are you playing everything you spoke so excitedly about? Imagine, again, a chamber group doing this, reimagining a string quartet as a journey four people take together. And narrating, with real commitment, every stage of the voyage. (Acting classes could help with this, I’m sure, and so could a director. But neither is necessary! Musicians, trust yourselves. Find what you need inside yourselves, and use these techniques — games, improvisations, excitements — to bring the inside into view.)

Improvise musically. Imagine a piece you’re playing, doing new things. Play a passage, but don’t continue the way that the score says you should. Make up something new. Improvise the entire piece! Divide it into sections, in as much detail as you like. Describe what happens in each section. Webern did that, when he sketched some of his works. He’d plan a section that described wildflowers on a mountainside, let’s say, and then another about what the top of the mountain felt like. Do something like that with pieces you play. Then improvise something new, something entirely your own, that goes through each stage of the journey. You just might bring alive, to yourself, the flow of the piece, its progress, even its meaning. And then you can put what you found into your performance of the notes the composer actually wrote.

Compose. One thing this is about is owning the music you play. And how could you own a piece more, than by writing it yourself? Don’t think you can’t compose. In classical music, we’ve put up barriers, imagined that composing is some special talent, which only a few people have. It wasn’t looked at that way in past centuries, and isn’t looked at that way in pop music now, or in jazz. If you play, if you feel music, if you think about music, if you know music, you can compose. Do it just for yourself, if you’re not sure you’re confident. But try writing a piece, and then playing — as seriously as you’d play Beethoven — what you write. Do this enough, and you might find yourself with a new, gut understanding of both expression, and musical structure. Then go back to your normal repertoire, and work your way into the music from a composer’s point of view. You may see it differently.

Play everything wrong! Here’s something I read on pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski’s blog. She’s quoting Byron Janis:

Julius Seligmann, president of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, attended a recital where the composer played his new “Mazurka in B flat, Opus 7 no. 1″ as an encore. According to Seligmann, it met with such great success that Chopin decided to play it again, this time with such a radically different interpretation–tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed–that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka, and it rewarded him with a prolonged, vociferous ovation. It seems he had facetiously decided to show why he had no need to republish a score–the magic of interpretation would do it for him. He would often say, “I never play the same way twice.”

Take that to heart! In rehearsal, at least, do what Chopin did, with the pieces you’re playing. Play the fast parts slowly, and the slow parts fast. Play the loud parts softly. Ignore fermatas. Change the rhythm. Change tempo drastically. Stick in violent accents on notes that don’t normally have them. Shake the music loose, in other words, from everything you’ve ever thought it might be. And then put it back together again. See what happens.

Catherine links to a marvelous essay by Janis, called “In Praise of Infidelity.” In which I found these words, which just set me aflame. They summarize everything I’m saying here: “Before the heart can remember, the mind must forget.”

These ideas are just a beginning. I’d love to have yours!

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Comments

  1. says

    The problem with overly sterile performance that’s driven by a conviction to get it right could be fixed by more classes and more studying and more thinking about what’s going on in the music. No, I see no irony here, either.

    I don’t take what you say here ironically. My wife, as many people know, is writing a book in collaboration with Leon Fleisher, about his life. During the performances I commented on here, I often thought of Leon, imagining that he wouldn’t have liked the performances any more than I did. Now, I’m not pretending I can speak for him, so let me stress that what I’ve said is wholly my idea, and that he, informed of it, might strongly disagree.

    But one thing that comes through, when you learn about him, is how deeply he thinks about music, and how he tries to penetrate beyond the obvious, to the deepest things that lie inside a piece. A superficial performance, no matter how sincere, isn’t something he’d normally like.

    I could add that, from everything I know, Leon and I would thoroughly disagree about the big issues facing classical music. But because of his deep and honorable commitment to musical truth, I felt a kinship with him as I listened to the performances I wrote about here.

  2. Janis says

    This is starting to get a little “Lathe of Heaven,” actually … I think the solution is just to get in front of people and PLAY — as gigging musicians.

  3. Janis says

    And those places need to be places where the typical patron did not spend $250 on their night out, counting parking, food, and drinks. I tend to think that, as nice as places like Poisson Rouge may be, they are simply today’s version of the places where the monied elite go to spend their leisure time. The style of how to behave and where to go to be a member of that community has changed, but the community itself hasn’t. Yesterday, those people would go to a concert hall; today, they go to trendy exclusive clubs. But they are the same people, and the same cultural capital is being exchanged.

    Go to other places. Go to places where your average patron spends $5 on a glass of beer and there’s no cover charge. Go to places where people have no clue WTF a “summer home” is and where no one they’ve ever known has one. Go to a place with a bouncer or two.

  4. says

    Greg, your ideas are great.

    Ultimately it comes down to philosophy and purpose.

    When I studied with students of Piatigorsky (Denis Brott and Stephen Kates), who had studied with him late in his life, they spoke constantly about finding a way into the emotional life of a piece, as an individual, and bringing it to life. Being a vehicle for the piece, so to speak, and putting your own emotions at its service. I don’t remember either of them using this term, but what I got was that they were speaking of what I know think of as emotional authenticity. One of them was even obsessed with “An Actor Prepares.”

    During the time I studied at Juilliard with Leonard Rose, there wasn’t same ethos. With Mr. Rose, I felt it was about using pieces to display how well he played the cello. This may be terribly unfair, but it was how it seemed to me at the time. Sure, he was musical, and played with a wide range of color and nuance. But everything seemed preset. The same fingerings, the same bowings, even, it seemed, the same timings. Mr. Rose and his assistant could teach you to play a piece like Mr. Rose (and some of his students would refer to how “we play” this or that piece), because there was in essence “a” set way he played them. (My other intuition was that he was actually trying to imitate his own playing of his younger self. And I’m certainly not alone in thinking that his playing as a young man was more engaging than in his later years).

    Now I’m not saying that my teacher didn’t have their show-off, ego-driven moments. Certainly as a teenager I put on a huge show of showing how emotive I was when I played, and if I had had a dazzling technique I probably would have made a show of that. Almost no one consistently lives up to their highest ideals. But I did experience a very different approach to what it means to be a musician.

    Why is someone playing? What’s the meaning for the performer? To really surrender yourself to the music (or the character if you’re an actor) and let it possess you, so to speak, is not easy, and you have to want to do it. Are you there to bring the music to life? To create an enlivening, potentially transforming experience?

    Or are you (even unconsciously) trying to prove your worth? To show how well you play? (Which can mean how emotional you are, or precise, or sensitive, or whatever.) How sexy you are? How dazzling you are?

    The intent to just make music is a hard thing to achieve. A performer has to have found her or his way through an inner quagmire to be able to get on stage and honestly make music with out some other social subtext taking priority.

    Lots and lots and lots and lots of actors study acting and movement and improvisation and their performances feel contrived. I don’t think it’s the culture of the theatre, which if anything is more focused on authentic human experience than that of classical music. It’s that it is just so damned hard to do. If you feel you have to prove yourself, you’re going to be trying to prove yourself, and that’s going to alter your performance.

    Greg, you’re talking about systemic change or really systemic transformation. Once a system is in place it is nearly impossible to change. And it takes a long time. Meanwhile, new systems emerge and start to supplant the old, and some of the institutions (and individuals) in the old system fail.

    But there’s also human nature. The psychological/personal meaning of a performance to a performer is something beyond the awareness and control of most people.

    Even if we change the system, or encourage the alternative ones that are emerging, even if we fix much of what’s broken with the traditional institutions, people will still be people. If we posit for the sake of argument that your responses to the performances you described your previous post were universally shared, I think they show less about the current system than they do about human nature. There will always be performers (and audiences) who prize perfection of execution over emotional authenticity and whose expression feels contrived. There will always be performers who put on a show of personal emotion that some audience members find disconnected from the music. Because when people perform for others, all sorts of inner issues and agendas are triggered, and it’s the rare individual who can just make music, or just act, or just dance. There are a lot of things we can do, but we’re all still going to be human.

    And this is why I’m still not sure that your reactions to the performances you discussed in the last post are all that relevant to discussions about the classical-change movement. No matter what change and/or transformation takes place, there will always be performances that miss the mark. (And, of course, arguments about whether or not those performances missed or hit the mark!) New venues, new ways of presentation, new ways of marketing, new formats, new repertoire, etc., etc., all need to continue to be developed. Even in the new culture(s), though, we’ll find that some performances work better than others.

    Since I’ve blathered on this long, I’ll say that some of my favorite performers have been really screwed up human beings. To do what great artists do (I hate the word great but at the moment I don’t know what other word to use) may simply take a great gift, and it’s very hard for a human being to live with the gift and the professional pressures it brings.

    Very beautifully put, Eric.

    You remind me of something I’ve long thought about. It’s that music criticism is, at bottom, about the greater life that lies beyond (and all around, and below) music. Imagine a Socratic dialogue. I say that something displeased me about a musical performance. Socrates asks me why the thing that displeased me matters. I try to tell him. I give him a reason. Then he asks me why my reason matters.
    I say, for instance, that the the excessively slow tempo in the second movement distorts the overall shape of a piece. He asks why that matters. I say it matters because the composer has put careful thought into the overall shape of the piece. Why does _that_ matter? he asks

    It matters, I tell him, because the piece loses its integrity if we don’t respect the shape the composer gives it. And why does _that_ matter? asks Socrates.

    Eventually we get down to very basic questions about life. I want to understand what a composer put in a piece and then have that rendered in performance, because I think it’s important to respect other human beings. And we can go even deeper than that. Thus musical questions, in my view, are, at bottom, questions about the most important things in life. (Which does _not_ mean that someone who, in my view, butchers a piece of music has committed the same kind of moral crime as someone who butchers a human being!)

  5. Janis says

    This is the second time I’ve heard the analogy with acting come up, and it doesn’t sit well with me. It’s too close to the “the performer must vanish behind the composer” mentality where who the musician is as a person is unimportant. I want to see who the musician is. I’ve said this before: some of the best pop and rock music (and jazz, blues, and other forms I’m less familiar with) has come about when someone has been playing or singing a piece of music of direct and immediate importance to THEM, written BY them from their own lives. Good acting is fine in its place, but I don’t WANT to watch someone vanish. I’m enjoying watching Tina Turner on stage being Tina Turner. That’s quite different from watching Zoe Wanamaker turn into someone else, and classical music is already obsessed with the eradication of the musician.

    Acting training is neutral. It can help you vanish into a character, or it can help you manifest yourself. It could help you be Lawrence Olivier, or David Letterman. Or, for that matter, Cary Grant, one of many actors who never vanished into a character. The pianist I mentioned thinks his acting classes helped him mobilize and project and more quickly respond to the feelings he wants to put in the music he plays.

  6. Steve says

    @Janis – I don’t think Greg is suggesting that musicians use acting as a way to disappear behind a facade, or, conversely, as a way to inject more ego (aka “self-expression”) into it. Quite the opposite, in fact – I think he is suggesting this as a way for performers to access the deeper feelings that the music evokes in them, and to bring that part of themselves to the performance.

    Greg’s suggestion about improvisation is interesting, but most musicians are sadly discouraged from this. Or of playing by ear. As a result, there are many talented musicians who can not play a lick unless there is a piece of paper in front of them. And when confronted with the opportunity, they often freeze in terror. This may be less the case these days, but I’ve seen it happen in person enough to know it’s not uncommon.

    It seems to me that a major obstacle in all of this is the the classical music establishment’s fetishization of perfection. There is an almost unattainable ideal that is set as the supposed standard. Those who can live up to it are rewarded, and those who can’t are shamed and sent packing. But the price is too often that perfection demands that musicians become machines – ones that can perhaps convey emotion, but machines all the same. What would happen if young musicians were allowed to be imperfect? To be human?

  7. Janis says

    I cannot think of a single compelling rock, pop, or blues performer who needed acting lessons to act like themselves on stage. Billie Holiday did not ACT like herself, she was on stage and simply WAS herself. Eddie Van Halen did not take acting lessons to learn how to be a rock star. He was just a flamboyant, obsessive guitar player. Duke Ellington did not take acting lessons on how to be raised-pinkie-and-boutonniere dapper, he just WAS. David Bowie put on and took off personas like clothing because he was just like that. He was following no acting lessons; he was just off doing his own weird little things.

    Actors — and I’ve heard stage-trained, award-winning classical actors of my personal acquaintance say this — tell lies for a living. They are professional fakes.

    In the current climate of hyper-obsessive perfectionism and competition, I’m absolutely positive that every piano student on Earth would just try to fake looking like Horowitz. They’re already thinking too much when they’re on stage. Giving them yet one more thing to consciously do right or wrong is not the answer.

    I know I keep harping on the musicians of my youth and hence dating myself, but I remember seeing a concert boot video of Steve Perry singing in New York a while back. He (like a lot of popular singers) did a lot of back-and-forth with the audience, call-and-response singing. There was one screencap I should link here where he’s holding the mic out to the audience, and that 45 year old man looked like a six year old kid on Christmas morning. There is no WAY that acting lessons (and giving already overbooked and self-conscious students one more thing to for juries to score them low on) would give anyone what they need to do that. They either want to do it or they don’t.

    It’s like trying to cure inauthenticity with yet more inauthenticity. If you’re enjoying yourself up there on stage, the audience will know it. I don’t want to sit there and watch someone frightened of yet one more thing they have to do exactly correctly that jury members can deduct points for.

    Janis, you seem to think of acting, in the stage sense, as pretending or faking. When I sang Captain Balstrode in Peter Grimes, at Yale in the ’70s, I had trouble staging the duet I sang with the tenor doing Grimes. He had trouble, too. So the director took us off the stage, and put us in an empty room. We had to do the scene entirely on our own. No set, no props, no blocking. No piano. We sang the scene, and manifested it physically. At moments when I had to get the tenor’s attention, I had to truly get it. I had to block him, physically, so he couldn’t get away from what I was saying to him. I don’t mean I grabbed him and held him down. I mean I had to put out so much physical energy that he couldn’t get away from me. A little like guarding someone in basketball, and preventing him from shooting, or getting a pass. Then, when he had to get my attention, he had to do the same thing to me. We put real feeling into that. We had to. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.

    After that, it took us about five minutes to go back to the stage, and the set and the props, and figure out how to make our improvised staging work there. With all the real feeling — the real effect on each other — we’d been forced to find in the empty room.
    That’s one technique that actors might use in acting classes.

  8. Gyan says

    Classical performers giving a new spin on a warhorse only holds novelty value for those habituated to the tradition i.e. the converted.

    I think classical music will only reinvigorate itself when the larger audience has a different need of its aesthetic food.

    Suggestions to jazz it up or alter the cosmetic aspects of performances won’t attract the non-interested to the classical canon but, at best, legitimize classical music as a source for derivative works in contemporary genres. Me, I’d rather have Beethoven’s Fifth to a Fifth of Beethoven.

  9. says

    This and the last post keeps reminding me of a blurb from an old issue of the Theatre Symposium journal–the special issue titled “Crosscurrents in Drama: East and West” (Volume 6, 1998). It’s from “Part II: The Symposium, A Panel Discussion on Crosscurrents in the Drama” which is a condensed transcription of the panel discussion. Samuel Leiter says this about about Asian theatrical performance:

    In Asian performance we find wonderful examples of how an audience perceives the theatrical performance on many levels simultaneously. First, the audience perceives the character and the story–something that occurs in all theatrical events. Second, it perceives and responds to the actor, the musician, the dancer–that is to the living artists who are embodying the story and characters. Third, the “genre,” the art form within which the artist and the story is enfolded. Fourth, the audience recognizes this is a theatrical event and not reality. Fifth, the audiences is aware of its own existence in the time and space of the performance, and finally, the theatrical event exists within the larger social construct around it. When we recognize that audiences can have these multiple levels of perception at performances of kabuki or kathakali or Wayang Kulit, we are immediately aware of the limitation with Western realism. Realism is only concerned with the first level of audience response and ignores or specifically invalidates the others.

    The transcript continues a bit and then states he shows a clip of a performance (of “The List Song”) of his production of Kabuki Mikado that he did at the University of Hawaii to illustrate his points. He continues:

    In this song all the levels that I have mentioned operate. And second, contrary to the received wisdom that stylization interferes with genuine emotional expression, we have marvelous examples in Asian performance that highly artificial, codified techniques of acting strongly support and indeed increase the emotional “truth” of acting. [This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the cheif shamisen player. i asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Or course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “creat” anew.

    Personally I still find this old debate to be maddening and frustrating and kinda bewildering. Maybe this has to do with most of my earliest musical experiences coming from my Thai mother who had always wanted to be a Likay performer and and taught me Thai songs as a child before I ever started my formal Western Classical music training. Who knows.

    But I do find it interesting how dichotomized the issue is and how the perception of Classical Musicians vs Rock/Pop Musicans (which always necessarily leaves out the vast majority of musicians doing neither around the world) often center on the issues of creativity and authentic emotion.

    I mean, exactly how creative is it to write a five minute tune with a 4/4 rhythm with a simple chord progression? At what point have you actually “created” something when the musical structure you’re using is something that’s been used in literally millions of songs? I have this argument all the time with a number of the local rock and pop musicians when a discussion of the “Covers vs Original band” (another dead horse that gets beaten often by musicians on the pop side) issue comes up.

    Going back to the example given above, it’s interesting how much we have to categorize certain things to help maintain the validation of our points–if we’re all unique, as the Japanese artists/musicians state above, then there’s no way for us to completely copy something (even a composed piece). We’ll all bring our idiosyncrasies to a performance of anything we do, and that–in my opinion–is unique expression whether it’s done by an original artist, or a cover band musician or a classical musician.

    I think that probably interests me more than whether a musician has “created” his or her own work. Since I’m obviously not using the same definition of “to create” (no creation ex nihilo going on for me) as most seem to do — including the idea of creating an emotional expression during performance — I don’t think I have the same hang-ups about whether someone is being authentic in their performance.

    I also don’t think the obfuscation of the distinction (another particular categorization) between “writing” (a piece of music) and “performing” a piece of music is particularly helpful. Just because a pop musician might have “written” his or her own song–doesn’t necessarily make him the sole and authoritative interpreter of that song in performance. Doesn’t necessarily make him or her a particularly good interpreter of it. The Japanese musician doesn’t seem to be preoccupied with with “writing his own songs” so that he can make something his own. Why should we be obsessed with the model of writing or improvising “our own music” to make it “our own?”

    That’s an issue that goes along with the history and tradition of property rights and ownership (another thing that seems to get discussed here often) that probably has more to do with a Western politico-economic notion of how things get owned than anything else and ultimately deals with who gets paid for the “work” accomplished.

    Without those cultural, economic, and political backgrounds the “Cover vs Original Band” or the “Classical High Art Music vs Popular Low Art Music” discussion would be stillborn and I guess that’s part of what perplexes me since there are usually far more than just two sides to this issue.

    Thanks for bringing us many sides, Jon. You’ve given us the advanced course in performance, and life. The things I talked about in my post are the elementary course — ways to help yourself wake up when you’re committed to performances that have precious few roots in any culture you deeply understand. (Fighting words, I know.)

  10. Bill Brice says

    Janis — you make a good point, that many great performers need no help at all in “being themselves” and projecting that self as part of the performance. But I’d argue that there’s quite a lot about performance art that doesn’t just come naturally to a lot of performers. That many (most?) performers need a lot of thought, preparation, and practice to make it all seem natural seems, itself, to be a natural part of artistic effort.

    I’m impressed with Greg’s list of methods for getting there. Sure, like any methodical approach, these suggestions could become standardized, ritualized, and stripped of their original goal. So, we need to keep looking for new ways to trick ourselves into seeing something old as renewed and projecting that spirit. It might be a little like the Zen koan — you could memorize and regurgitate some wise-sounding answer to the koan (just as you could learn techniques for “emoting” music). But a good performer should be able to recognize when this is happening in his own performance and should have some imaginative way of jumping outside the tried-and-true channels of thought.

    So, bravo, Greg! I love your ideas — especially your “play everything wrong” one. Like much out-of-the-box thinking, this assumes you’ll do a lot of private practice that’s not suitable for public performance. Which is part of what practice and learning should be!

    Thanks, Bill. I think the mantra here would be “surprise yourself.” Take yourself out of your comfort zone, your familiar habits (even good habits), and surprise yourself. The minute any technique on my list becomes ritualized — the minute you can play a Chopin piece in five distinct ways without being surprised at any of them, and remaining detached from what you’re doing…well, that might be the moment when you should return to the discipline of doing it one way, and making that one way better and better and better.

  11. Janis says

    “That many (most?) performers need a lot of thought, preparation, and practice to make it all seem natural seems, itself, to be a natural part of artistic effort.”

    I agree … but it sure seems as if one end of things has fewer of those sorts of people than others. The standard world of classical music has already painted itself into a corner by overformalizing everything. More formalization of what should come more naturally is not going to help.

  12. Janis says

    You know what the “answer” is?

    Stop thinking so much and just do it.

    Stop trying to get impressive people with too many letters after their names to validate your talent.

    Just get in front of people, wherever they may be, and PLAY.

    No more classes, no more junk to get right, no more books, no more tests, no more excuses to lock yourself up in a classroom or practice room for 8 hours. Get the hell out and PLAY.

    And find yourself at the mercy of all your preconceptions, all your bad habits, lack of concentration, lack of technique, and all your lack of understanding, if you should happen not to understand much about what you’re doing. Janis, I think it’s more complicated than you’re making it. Spontaneity, by itself, isn’t always enough. Ask Charlie Parker.

  13. says

    Bowie was a member of a mime and theater troupe and brought all of that training onto the stage, Ziggy Stardust being his first well-known creation. He wasn’t just “doing his own weird things…”

    He’s even said that in retrospect he should have hired someone else to “play” Ziggy and tour ala a touring musical instead of wearing himself out to the point where he burnt out and announced his “retirement” from the stage (“This is the last show we will ever do…”).

    But he is an incredible actor and it’s hard to imagine anyone else onstage singing those songs although other people have done it.

    And Bowie’s performances in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” “Absolute Beginners,” and “The Hunger” all show serious acting chops.

    Yes, acting, like (ahem) composing, requires some training and time commitment. But some people “have it” and some don’t. The reason why more musicians don’t compose is because…not everyone can do it. No big deal. Not everyone can play pianner either…

  14. Janis says

    Nevertheless, he acted and did other stuff simply because he liked it and was an artsy type, not because he wanted to take yet one more class to learn how to act like he wasn’t acting while performing his music.

  15. says

    There’s room for a variety of approaches to performing. Why tie a hand behind your back? Classes or private study in other disciplines (not just in the arts) can indeed assist a musician on so many levels.

    I have a friend who is a chess master in addition to being a great bassist/singer who teaches chess to young kids. The idea is that chess will assist them with other areas of decision making and their own personal growth. My wife does yoga and swims – both activities contribute the technique she already possesses as a singer.

    You never stop learning. No reason to paint yourself into a corner ever. I think we all can agree on that – I just had to represent being the biggest Bowie fan on the planet (That restraining order? That was a misunderstanding…)

    Bowie is one of the most powerful, and (overused word coming) authentic actors I’ve ever seen in a movie. The routine segue from there would be, “It’s a shame he didn’t make more films,” but maybe it’s not. Maybe only by making so few could he focus the way he did (and with so little apparent effort). (I have to add “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” of course, to the list you made earlier. Not that you don’t know the film, obviously! I’m just dotting the i.

  16. Janis says

    I completely understand — I’m just saying that, for a community that is already addicted to exams, competitions, and classroom work, adding more of the same is a dangerous thing to do.

    Act, paint, do handwork, woodwork, anything — it all does indeed feed into the same well of creativity that drives all humanity. But, given the nature of the community at the moment, I see this turning very quickly into yet one more thing that gets marked off, one more class you have to take and pass better than your fellow students passed, one more thing you need to do exactly correctly so someone with too many letters after their name will bless your attempts and validate you as talented.

    I admire and like Bowie’s music as well — I wouldn’t have mentioned him as a good example if I hadn’t. And he’s not at all the “spend your life in the practice room” type. I did know he was quite a good actor; what he wasn’t was someone who did it to get an A or to learn how to fake being expressive while singing or to make jury members like him. (“I’m playing something that I’m supposed to play intensely and slightly passionate, so I’d better frown a bit now!”)

    I just think that piling on more directives and more “take a class in X” is the wrong advice to give to a community of musicians who are already suffocating under too large a burden of Doing Things Right and taking classes.

    I’d like to give them the following order instead: Go pick something creative to learn about and do, but you may not take a class in it. Read books, talk to people, buy a paint set, whatever — you may not take a class. You may not go sign up for something that tells you in no uncertain terms via the first six letters of the alphabet whether you’ve succeeded or not.

  17. says

    For 3 years straight, I’ve taken a mini classical concert to a highschool with the highest percentage of students on parole of any school in the district. Last year I played Chopin’s first ballade – a 10 minute work. And they were silent – totally engrossed. Now, I gave them my written description of the piece (which I cleaned up for under-18) titled “Snuff Porn”. And I truly believe this interpretation of the piece. And my performance was totally over the top Emo. And they totally bought it. These kids don’t even have enough money for mp3 players or computers. They listen to the radio. And yet, my firm belief is that if I listen to my dead composers as though they are alive today, dealing with today’s environment, I can bring a relevant interpretation that excites me (and therefor excites my audience) to the stage. BTW, this highschool is one of my favorite audiences.

    Thanks, Maria. I’d love to hear your performance.

  18. Janis says

    Okay, so what all my blather seems to boil down to is the following:

    SOLUTION: Tell your students to learn to do something creative or athletic, but they are not allowed to take a class in it, not even pass/fail. They must learn it on their own and be content to do it to THEIR standards and for their own enjoyment. NO GRADED CLASSES. If they want to run, just running for pleasure. Mountain biking, hiking, or yoga for the athletic types. Painting, knitting, or woodworking for the crafty sorts. No graded classes (although you do need some guidance to learn to work a bandsaw safely).

    Basically, they are being directed to determine the difference between learning something and taking a class in it. They need to decouple the love of a creative pastime from outdoing everyone else and getting approval from an authority figure.

    It may be strange for them to hear “go learn something without a teacher” from a teacher (like Greg), but that’s what they need to do. As someone who teaches classes for a living, I think it may be easy for Greg to come up with classroom-related solutions :-), but I think “stop looking for validation from an authority figure” is probably the most powerful message any academic authority figure can send.

  19. says

    Greg, that probably came out sounding more critical than it meant to–I really think many of the ideas you posed are very good ones, and am nowhere near as reticent about how they might fail for some of the reasons, say, that Janis gave.

    I think I learned more about why I make music (or why I should be making music) while I was informally and formally studying performance art and the kind of experimental music that borders on that discipline.

    It gave me a different perspective–one that i think can help a lot of folks when they might be unsure, or maybe even too sure about why they’re doing what they are doing.

    And I think it can help musicians to learn how to connect to something bigger than themselves than to just narcissistically “be ourselves” in musical performance.

    That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Connect with others rather than “wanking” (as pop musicians call it) around on stage or, as some more facetiously put it, public masturbate on stage. Someone who can’t study and learn something about music outside of their own idiosyncratic understanding of what it means to make music is just as poor a musician as someone who studies music obsessively without understanding that music is meant to make some kind of connection between the musician and audience.

    But you’ve also said that too, i think:

    And find yourself at the mercy of all your preconceptions, all your bad habits, lack of concentration, lack of technique, and all your lack of understanding, if you should happen not to understand much about what you’re doing. Janis, I think it’s more complicated than you’re making it. Spontaneity, by itself, isn’t always enough. Ask Charlie Parker.

    Thanks, Jon. Please be as critical as you like! I know you and I agree on many things. We don’t have to agree on everything.

    Wankers. Just as a thought experiment — and please, Pierre-Arnaud, join us in this — let’s picture Carter and Boulez as wankers. Oh, people will think that’s outrageous! But here you have two composers who might — just possibly — be considered supreme narcissists, lavishly funded to live in a hall of mirrors, universally admired by the inhabitants of their tiny universe, and not in touch in any way with even the most obscure part of any culture beyond their corner of classical music. Whatever the value of their music — and Carter’s, for me, is at the very least absorbing, and Boulez’s at the very least pretty — this isn’t a healthy position for an artist to be in. It’s not that you have to be in contact, with your art, with many people. It’s that you’re in contact with the currents of your time. Carter emphatically was, when he wrote his First Quartet, a piece that still resonates with adventure and excitement. But now?

  20. says

    Oh most definitely–academic composition would be the “high art” world equivalent of “Wanking”–as, I would suspect, solo artists and Concerti Repertoire. Sure, there’s a difference between self-indulgent virtuosity and virtuosity as a means to making music. but that’s a very thin line and is probably just as rare to find virtuosic music making as non-virtuosic music making.

    I’m just not so sure that the hype of the pop and rock music world as being the realm to find “authentic” as opposed to the classical world of impersonal music making is as useful a model to use as others seem to think mainly because I spend as much time interacting and performing with musicians in both camps and find most of the same quirks, complaints, biases in both groups. People are the same when we’re broadly construing them as ingroup populations.

    The biggest problem here seems to be using, for the most part, Big Name Successful Artists as the stereotype to characterize the behavior of the more local and regional artists–the latter of which constitute the much more numerous population of musicians. Saying that Janine Jensen is being overly emotive to the point of parody as opposed to Elvis Costello’s supposedly ‘authentic’ emotion is about as useful as saying that Einstein’s response to the field of Quantum Mechanics is unnecessarily hard-lined as opposed to Niels Bohr’s Complementarity approach to the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

    Neither comparisons tell us much about the everyday interactions, values, interpretations, and work of the vast majority of musicians and physicists who aren’t consistently in the limelight and under constant mass public scrutiny.

    I guess it’s the difference between talk about the elite superstar musicians and the working class musicians for me if that makes any sense.

    Makes perfect sense, Jon. And no one, I hope, would go around saying that pop music is by nature authentic. It has some advantages over Elliott Carter, because of its direct connection to a wide swath of life. But that doesn’t tell us anything about what any individual pop musician does. Some of them, as we well know, are insufferable.

    I hope it’s clear that my idea about Elliott Carter as a wanker is a thought experiment. Suppose we thought of him that way. Would we get a new perspective that might turn out to be helpful? Doesn’t mean i want to classify him that way forever!

  21. says

    That’s part of the irony, Greg. Sometimes when I have gotten in online and real time discussions (ok–more like arguments–hah) with pop/rock musicians, many of whom who do have a low regard for the virtuosic guitar work of, say Malmsteen, Vai, or even Buckethead will sometimes invoke the Classical concert soloist as the model of ‘musicality’ to strive for–all with the understanding that most concert soloist are just playing someone else’s work which, given the ubiquitous Cover Band vs. Original Band debate makes most of those pleas fall flat.

    Failing that, they will invoke (if they’re at all familiar with them) Liszt, Chopin or Paganini as the paragon–but that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Romanticizing a musical past that may or may not have existed quite as we think it did. Sure, those three were popular virtuosi Classical musicians and composers that wrote their own music but just how popular were they in the grand scheme of things? How much of their popularity is overblown the same way the elitist history of Western Classical music is overblown?

    In a similar structural way that maybe, just maybe, Western pop and rock artists’ popularity is a bit overblown?

    These are the questions I ask myself when I’ll play, for example, some very recognizable cover of a very popular tune by the Beatles that barely registers acknowledgment from an audience, then in the next instant play a Mohammed Abdul Wahhab tune that everyone will start singing and dancing to only to have that eventually fizzle out when I continue into a the prelude to the first Bach Solo Cello Suite.

    That’s probably one of the most fascinating things about playing a wide variety of material–is to see an incredibly wide variety of responses dependent on what kind of audience is present and what material gets performed. It’s like a public experiment–but in this one I have controls and I’m probably working with less sampling bias than a few performers.

    And yes, i think we do agree very much about a lot of things–especially the critical ones dealing with the state of Classical music and that there is something going on in the pop world that seems to be working. Thing is, I think the Classical music crisis and what seems to be working in popular music are just two sides of the same coin and when compared only to each other might give a bit of a distorted view of what’s going on–a view you seemed to show a glimpse to us of when you blogged about your experiences in Tunis and about the City Opera and its attempt at pulling in a Jewish crowd.

    I think you’re onto something with your explorations here, and responding to your blog posts and the comments is actually really giving me a lot to bounce ideas off since I’m not entirely sure what I’m onto.

    And for the record–I absolutely love Carter’s works, but have no problems seeing his compositional output being a good example of Classical Wankery! I think yes we could get a useful perspective, but useful for what is the question, right?

    Carter and wankery — the perspective I want is one in which Carter is stripped of his halo, and becomes just an artist like any other, playing a role in the world. As for Paganini and pop stars today, the popularity of pop stars is overstated these days, because pop is so fragmented. We have a few entertainers, like Beyoncé, who have a wide reach, but most people in the pop arena speak to only a few slices of our demographic mix.

    Liszt and Paganini were wildly popular in their time, as popularity was measured then. Paganini’s scandal’s were all over the 19th century equivalent of tabloid journalism. Women ran to pick up Liszt’s discarded cigar butts — seriously! — and then wore them around their necks. Liszt sometimes had large escorts of fans when he left a city after a concert gig. The difficulty, in deeply understanding what was going on, is the difference between the reach of 19th century audiences, and the reach of audiences today. The mass audience we have didn’t exist then. Probably the bulk of people in the population — poorer people, farmers, and the like — didn’t take part in musical events. But for the audience that did exist, the stars back then were huge.

    Stories from Italy — women in the audience fainting during Rossini’s operas, because of the impact of the music. Regulations having to be enacted in (I think) Venice, to stop people singing a famous tune from Rossini’s opera Tancredi in court, and disrupting proceedings.

  22. says

    Wow, you just read my mind.

    I’ve just created a series of books for beginner pianists for the Australian Music Examination Board, and it’s like a complete how-to of the points you list (apart from, obviously, not coming with its own stage director).

    Students completely recompose the music they are playing, they change the titles as an impetus to changing the way they play, the tonality is malleable (and forget the oh-so 18th century major/minor dichotomy, these kids play five finger positions that include Lydian, Phrygian, final 5 notes of the harmonic scale, final 4 notes of the harmonic scale +1, plus positions we can’t even describe in western theory), register is negotiable, articulation tells stories, time signatures define plot-lines….

    So maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a bunch of little Australians growing up with these principles at the foundation of their piano performance.

    Elissa, I love it that we’re thinking along the same lines. And we can’t be the only ones! I’m sure there are piano teachers here in the US who’d love to know more about what you’re doing. Thanks so much for letting me know here and on Twitter that you and I think alike.

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