Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Need + Purpose = Performance

Note: This post is a series of reflections on a truly engaging conversation my husband and I had with two colleagues - one, a choir director; the other, an opera director. 

Any of us who are music teachers now were, of course, students once before. We know what was easy and what was hard for us to understand. We know the things we wish we had been taught differently. And for those of us who have the time to change things by applying hindsight, we try teaching in the way we wish our teachers taught us.

One of the most difficult ideas to communicate to an aspiring young musician is finding the need to play. I don't mean the motivation for practice, or the interest in repertoire. I mean once those things are in place - there has to be a need to play. The piece, the song, or the role must have some type of catalyst, some need, that demands its performance. This is something that only the individual performing can know, and something that only the individual performing can decide. It makes no difference to the audience what that need is, (and honestly, they'll make up their own minds anyway, won't they?), but it makes every difference to the clarity and quality of performance.

In the instance that a performer is working with text, they are instantly more informed as to what the need could be.  Even in the case of art songs' abstracted poetry, the ideas and meaning contained in the text greatly influence the purpose of the music.  As Casey said in our conversation, we can only assume that composers desire to set particular texts because they seek to show us something about it that we otherwise miss from words alone; and, as informed listeners, we should expect the combination of the two languages (text and music) to give us a new and arguably, deeper, experience of the meaning of the text.

Admittedly, art song as a genre is a bit elusive. If you look up the term in various music history texts you'll most likely be dissatisfied with the results. I did this with two colleagues and we found ourselves arguing with the authors of the books, particularly Grout and Burkholder. In the conversation that inspired this post, we found ourselves discussing the various ways to view the genre. The opera director calls it "heightened recitation of poetry." Accurate, I think. I'd always imagined that the performer sings as if he or she wrote the text, a view that the choir director shared, also.

Need is related to purpose, but they are not the same. For me, the need to perform a piece is a much more personal decision than realizing the music's purpose.  Whereas the need is related to the "now" of a performer's mindset, the purpose exists outside of every performer, and arguably outside of the composer as well.  Pieces can teach us ideas about life, introduce us to concepts, help us remember, encourage us to forget, give us courage, show us another's life --- the list goes on and on as to the possibilities of the purpose of a piece, regardless of genre.  Here's the catch, though: without understanding the purpose of a piece, a performer will have a terrible time trying to identify the need to play.

Performers seek to reveal the truth of a piece of music, something that can only be done through comprehension of purpose on many levels.  Purpose relates to historical context, dramatic line, formal structure, compositional devices: as a much loved acting teacher once said, "Nothing is arbitrary."  If a piece is well-crafted, every decision on the part of the composer will relate to the purpose for the music, just as every decision on the part of the playwright relates to the purpose - or dramatic question - of a play.  This is why I say that purpose exists outside the performer and composer - it's a connection with something much greater, much more mysterious, and much more important.  Tangible to us is our ability to analyze, critique, and embody.  The need we identify sets us on a course to reveal truth, that, if coupled with diligent practice, care, and dedication to the art, will reveal the purpose of music to others.

What I've surmised as the core of the conversation that prompted this post is that musicians aren't realizing purpose and need, and are therefore - all too often - delivering performances that have no true meaning, that are instead intellectualized and deemed "above one's head" if not appreciated.  We use complex music as an excuse for bad performance, when it should be the other way around: a piece that is complex requires even greater understanding and analysis so that something can be gained from it, whether from the performer's or audience's perspective.  My experience as a performer is short - I'm only 28 - but it seems to me that some musicians (students and professionals alike) have a sense of entitlement when it comes to others enjoying their performances. This attitude concerns me, as there is no rule that says playing complex music and claiming to have practiced for hours will result in a good performance.  It may result in a well-executed rendition, sure, but we all know that isn't the same thing, yet we expect to be praised regardless of the performance's quality or clarity. (Note: not accuracy or perfection)

Each of us has experienced the feeling that what we do doesn't matter anymore, that nobody is listening except for the small group of us that finds it all interesting in the first place.  If a vocalist can't find the purpose for an aria in the dramatic arc, nor find the character's need to sing it, then of course the performance is bad. No wonder there isn't an interest. Similarly, if a percussionist can't find the purpose and need for Reflections on the Nature of Water or Rebonds, then of course there is no interest in those pieces, from fellow musicians or the general public.  The responsibility of the performer is very great.

Just like actors, we are story-tellers.  Moments that are overacted or underacted are quickly noticed, and - perhaps unfairly - the actor is labeled as a "bad" or "undertrained" actor.  Music has managed to escape this mostly due to the absence of vernacular language.  There is a general acceptance of a lack of clarity (to a certain degree) because of the abstract nature of our medium.  I don't think this allowance is a good thing, as it has fostered a certain normalcy in poor performance, and encouraged the "complexity excuse" discussed above.  To be honest, those performers that manage to clearly tell a story, whether with an instrument alone, with text of another language, or with text in the vernacular, are the only ones I find interesting. I can't imagine I'm alone in that sentiment.

If I, as a performer, have nothing to share with you, then there is no reason for you to listen to me. But, if I have a truth to share and a need to explain it to you right now through my playing, then you can't avoid listening.  At least I hope so.

As all of these thoughts are my own, if you think you will ever refer to them please let me know. I'd like to know if there are others that share my views or wish to share them with a larger audience. 

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