On Teaching

May 4, 2018

A particular performance

This month, I take a slight detour from the map that I laid out for myself when I began this series of columns, because by coincidence I am writing this on the day after I played a concert, and I believe that some of my reactions to that particular experience are relevant to what I have been discussing. As usual, a great deal of this is questions, not answers. I will also discuss here a couple of ideas that are part of my roster of planned discussion points, and that connect directly to what I want to say about this concert. Next month I will wrap up this particular series, tying up some loose ends, but also leaving open some that I think are intrinsically open-ended.

As I noted in an earlier column, I seem to be playing more concerts over the last several years than I have in previous decades. It’s not that this particular concert was unique. After all, I hope to learn something new from every performance experience. It is unique, however, because this was the first full-length organ recital that I have given in approximately eighteen months. Just by happenstance most of my concerts during that time have been harpsichord recitals, a couple have been mixed recitals (some pieces on harpsichord, some on organ), a couple have involved my contributing organ pieces to programs that also involved other performers, and a couple have indeed been organ recitals, but quite short. It was also the first full-length organ recital that I have given in Princeton in about a decade. That means it was a different focus of attention for my students and other people whom I know in the community where I teach and where I frequently perform on harpsichord. 

The importance of the event

All of that meant I had to deal with a certain amount of non-musical baggage, though no one imposed that baggage on me. Was I in danger of making this event too important to me? Did that become a distraction from learning and performing the music? I suggested in a previous column that one way to frame a performance is that the playing creates a chance that some of the listeners will find the experience important. Is it then necessary that it be important to me as well? If so, how much of that involves framing the project in advance as being an important one, how much involves how I feel about it while it is going on? Or is that whole set of thoughts a problem or a distraction? If so, I think that it is an important one to be aware of. I am hereby confessing that in the weeks leading up to this concert I flirted with giving it an amount of importance in my own mind that was paralyzing, though I was always able to pull myself back to practicing and preparing. There is some sort of fruitful area in between “every note must be so meaningful and expressive that it will knock people’s socks off” and “this is routine: I know the music and I am just going to go play it.” That can be hard to get right. I do not know that I got it just right for this event. But the particular circumstances made me particularly aware of it.

That leads me to one of the most important issues of all—and the issue about performance that I think about the most. If a listening experience is going to be, or have the potential to be, really important to a listener, a large and significant part of that importance will arise out of the emotion conveyed by the music. Or perhaps the music conveys something in the general realm of feeling that leaves the listener a slightly different person after hearing it than he or she was before. This is true for a variety of performances where things other than the music participate in shaping those feelings, but the music very much does so as well. Is it good, bad, important, optional, dangerous, or just what, for the performer to feel while actually playing some version of whatever emotions he or she is trying or hoping to convey to others through the music?

When I have asked this question of colleagues, students, friends, etc., the predominant answer that I receive is that it is dangerous. The following scenario can easily play out: that if you as a performer are too caught up in the feeling of the music that you are playing, you will become distracted and mess up. While this might manifest itself in wrong note clusters, it might also paradoxically cause you to forget to do some of the interpretive gestures that you have mapped out and on which you are depending to convey the very feelings that you are experiencing. This can be a version of something that happens with certain kinds of technique, such as playing physically harder on harpsichord or organ and thereby giving yourself a false feeling of conveying more energy. That is, you can mistake feeling the emotion yourself for conveying it to the listeners. It is also possible that by feeling the music in this way you can unconsciously make choices that actually limit the range of feelings that another listener can experience.

Another danger also exists. If you are in the grip of feeling the emotions of a passage that you are playing, perhaps you will exaggerate the gestures that you expect to convey that emotion. This can mean exaggerating to the point of parody, or upsetting the balance between different things that you are trying to convey. Your judgment about how the music is coming across might be impaired. 

The alternative to feeling what the music is conveying while you are playing is to plan out the whole panoply of interpretive choices that you most conscientiously think will make happen what you want to happen, and then to concentrate in as focused and sober a way as possible on executing those choices. This involves having faith that the choices you have made will produce something like the effects that you want them to have, and that you can carry them out effectively based on planning and practicing. This is always going to be an important part of the way that anyone performs.

In spite of the dangers that are definitely a consensus concern among people who have thought about this, I am increasingly committed to trying to feel everything that I want to express in the music while I am playing, or to being open to doing so. This is an important difference: my experience suggests that being open to those feelings is manageable, but that making a kind of purposeful effort to experience anything specific is both a distraction and too contrived to be real. 

One of my reasons I’m interested in this approach is a sort of pure self-indulgence. I will enjoy the experience of playing more if I am viscerally getting something out of the music. I genuinely want to enjoy the experience of performing and avoid thinking of it as a stressful or mundane task. I think that at this level the feeling that I am describing is both good and bad as it affects my ability to offer something meaningful to the audience. I want to enjoy performing partly out of self-indulgence, but also partly because I honestly think that I play better when I am enjoying it. However, it is dangerous if I focus too much on enjoying being a player or listener. For instance, if something starts to go wrong or to feel wrong, I will not be able to pull myself together and play the music competently. If I want to be open to experiencing the music as an involved listener while I play, I have to be willing and able to drop that at an instant’s notice if I see that I need to.

Another set of reasons to not just listen to my playing while performing but also to feel whatever the music is conveying is that some of what I do interpretively depends on what I feel while I am listening. Again, this is quite specific to me. I have approached things differently in the past, and will do so in the future. But right now I am trying to derive some of what I do with timing—rubato, agogic accent, arpeggiation, various kinds of overlapping—directly from the emotional experience of the sound. There are moments when I do not know when to play the next note until I know how the feeling of listening to the current note is evolving. Perhaps that is a slightly oversimplified way of describing it, and there is a lot more to say about that—including problems or limitations of that approach, as well as what I believe to be its strengths. This is not the time for that. The point is that some of what I am trying to do when I perform at a very specific, concrete level depends not just on my hearing what the notes are doing but also feeling what they are doing. So I need to be open to those feelings and the hypothesis is that if I can do so, I will be able to offer more to the audience than I would otherwise.

This approach is one that I have applied more to harpsichord than to organ thus far. That is another source of the particular importance that I attached to this concert. 

The desire to be able to allow myself to become an engaged listener while I am playing is a source of motivation to try to be seriously well prepared. It is self-evident that we should all be well prepared for public performance. The fear of abject humiliation that I mentioned in an earlier column—referencing an experienced performer to whom I was talking about it years ago—should be motivation enough. There are also loftier motivations like wanting to offer something wonderful to the audience. I believe that for me wanting to indulge myself in listening, in getting caught up in the music, is the strongest source of motivation to practice really conscientiously and become really well prepared. That way I can let myself listen and react without it being too dangerous. If I succeed at that, even if I classify it as somewhat self-indulgent, then the audience only benefits.


Practical considerations 

for the event

Then there are the practical things. I made the following mistakes in connection with the concert: 

1) There was a need for page turning. I have become unaccustomed to this, since for harpsichord concerts I now use a computer and a foot-pedal automatic page turning device. Someone whom I knew to be very reliable offered to turn pages for this program. I felt completely comfortable with that: so comfortable that I didn’t think that we needed to practice the page turns. We went through two or three of them in advance, just to make sure that she was comfortable with the physical setup, that she could see, reach, and so on. She did a perfect job of turning. However, what I didn’t realize was that I was the one who needed the practice. Once in the course of the concert my eyes failed to follow the smooth and perfectly timed transition from one page to the next. I lost my place and had to fumble around a bit. Another time, for no good reason, I became anxious about an upcoming page turn and also lost focus, performing a short stretch of notes badly. In each of the places where we had practiced the page turning, my reading through the page turns was fine. Likewise it was fine through the ones where the music was straightforward or my memory was the strongest. I would have avoided trouble if I had accepted my page-turner’s offer to go over all of the spots. 

2) During intermission—when I had to remember consciously that, unlike with a harpsichord recital, there was nothing for me to tune—a few audience members came up to the organ console and looked at the keyboards, stop knobs, etc. That is wonderful: people are often interested in those things, and it is great that they are. However, I discovered as I started the most challenging piece in the second half, the Bach F-major Toccata and Fugue, that the organ bench had been moved a tiny bit closer to the keyboards. The space through which my feet and legs could move was slightly but meaningfully restricted. That is not good. In writing years ago about pedal playing I emphasized that correct placement of the bench is really important. I still know that. However, I failed to pay attention to it here. I could not manage to scoot the bench back while playing; I did not think that it would be prudent to try. It would have been disruptive to stop, even between the movements, and adjust the bench. As far as I know, nothing drastic happened to the piece as a consequence of this, though I was physically uncomfortable, and I had to concentrate more on making the pedal part work. It is possible that something about timing or articulation in that part was less well crafted than I would have hoped.

The moral of those two stories is: don’t forget to line the small practical things up properly.

I have a recording of the concert, but I am not sufficiently removed from the experience to be able to accurately listen to it yet. I am fairly certain that the beginnings of some of the pieces were not shaped the way that I wanted them to be. Related to some of what I discussed above, this is about an idea that I have been trying out. This involves not having a beat in my head before I play the first note of a piece or a movement, but letting the sonority of that note tell me when to play the next note, and then to derive tempo from that. I suspect that I sometimes fall into the characteristic trap of that approach, namely that I hold the first sonority too long. I also suspect this represents a practical performance issue, not a fundamental musical issue.

I don’t always take enough time before I start a piece to clear my mind of distractions and focus on the music. When I intend to start a straightforward piece, this inappropriate direction of attention will manifest itself in a slightly wrong tempo, more likely too fast than too slow. This in turn is probably a characteristic danger of something that I mentioned in an earlier column: namely that I prefer not to be sequestered prior to the beginning of a concert, but to mix with people as they come in, and to try to remain relaxed and “myself.” That is well and good, and I believe that it is absolutely right for me. But it does require a certain moment of focusing on the music and allowing time for that to work. My guess, and only a guess, is that I did a sort of “B-minus” job of that. So it is something that I have to work on remembering next time.

Excerpts from the concert discussed in this column will be posted on Gavin’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/gavinblack1957.

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