Four personalities

I’m preparing a post about the culture of orchestras, one that I fear some people won’t like. Orchestral musicians, especially. Which will be ironic, if true, because they’re the ones who know best that what i’ll be saying is true. 

So there’s a teaser. To prepare for that post, I want to share something one of my Juilliard students wrote this past semester, which I’m quoting with her permission. I’d asked the class (in a takehome exam) to react to a blog post by Jade Simmons, a pianist who’s on a crusade to help classical musicians be more fully themselves while they play. 

My students embraced her view, and one of them wrote what follows:

A lot of us, especially those of us who are still in school, place too much importance on playing perfectly at the expense of thinking about the audience.  Of course a certain amount of technical precision is necessary to make a piece recognizable and enjoyable, but what is most noticeable to audiences is whether or not someone approaches the work with joy and spirit!  As a result I’ve pretty much developed 4 ways of playing.
1) The way I play in orchestra auditions – precise, mechanical, robotic.  In orchestra auditions it is more important to do nothing wrong than to do anything particularly well.  They are basically looking for a reason to eliminate you, and “bad intonation” is a lot more convincing than “plays like an automaton.”
2)The way I play in juries/other auditions – there’s a little room for flexibility and personality here, but not much.  I still know that I will get more points off for making a mistake than being boring, but they will notice if I’m totally phoning it in.  It’s especially hard to play Bach in juries because everyone has his or her own opinion as to how it should be played.  I generally just play it as middle of the road as I can so that no one loves it but no one hates it.
3)The way I play in performances which my teacher is attending – I have two very wonderful teachers here at Juilliard and they both allow me a lot of artistic freedom.  But every once in a while, they put their foot (feet?) down.  If I really (and I mean REALLY) don’t like what they want me to do, I will just pretend that I don’t understand what they are asking me to do.  (I’m pretty sure they know what’s going on though.)  If I’m ok with it but prefer my own way, I play it their way when they are listening.  And I can’t help but think that it probably sounds a little unconvinced, but while I’m still studying with them I feel like I owe it to them to use their ideas when they really think it’s important.  Do I really owe it to them?  I don’t know.  But I’m graduating in two weeks so HA!
4)The way I play in any other performance – I try to just have fun!  Especially when playing on stage with friends, I think the audience has the best time when we really interact with each other and show that we are committed to the performance.  If something goes wrong, all the better!  It’s also important for the audience to see that we are humans.  It’s not easy to be so vulnerable in performance – I’m generally a little bit of a nervous performer. I usually try to remember what someone told me (I don’t remember who) which is that when you get noticeably nervous in a concert it’s almost better because the audience roots for you more. 
Anyways, hopefully my multiple personality disorder will one day be resolved – hopefully I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 next year as I will be just performing and taking orchestra auditions.  And once I get a job and tenure, who knows!  I could very well finally become myself!

Now, maybe this more directly relates to how students play, than to how orchestras play. But I think we can see the connection. If students are encouraged to do, in their playing (and in their auditions) only what other people want, will that make them creative once they start working professionally.

Note, of course, that this student (someone with, generally, a marvelous spirit and a terrific sense of humor) things that things might finally improve, once there’s a tenured job in an orchestra. So the student, while noting that there’s pressure to conform, doesn’t necessarily agree with everything i’m saying (and I honor her for that). 

Let’s hope that’s right, and that this student has a long, rewarding, creative career playing in orchestras. Biut let’s also think about what we might do to make music study at least a little more flexible. 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Tom says

    I like what your student writes, Greg.

    However, I don’t think it’s being true to yourself and your art to have multiple personalities as a performing artist.

    Personally – and I freely admit that this may be a character flaw (or strength, who knows?) – I have in general – I refused to compromise while I was a music stuent and professional musician.

    I never kow-towed to the opinons of others (unless I asked for them) when I was both a student and a performing musician (I did both, mostly at the same time).

    Admittedly, I never auditioned seriously for an orchesta position. I was never interested in becoming an orchestra musician, so I’ll pass on that one. However, I will say this: in Europe, you may play blandly and strive for mere technical perfection at an audition for an orchestra job. But most European orchestras have at least a one year trial term for new hires, so they can be observed by their colleagues during rehearsals and concerts. If they don’t show more than pure technical skills, they will get fired at the end of the trial period – by their peers.

    When I played at exams, I played the pieces based on my tenets as a musician and, to a greater or lesser degree, the way my teacher and others I played for suggested.

    If, during regular lessons, I didn’t agree with my professor about what he suggested I do, I would openly discuss with the professor why they wanted me to do what they wanted me to do. If I agreed with their logic, I played the way they suggested. If not, I would agree to disagree with the professor and not make changes, or simply not bring the particular repertoire back into the professor’s studio. The intelligent professors I had, had no problems with my approach. In fact they seemed stimulated by my not treating their every word as gospel. Intelligent teachers WANT you to develop a personality of your own as a musician.

    One should always have fun playing. Part of having fun playing is forming your own opinions about a piece and then playing it according to them, regardless of what others may think. Again, I found audiences, juries and professors, appreciated my approach, which, while perhaps being unique to me, was never disrespectful of anyone I intereacted with as a musician.

    I think that what your student wrote indicates either a problem with the educational process at Juilliard, or a student who is still musically immature. Pardon me for being so blunt in my statement.

    One should always be oneself as a performing artist, otherwise one will never play with authority and in a way which captivates one’s audience, regardless of who they may be. Anything else is a lack of one’s integrity or immaturity as a musician.

  2. says

    This makes me wonder about the role of conductors too. It sounds like she may not be excited while playing in most of these situations because someone is telling her how she should play. Maybe classical concerts come off as unenthusiastic sometimes because we’re watching a bunch of people play music in a way that they don’t necessarily want to, because the conductor is telling them to play it that way. Classical music already has an intimacy handicap compared to pop music because the people playing usually didn’t write the music (and so don’t have that personal connection with it), this could just compound that.

    Of course, I know some conductors give the performers tons of freedom so there are exceptions to that.

  3. says

    “If students are encouraged to do, in their playing (and in their auditions) only what other people want, will that make them creative once they start working professionally.”

    Again a good post Greg and for me that sentence above is the crux of the problem, and the reason is, I think, two-fold.

    As the Steely Dan song says “I’ll learn to work the saxophone, I’ll play just what I feel”. The problem is it takes a lifetime of self-awareness to know ‘just how you feel’. This is always going to produce a certain difficulty with the performer, particularly as they are also working with the compoers’ intentions, again largely an unknown quantity.

    However if you try to go for what the audience want it is not going to be possible, even a small recital audience of a no more that two hundred people, is not going to have consistent views, or identical tastes, in repertoire or interpretation.

    I have two views on classical music which never go down well. The first is every piper has a paymaster. There are British musicians who don’t care about the audience, it is almost as if the audience not understanding their work is a badge of honour. However these same people are invariably concerned about what the adminsitrators from the funding bodies think and will target their publicity and performance to please these funders.

    My second unpopular view is that classical music is every bit as fashion concious as any other area of the music business; I would even say that classical music is more fashion conscious than indie rock, ambient or folk music.

    Anything (within reason of course) that gets the audience into the music is probably a good thing. And I think an impassioned performance really works. If the audience can see and feel that the performers are really committed and believe in both the music, and their interpretation of the music, that can be infectious. High quality image and media is all around as now and it is often not expensive or difficult to produce. If moderately fashionable clothes, simple back projections and talking to the audience works, why not use it?

  4. says

    Dear Greg,

    I’m happy to see your class having this discussion! Though in the end, my hope is that they find their unique, artistic identity and stick with it, though I can see the practicality of your student’s methodology. There’s room for flexibility of presentation and we should always be mindful of the demographics of our audience (grade schoolers versus connoisseurs) but mostly I want to make sure young, developing artists aren’t hijacked by the very confines your student mentions as the reasons for her multiple artistic personalities. I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to them in person and discuss it all at length. In the meantime, congrats for fostering these very important discussions.

    Thanks so much for being here, Jade. Both “here” as in the classical music world, and “here” as commenting on my blog. It’s good to see you. I think the student I quoted has a very practical, grounded view of reality, and I don’t think she loses sight of who she is. But there’s no doubt that others have been hijacked. Some of their reactions to your post, which I don’t have permission to post, told some sad stories.

    I’d love to have you visit the class next spring. I’ll contact you privately about that! Thanks for being interested.