On Teaching

June 6, 2018

More on performance

As I listened to the recording of the concert that inspired last month’s column, the experience gave me a few further things to say about performance. This month I will discuss those matters, as they will constitute the first part of this article. Following that, I wish to present a few ideas about performance for specific occasions, partly derived from some recent personal experiences. As has been the case with the last few articles, I will leave you with more questions than answers, as this is a large, important, and difficult subject.


Emotion during the act of performance

Listening to the recording from my March 25 recital leads me to continue the thread from last month about one’s own experience of the emotion, message, or meaning of music during the act of performance. I cannot match what I hear on the recording to any detailed memory of when I was or was not feeling what, or how involved or detached I was.

I do remember something about a particular moment. The ending of Samuel Scheidt’s Warum betrübst du dich is a spot that I like to stretch out quite a bit. I remember executing that gesture in a much more extreme way than I had planned, because it felt right to do so in the moment. It is a strangely textured passage, and the feeling of some of the chords was one that I did not want to let go of for longer than I would have expected. Others I wanted to push through. The whole variation was also a bit slower and freer overall than what I intended. Was all of that effective? I don’t know: I like it, but of course I am biased. You may listen for yourself at the following link, where I have posted the very end of the penultimate variation, just to set the scene, and then the variation in question: www.gavinblack-baroque.com/Scheidt.wav.

I have also written that I am working on trying to derive rhythm, some of the time, from the shape of the sonority rather than (or in addition to) from a pre-established beat. At the beginnings of certain pieces, my listening confirms that this was not always effective. In several cases the openings of pieces or movements sounded too slow or lacked momentum. I am not sure whether the solution is to go back, in some cases, to simply establishing a beat in my head before I start or to do something like what I was trying, but to do it better. Doing it better could mean doing it in a more moderate way or different way, but it could also mean doing it in a more committed or “extreme” way.

Sometimes ineffectiveness comes not from exaggeration but from inadequate expression of an idea. I do believe that the problem may have a greater proportion of being about the approach itself or the execution of the approach, rather than just being an artifact of the concert situation, as I thought that it might be when I wrote about it a month ago.

Finally on this subject, I have experienced what feels like a major revelation about my stance as a performer, which I think was developing even during the preparation for the recent organ recital, and which I experienced during the recital itself, but which has crystallized over the last few weeks. At one level, it is quite specific to my own circumstances and indeed in a sense quite personal. I believe that it could be of interest to others, and I am thinking about how to apply it to some of my work with students.

There is a feeling that most of us have of something looking over us and judging what we are doing. This is perhaps a kind of externalized, collective superego or conscience. It may feel like something that is connected to specific people—former or current teachers, parents, colleagues, critics, friends, neighbors, people in authority, people in general—or it may well be related to ideas or feelings about the supernatural, eternal, or spiritual. It may not be about any of those specific things. This feeling is not necessarily one that is always good or always bad, always inhibiting or always motivating. For better or worse, it is often with us.

I have a strong feeling of such a watching presence when I am performing on harpsichord, but absolutely none of it when I am performing on organ. This could sound equivalent to “I am self-conscious and unsure about my harpsichord playing but not about my organ playing.” However, I believe that is a less accurate way of putting it. I am conscious of the feeling of others scrutinizing or paying attention, but I do not necessarily think that what these non-specific and fictional others will experience when they listen to my harpsichord playing will not please them. I just feel them as being there. But again, not at all when I play organ. This could all be correlated with my thinking that my harpsichord playing is not as good as my organ playing, whatever range of meanings “good” can take. But I honestly do not believe that I do feel that way. I have a very similar awareness in both realms of what I am trying to do and why, of what proportion of the time I think that it is relatively successful, of how it stacks up with respect to various schools of thought or approaches, of how much feedback and of what sort I get from listeners, and so on. I might be unhappy with my playing on one instrument or the other on a given day, but I do not believe that I am a better organist than a harpsichordist, or the other way around.

I suspect that this dichotomy is about things that are irrational, symbolic, and subconscious. Some of it may have to do with the “Wizard of Oz” sort of credentials. My degree is in organ. I write for an organ magazine. Many of my former organ students are working full-time in the profession as organists. Indeed many of my former harpsichord students are working as organists; fewer are working full-time as harpsichordists, if there even is such a thing. I had two great organ teachers, whereas I am more or less self-taught as a harpsichordist. When I was an undergraduate I had a key to the Princeton University Chapel and often went in there alone and played the organ through the night. Of course these things are not accurate assessments of my skill level. They are superficial, and none of them may in fact be the source of the feelings that I am describing. 

If my observation about my feelings while playing went the other way, I could perhaps come up with an equal list of superficial symbolic things that also went the other way: that I am lucky enough to be the proprietor of a seventeenth-century harpsichord, that my recordings are mostly on harpsichord, that my actual job or position is with an “early keyboard center,” and so on. I would not know in that case whether some of these symbols were or were not the reason behind the psychology that I observe.

What I do know is that whereas this overarching collective superego may have a valuable role in society as a whole, it feels like a definite impediment to my finding the truest version of myself as a performer. That is, both the version that I will find the most satisfying and the version that has the best chance of sometimes creating great performances. Since I feel that this impediment isn’t there when I am functioning as an organist, the urgent task for me at this moment in my life as a musician is to learn how I can also remove it from my harpsichord performing. Whereas I had been planning to enter a period of perhaps a couple of years during which I planned only organ recitals, I have realized that I have to avoid a hiatus in harpsichord performance. Perhaps I need to mix them up as much as possible, giving organ recitals and harpsichord recitals on successive days, for example, trying to pretend that one of them is the other.

As I say, this is very personal. This is so specific to me that I would not expect anyone reading to discover exactly the same state of affairs for herself or himself. Perhaps it will resonate in some way. I am just starting to digest the question of what this says to me about work with students. Is it an insight that can lead to fruitful evolution in what I offer as a teacher? I suspect that it is, but I have to avoid imposing anything on students via any sort of projection.


Performance for other occasions

I have a couple of thoughts about performance for occasions. I recently played harpsichord at two events that were not concerts and that were driven primarily by imperatives other than those of the music that I was playing, or indeed of any music. They were both events acknowledging a particular person, and in one case it was around a retirement. I knew each of the people, but not well enough to know anything about their musical taste or what they might or might not like in performance. They had each asked that I be there to play—neither occasion was a case of my just being hired as a professional. Likewise neither of them knew enough about the harpsichord repertoire to request any particular pieces. That was up to me.

I observed in these performances what I wrote a few months ago about my goal for performance: that it create the possibility that the experience will have been important to some of the people who are present. The shift was that I identified the particular honorees as a sort of primus inter pares. If anyone was going to find my playing important, I most wanted it to be the honorees. What did I then do with that? I am not sure. I suspect that I tried to play more fervently than I normally would—or to put it more accurately, I tried to give myself permission to play as fervently as I always want to; that I played with as much lucidity as I could manage; that the self-consciousness that I described above abated to a considerable extent. 

It occurred to me as a consequence of these two experiences that almost certainly anything that guides me as a player to make the music more expressive and communicative for a particular purpose also helps to make the music more effective in general. If I did succeed in enhancing the chance that either of the honorees felt that what they got out of my pieces was important to them, then I certainly enhanced that chance for everyone else present. 

I believe that this concept might, for me and perhaps for others, help to bridge the gulf between “I am playing this because something about the day’s schedule says that I should play it” and “I am playing this because I care about expressing what it can express. “

I also noticed that the self-consciousness largely went away. I believe that the reason may have been something like this: “I know what my goal is in playing this right now. I am here to offer something to these particular people, and I believe that I know how to do so. This performance doesn’t have to bear the burden of showing that I am this or that kind of harpsichordist, or that I understand x or can do y.”  

This is very personal. It may or may not resonate with what anyone else has experienced or thought. Once again, I am still mulling over what it might mean to share the fruits of these thoughts with students.


I recently viewed the movie Seymour: an Introduction, which is about the pianist and renowned piano teacher Seymour Bernstein. It is a fascinating film, and he is a captivating, multifaceted, and appealing individual. At one point, he is discussing music lessons for children. He notes that just as children are required to go to school and do their homework—on pain of not being allowed to play with friends, perhaps, or to watch television—so, too, they should be required to practice for their music lessons. He mentions an hour a day of practicing before being allowed to go on to other, more enticing activities. I am only summarizing, and this was a brief moment in the film. I want to make it clear that I have no idea to what extent it represents his fully developed ideas. I mention it because, as anyone who has read this column for very long will not be surprised to read, these sentiments evoked immediate, strong disagreement from me. 

I have a great aversion to coercing anyone into doing anything. If no one finds a way to induce children to take music lessons, then many or most children will not; many of those who do not would have found it extremely rewarding to do so; if no one twists anyone’s arm to practice, then a lot of people will not practice; if you do not practice, taking lessons and trying to play will be more frustrating than it should be. There are problems with my stance about such things. In our society, organ and harpsichord teachers do not have to confront these questions as often as piano, violin, and voice teachers do.

The same dynamic applies to performance. I strongly believe that performing in front of listeners is an amazingly good learning experience for anyone at any level or with any relationship to music. I believe that abstract performing—concert playing in which there is nothing to hang your hat on other than making the music really work—is a great learning experience. I wish that more of my students had more opportunities to play concerts or to play in concerts. I observe that often once a student has played a piece in a concert situation, he or she plays that piece better and plays better overall. 

However, most students, especially those who still consider themselves beginners, are scared to perform, or at least approach performance with anxiety. Many, many students are convinced that they will never give concerts or even play for others informally. That is sometimes part of the bargain. If you throw in that I as a teacher do not want to coerce, that I believe that anxiety is counterproductive, and that my role is to help create relaxation and ease, then we have a certain kind of impasse. 

My attempt to solve this has always revolved around persuasion and coaxing. I have a strong sense that this works very well most of the time. I also have ideas about how to carry it out. Yet I am also aware that it may leave some people out, and that there is a set of questions about whether this approach is letting some people down. 

I have mentioned previously that I was deeply scared of performance as a child—terrified, really, and rather beyond childhood, as well. I also claimed in an earlier column that I successfully avoided ever playing in any of my teachers’ studio recitals through many years of piano lessons. I recently found the document that illustrates this column, the program from such a studio recital involving the students of Lois Lounsbery, the second of my three piano teachers. I am manifestly included in the program. I do have a memory that I was indeed physically present that day, but that I managed not actually to play—perhaps, honestly, by pretending to be injured or sick. That I may have done that is a measure of how much I did not want to perform. It is in part the memory and awareness of how I got from there to here that informs my ways of working with students on performance, and which I will come back to in future columns.

Excerpts from his March 25, 2018, organ recital can be found on Gavin’s YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/gavinblack1957.

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…