On Teaching

April 2, 2018

What is Performance? Part 2

I continue here the speculative, general, question-based, and perhaps somewhat philosophical discussion of performance. Next month I shall write about some practical aspects of this subject that tie into teaching in concrete ways, like helping students to grapple with nervousness, or to understand some of the ways in which performance as opposed to just learning and playing pieces can help with student development while enhancing the enjoyment and satisfaction that they get out of music. I will also continue the discussion, begun here, about performance as ritual and performance in the context of ritual.


Why do you perform?

Last autumn I attended a family party at which I saw a long-time friend of mine and my family’s. I hadn’t seen her in person in about 20 years, and therefore we were hurriedly catching up. Furthermore, since over those years we had moved into different phases of life—her from youth to middle age, me from early to late middle age—we canvassed some of the rather big questions. At one point she asked me, “So why do you perform? What do you want to happen when you are up there performing?” And my spontaneous answer (no time to make notes and an outline or to sleep on it) was, “I want to create the possibility that having been there will be important to at least some of the people in the audience.” 

That is not necessarily the spontaneous answer that I would give at another time. I say this not to suggest that I disavow it, or that I don’t think that it is a “good” answer, whatever that means. It’s just that there are probably many answers to that question that are valid at any given moment. This one took me by surprise when it popped into my head.

I believe that what I said that day is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it presents a nice mix of the self-important and the modest. It is immodest of me to suggest that what I do could be “important.” It also reminds us that when we offer ourselves to audience members as being worth their time and sometimes their money, we are making a claim that there is something good about what we are going to do. We should be upfront with ourselves about that and deal in whatever ways we think are best with the possible psychological implications of this for ourselves, hoping to be able to have a healthy self-esteem, leavened by questioning and working to get better, rather than vanity or hubris. 

We all know about the existence of unappealingly self-important performers. Perhaps some if not most of the people who come across to us that way seem very different to those who know them well. Maybe they would seem very different to us if we could see inside their heads. Famous performers are by definition both the people whose public personas we know the best, and people whom we don’t really, actually know. Perhaps some of them have let self-importance get the better of them. The awareness that I am staking a claim on listeners’ lives serves to remind me that I have an obligation to be serious about doing my absolute best—to try as hard as I can to make that claim on people’s time a legitimate rather than a vain one. 

However, my answer to my old friend was relatively modest, in that I didn’t say that I could make an entire room of listeners always have a guaranteed great experience. Maybe I should aspire to that, but I don’t really think so. To do so expressly seems to me like a denial of one of the most constant and true things about art, whether performing art or any other kind: namely that each person brings different needs, desires, tastes, expectations, etc., to any artistic encounter.

I am afraid that if I try to guarantee that I can reach every audience member, I will lose my focus on doing what I can do best, and on doing it as well as I can. Either I will be afraid to do what I really want and feel interpretively, for fear that it will run counter to what some part of the audience likes, expects, or wants, or that I will try to be sensationalistic in the way that I play. Either of these would open up a real risk of not reaching anyone. This is not to mention the possibility of utterly boring some listeners, annoying them, or leaving some people convinced that I am a bad performer, a bad musician, or even (since we sometimes make this leap) a bad person. Worrying about such things would make it impossible for me to perform in a way that expressed my own choices and feelings about the music that I was playing.

There are many things that I didn’t say in that answer that I could have said. For example, that I hoped to present as accurate a version as possible of the composers’ intentions; or that I hoped to give the audience pleasure—different from an “important” experience; or that I hoped to recreate the feeling of the time at which the music had been written; or that I wanted to elucidate the counterpoint or otherwise help listeners to understand the music from a compositional or structural point of view; or that I wanted to show the instrument(s) off to best advantage. All of these, and an infinite number of others, are wonderful possibilities. Each of the ones that I have listed here are things that I do think about and take into account. For me, they are perhaps secondary or instrumental. Any of them might help me to achieve the goal that I mentioned to my friend. For someone else, one of them or something entirely different might be a primary goal. 

I didn’t say that I wanted to garner the admiration of the listeners, or to be seen as a great virtuoso, or to get a good review. Omitting things like this is always under suspicion: perhaps I really feel them, but would be embarrassed to admit it.


The desire in performance

Years ago, a very fine performer once said to me that when he went out onto the concert stage the one desire that he had consciously in his mind was to avoid utter, abject humiliation. I was very young and inexperienced then, and my reaction to this was simply to be stunned: too much so, unfortunately, to ask him to explain further. My assumption now about what he meant then is something like this: that he knew that the combination of instrument, repertoire, preparation, worked-out interpretive choices, and so on, was such that if he could avoid just plain falling apart, the results would be very good. There was no middle ground. Part of what I took from this was that performing is hard. Not even the best performers can afford to take anything for granted.

How would you answer the question that my friend asked me? Would you consider it a good thing to ask your students? What sort of answers would you expect? What sort, if any, would you want? Are there possible answers that would raise a red flag?

All of the above is most directly about “pure” or abstract performance: that is, playing music for people who are there to listen to that music and who are in fact actually listening to it. Answers to any questions about what we are trying to achieve might be different for performance linked to an occasion or to a specific describable purpose. Accompaniment is such a situation. Settings in which the music itself is part of an overarching sequence, such as a church service, graduation ceremony, or sports event are also in this category. In these cases answers like “to help the soloist to feel comfortable” or “to enhance rather than undermine what the soloist is trying to do” or “to intensify the effect on the listeners (members of a congregation) of the words that they are singing and hearing” or “to make the graduates happy” come to mind. (Or “to help the Mets win?”)

Performance and ritual

What is the relationship between performance and ritual? Is every performance a ritual? Does thinking of performance as ritual help or hurt, or sometimes help and sometimes hurt, or perhaps some of both at the same time? I realize, thinking about the question and answer described above, that for me personally, musical performance is likely to be more powerful, and to have a greater chance of seeming important to more of the people in the room, if it has an element of what I experience as ritual. We are in a territory where people use words differently, so the possibility exists of words creating misunderstanding. My understanding of ritual is some sort of overall shape to the event as it moves through time. To put it another way, a feeling that, because of the way that the individual details of what is being done relate to each other as they move through time, the whole is indeed more powerful and meaningful than the sum of the parts. This is not something that needs to have been prescribed in advance by someone other than the participants, although it can.

When I am performing in the form that is the most individual to me and over which I have the most control, a solo recital or concert of my own, and most especially one that I am presenting myself, I care a lot about the shape of the beginning and the end. It seems to me that the way that the transition from “normal” life into a performance is shaped can have a real effect on the listeners’ perceptions of the whole event. At the same time, that segue can have an effect on the performer’s focus. That may influence the feel and perhaps the performing results of only the beginning of the event, or it may carry over through the whole performance. 

Several years ago I decided to take notice of something that I had known about at the back of my mind for a long time: that I don’t like to be sequestered or hidden immediately prior to a concert. If I sit in a green room while the clock ticks towards the appointed time and audience members come in, I just get tense, nervous, distracted by thoughts that are not about the music. I can get into a state where I can’t quite feel or believe that I am someone who can play or whose playing deserves to be heard. I have now started to allow myself to arrange the pre-concert time the way that I like. I hang around the space, among or near the audience, or, on a nice day, outside the front door of the venue:  a place that feels relaxed and friendly to me. I am certain that this has resulted in at least the beginnings of my concerts being more effective. It may affect the whole of a concert. I don’t remotely think that this approach is the best for everyone, though I am sure that it would be for some. I believe that every performer should pay attention to this dimension of the act of performing and determine what feels and works best.

If I want to be out and about right before a concert, that implies that I am asking the audience to accept an opening ritual that is different from the traditional “lights dim and the performer walks in from the side, to applause.” I am comfortable with that. I like the feeling that the music arises from normal life and normal interaction, and my experience is that listeners also do. However, this is one of the reasons that I only expect to be able to shape the opening exactly the way I want to when I oversee the whole presentation. If at a particular concert venue there are expectations about the shape of the opening that are different from what I am describing and that are important to the audience, that is worthy of respect. The opening gestures can affect the listeners’ experience of the event, and the closing gestures can affect their memories of it.

There is one detail about the opening gesture/ritual of a concert or other performance that arises out of modern life, and it is tricky to handle—a mobile phone announcement. As an audience member, I react negatively to that warning, especially since it is the last thing that we hear before the beginning of a performance. But I am aware that there is a good reason to have it. If a cell phone goes off, that is very disruptive and damages the overall shape of the experience. Therefore, it is hard to decide not to do it. But I think that we tend to underestimate the effect on listeners’ appreciation of a performance when the beginning ritual is not about the music and is negatively tinged. (I do not have any cell phone warning at my own concerts, when it is just up to me. I have a feeling that as people get more and more used to engaging with their cell phones, remembering to turn them off will become such a matter of routine that no one in fact needs to be reminded.)


Composer, performer, and instrument

I have a thought about performance that I find interesting. There is a usual template that we apply to the whole process of musical consumption. The composer is the primary creator of the music. The performer is the “interpreter,” and thus the secondary creator: significantly less responsible for the reality of the music’s existence than the composer, but still with an important role to play. Instrument makers, when they are relevant, occupy third place. Their job is to create the tools that will best serve what the performer is trying to do, which serves the composer in turn. The instruments should always be borne in mind as part of the background to performance. I find it interesting to turn the whole thing around, by constructing an alternative template. Music exists in sound. Instrument makers create the means of producing sound, thereby creating musical possibilities. Performers make themselves adept at getting the best out of those instruments, thereby bringing the work of the instrument makers to life. Composers simply make suggestions as to various ways to get the best out of the instruments. 

I don’t expect any one to agree with this interpretation since it relegates the composer to a less important role. However, this way of looking at it seems to me to be an interesting corrective or means of achieving balance in thinking about what we are doing as performers. 

Finaly, a quick word about the illustration on the facing page. A few days ago, I was astonished to find a copy of the bulletin for the first church service I ever played. I wrote about that two months ago, and at that time never expected to see the program again. (It turned up in a box of items saved by my father.) I have included an excerpt here. I notice something that I didn’t remember: that the piece I played was divided into two sections, placed at two different spots within the service. This is a good example, if we accept that it was effective, of a ritual shape outside of the music itself changing the ways in which the music can work.


More to come . . .

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