On Teaching

February 28, 2018

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey. His website is gavinblack-baroque.com, and he can be reached by email at [email protected].

What is Performance? Part 1

What is performance? This is certainly a daunting question that is not only difficult to frame but can invite pompous answers. It is also one that we are all, as players, going to answer by our actions whether we know it or not. Therefore it is not a bad idea to try to grapple with it explicitly once in a while. Our students are also going to grapple with it: most obviously those who want to be performers, but also those who play music but, at a given moment, are not drawn to public performance. For the latter, this is true if only because they must have a concept of what performance would be in order to feel that they are not drawn to it.

There are many different ways to answer the question “what is performance?” Some of those differences are the sort that arise out of the answers’ being partial in nature—and I would say that answers to this question should be partial. To strive to give a complete or all encompassing answer to the question risks coming across as pretentious or pompous. Some of the differences may arise out of details about what sort of performance we are asking about in the first place, or from who is asking, or on whose behalf the asking is taking place. And some, of course, arise out of disagreement.

The question “what is performance?” shades over into such questions as “what does performance feel like to me?,” “how do I know whether I am performing or not?,” “who am I when I am performing?,” and others even more arcane. The approach of any one musician to performance is most likely a mosaic of answers or tentative answers to questions such as these. The answers to these smaller component questions and any answer that feels like it pertains to the bigger over-arching question will almost certainly change over time for any one person. I was pleased to notice that literally yesterday (from the vantage point of my sitting here writing today) I had an experience that enabled me to fit one more tile into my own mosaic—that gave me a slightly new answer to a particular question about my own identity as a performer that has puzzled me for a long time.

This month and next, I will poke and prod at this question from several angles. You will notice that I pose more questions than answers and that I have not forbidden myself to include thoughts or ideas that may be unconventional.


Two defining aspects of performance

Performance is playing when you know or think that someone is listening. We usually know whether or not we are playing, though, especially if we are not really singers, we may not always know when we are singing, not to mention humming, whistling, tapping our fingers to some unheard music, or even trying out fingerings on the table when we think that no one is watching, and so on. But we don’t always know for sure whether someone is listening.

If we are giving a concert, and there are clearly people in the hall, and they are not in any obvious way doing things that are inconsistent with listening, we have the right to assume that they are listening. In reality some are and some are not. But in this situation—pure performance, so to speak—our feeling that people are listening helps to shape what we do. It can create nervousness or anxiety and can also create focus. Do we respond to an awareness of listeners mostly by becoming anxious or even scared? If so, what causes anxiety?  Perhaps we are afraid of missing notes, falling apart, or perhaps we simply fail to convey inner musicality.

The awareness that people are listening can also be inspiring. If we not only are performing but also want to be performing, then there must be something about conveying music to those listeners that we really care about. In real life the vividness of this feeling will come and go. Does it help us to achieve this feeling to have a conscious awareness that the listeners are listening? That is, some of the time to be playing to the listeners as if perhaps we were conversing with them? Or is it more effective to commune not so much with the listeners as with the music itself, as we have come to know it and care about it? In many organ performance situations, there are limits to how much of the audience we can see. Does this affect our awareness of them or the ways in which that awareness interacts with our playing? For each player/performer there will be a different set of answers to any of these and similar questions that seem the most fruitful.

What if we don’t know whether anyone is listening? Realistically this doesn’t often mean that we have literally no information about whether anyone is in the room. But it is still a concept that can be germane. For one thing, our sense of whether anyone is listening in the sense of really paying attention can wax and wane while we are in the very act of performing. The room can seem “dead” or “alive.” Is it right to be aware of this? It is realistic to be unaware of it at least some of the time. When we are, how might we respond? It might be better to try to look away from that awareness and to focus more on ourselves and the music. We might be able to use that awareness to get motivated to communicate even more intensely.

There can arise in church playing, specific situations in which we wonder whether anyone is listening and if so how or how much. Are people listening during a prelude or postlude, or are they talking, or just focusing on and experiencing other things? There may be a situation in which we actually don’t know whether anyone is there: people sometimes leave during the postlude! Does that matter? Can we practice keeping up our commitment to really performing even if the sense that people are listening has become shaky? 

In some situations we know that people are physically there and not expressly turning their attention away from what we are doing, but we also know that the point of everyone’s focus is not just the music in and of itself. This can be true of a variety of circumstances: church services during offertories and other mid-service musical moments, weddings and funerals, receptions, school events, sporting events, anything where the music is background. What do we make of knowing that the listening is not as focused and intense as it might be? Perhaps this can be a time to shift the balance of our own focus from communing with the listeners to communing with the music itself. 

Recording is another circumstance in which we don’t know who the listeners are. They are not physically there, rather, they exist somewhere else in time and space­—at least we hope that they do. The act of playing specifically for them is at its most abstract. Therefore, perhaps this is a form of performance in which the notion of playing the music for its own sake can assert itself. It is certainly a way to expand and perhaps redefine what it feels like to be a performer. It seems like a very good thing that recording has been sort of “democratized.” Anyone who plays can make recordings that have a reasonable shot at being heard by that unknown audience out there, through various platforms under the umbrella of social media. The distinction between those who are and those who are not recording artists has been largely broken down, and with that the societal definition of performer and performance has altered. 


Who is the performer?

Who are we when we perform? Are we the composer? I am not talking about the rather specialized case in which we are literally the composer. In that case, I imagine that the answer to the question is still a bit complex. Does a composer performing his or her own music feel in some ways like a different person during that act than during the act of composing? Can a composer discover, through performing new things in pieces, new things about himself or herself as a musician? I imagine so, though I have never been in that position myself.

Let’s say that we are playing music of others. Do we feel like, or want to feel like, a stand-in for the composer? I mentioned last month an idea about playing the role while performing not specifically of the composer by name, but of a theoretical someone who could have improvised the music that we are playing. I find that idea intriguing and fruitful for getting into a mode of feeling that enables me to perform the music of others. Do some of us find it useful in some sense to inhabit the identity of the composer by name? Not, of course, as a real “I am Napoleon”-style delusion, but as something perhaps akin to some of the ways in which actors inhabit roles? 

Or do we want to be ourselves as much as we possibly can, but ourselves engaged in a particular act for which we are well trained, well prepared, and talented? It may be that performance in the sense of playing music when we believe listeners to be listening is crucially different from performance that is acting in exactly this way. We are not inhabiting a character, we are trying as best we can to be ourselves. Perhaps for some of us it is only by being ourselves that we can connect with whatever it is about the music that makes us care enough about it to take on the challenges of performing in the first place. It seems certain to me that this works out differently from one person to another and is often a mix.


Three illustrative stories

I heard the following story many years ago from a colleague. I admit that it was something heard third-hand, and therefore I cannot swear that it is factual and accurate. But I believe that it is, since I know something about the trustworthiness of the people who transmitted it. And since it is by no means disparaging to anyone, I will let that be enough basis for telling it without suppressing names. 

An organist, active, well trained, with lots of playing and listening experience, was also working as a carpenter and builder. He happened to be on a job at a venue where, a day or two later, Virgil Fox was to play a recital. He saw and overheard Fox practicing, and he reported that his practicing was calm, sober, systematic, focused, totally without flamboyance. The way my colleague put it in telling the story was this: that it was only in the concert that Virgil Fox became VIRGIL FOX! His persona as a charismatic and extroverted performer was something that he indeed purposely put on in concert as a technique for getting across what he wanted to get across.

Does each of us do some of that? Certainly some more than others and some with more consciousness of it than others. Is this a dimension of our playing, or rather of our performing, that we might do well to think about more explicitly? Probably so for many of us. I say that without implying anything about the specifics of how some of us might want to shape this aspect of our performing lives differently. That will vary dramatically from one of us to another.

Here is another story. I am acquainted with a dancer who, at a young age but well within her prime, no longer a student or beginner, was participating in a performance. She and the other performers were in very specific and defined characters, and from time to time interacted directly, in character, with audience members. This performance, unlike most dance performances, included a small amount of speaking. I asked her whether she thought of this as dancing or as acting. She replied very firmly that she thought of it as dancing and only dancing, because if she thought of it as acting it became terrifying. The very same actions, ones which she was as well-trained to do as anyone could be and which she repeated with complete command night after night, seemed like something different based solely on the concept of what sort of performer she was.

The last story for this month is the one to which I alluded above. As a performing musician I have always specialized in music from about 1550 to about 1750. This is long enough ago that everything about the culture of that time seems historical rather than current or modern, and this is a source of all sorts of questions and things to think about. But in particular there are sometimes performances of this Renaissance/Baroque repertoire that are cast as historical recreations—perhaps of a specific performance, perhaps of a specific sort of concert or court or home or church musical event, or perhaps just as an evocation of the milieu and aesthetic of the time. This kind of event might well involve the musicians’ wearing period-appropriate clothes. I have been to performances of that sort as an audience member and enjoyed them, sometimes getting something out of the recreation of the historical trappings that indeed added to the music.

However, I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of participating in anything like that as a player. I have never been willing to perform in costume or in historical clothing. My identity as a musician, person, and performer seems like it would be violated by dressing in period clothing. I do not know exactly why this is, and I certainly have no interest whatsoever is saying that it is right or in persuading other people to feel this way. To execute a convincing performance, I need to feel like myself.

Here is the interesting new thing, however. I went to see the new play Farinelli and the King in New York. Since it is in large part about a musician—the real-life Carlo Bruschi, who performed under the stage name Farinelli—there was live music in the theater. (And the music was quite wonderful, by the way.) The performers, on harpsichord, guitar, various strings, were dressed in eighteenth-century attire, as were the actors. I realized right away that if I were asked to participate in something exactly like this, I would happily do so and would wear the old-style garb without hesitation. Something about its being a part in a play rather than a concert seems to overcome completely the discomfort that I described above. Why? I don’t really know. But I know that it sheds some light on my own answers to the question of who I am when I am performing. 

Before I sign off for this month and continue this discussion next month, I note that I made a typographical error near the end of the February column. Where I wrote “Even a fine improviser would, here and now, be improvising that piece,” I meant “would not” rather than “would.” I want to go on record with this, since only that way does what I wrote (I hope) make sense.


More to come . . .

Related Content

March 02, 2019
Repetition II During the week after I finished writing my previous column, I had several experiences, each of which had some bearing on what I wrote…
February 05, 2019
Repetition I Recently I have been thinking about situations in which something in a piece of music happens more than once. This encompasses out-and-…
December 05, 2018
Further thoughts on counterpoint II: a miscellany I mentioned at the end of last month’s column that I have been rethinking some of my ideas and…