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On Teaching: willing suspension of disbelief

March 23, 2023
Example 1
Example 1

An idea or two

This month I follow on a few loose ends from last month’s column, about the word “performance” and related words, and then discuss a few more aspects of the relationship between musical performance and other forms of performance. Recently I overheard someone say in passing, “Yes, that was performative.” I heard enough of the surrounding context to confirm what I would normally assume from the word “performative;” the suggestion was that something was being done for a reason other than the ostensible one. There was something manipulative or hypocritical going on. Things were not as they seemed. 

To put it a bit less judgmentally, the person who had engaged in the action that was designated “performative” did so in order to get something across that was not the same as what they were ostensibly trying to do or convey. Perhaps this is performance where there should not be performance. But two lines that run through certain uses of the word performance, related but separable, are falseness and negativity. Referring to my example from last month about the person who berated his companions and stalked off, if that person had stood up and said, apropos of nothing in the prior conversation, a lot of extravagantly complimentary things about the others in the room and then departed, no one would have said, “That was quite a performance.”

I have a really strong aversion to being misrepresented. For this purpose, I am not talking about misrepresentation along major societal grounds. Nor am I talking specifically about important things—just ordinary encounters. For example, if someone hears me comment that I do not like eggs but mishears and thinks that I especially love eggs, that really bothers me—not particularly because they might serve me eggs, but just as a matter of principle. The misrepresentation does not have to be negative or neutral. If someone kindly held a door for someone else and the latter person looked around and thought wrongly that it had been I who did it, that would make me uncomfortable. I have a fairly traditional fear of airplanes and flying, but I do travel around a fair amount, mostly by car. If someone knew the latter about me and said, “Gavin must really know his way around all the airports,” that would bother me in this manner, even though being afraid of flying is in itself unfortunate and something that I would love to get over. 

I believe that this is one of the reasons, and perhaps the fundamental reason, that I am so intent on playing pieces the way that I really want to play and feel them. More importantly, it is the reason that I am extremely reluctant to ask a student to do something that does not come from inside them even as a stage in learning. Does this way of looking at it suggest that it would be good, even better, to ease up on that standard a little bit? Would students tolerate more than I can in a sense “misrepresenting” themselves as part of learning? If so, is it then a good idea to let that happen or is it still better not to? Is my concern in fact well grounded in everyone’s psychology, or is it more specific to me than I have realized? I should muse about all of this. This may be a bit of a digression, but since it is this notion that “performance” can sometimes be false—indeed that sometimes the word itself has that connotation—that put me in mind of it, perhaps it is not irrelevant.

As another random observation from theater and music, there are many performing groups that use the word “Players” in their title. Just a few days ago I attended a very fine performance of Othello by the New Place Players in New York City. Near where I live in New Jersey there are theater companies called Spotlight Players, Broad Street Players, and Somerset Valley Players, and the Baroque ensemble, The Raritan Players. At the beginning of the Jethro Tull album Minstrel in the Gallery there is the line, “We have fortuitously happened upon these strolling players.” It is very hard, though, to find performing groups or ensembles that are “The so-and-so Performers.” (I just tried and didn’t find any.) And the Tull line would seem very different if they had written, “We have fortuitously happened upon these strolling performers.”

Willing suspension of disbelief

I have pondered the expression, “willing suspension of disbelief.” Continuing to follow these columns’ premise of looking at words and their history, not just concepts as we think we have received them, I have discovered that this phrase was first used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817. When he used it, he appeared to mean primarily the suspension of disbelief, in the context of reading literature, especially poetry, regarding things that would be false in real life—that is, a fantasy, mythology, or various sorts of surrealism. However, the concept has always been used in a different way, to mean the willing suspension of the awareness that fiction is fictional. We know at some level that Nero Wolfe, Elizabeth Bennett, or Basil Fawlty “don’t exist,” even though each of them could exist, unlike, say, Gandalf, Morgan le Fay, or Sabrina Spellman. But during the time when we are engaging with the fictional world in which such characters are presented, we palpably feel as if they do exist. I have countless times sat on the edge of my seat in front of the television desperately scared that someone who does not exist will do or say something that is against my wishes. At times, I can even tremble at the situation. If it goes the wrong way, I can have trouble sleeping that night. I suppose that the only thing that I am really discovering when the story reveals the fate or behavior of the characters is that a writer or show-runner was of a mind to make up that particular story. Yet we do not react in this real-world meta level.

There was a period when I was having trouble reading. This was not an eyesight issue, but rather a lack of mental focus, and it manifested itself in part by a suspension of disbelief. I would read a sentence such as, “Sarah came down the stairs at a trot, alarmed by what she thought she had heard,” and think, “No she didn’t; there is no such person. Why did someone write that?” I do not know why this started, and I do not know exactly how or why I got over it—though I definitely did. It never applied to fiction being performed—television, movies, theater. It did not apply to music—not to listening, not to practicing and playing.

In drama, part of “performance” is the ability to lead viewers into this state. I have noticed that some commentators maintain that “willing suspension of disbelief” puts the burden of making fiction work on the audience-member or reader. I suspect that this is only partly true. As my experience recounted above shows, the state of mind of the person receiving the fictional content can matter. But the content matters just as much; it has to be “convincing.” In writing this comes mostly from the author, though typesetting, illustration, and other design features might play a part. But with performance-based arts, though composing plays a significant part, it comes mainly from the performance. A corollary of this is that the willing suspension of disbelief is not always fully willing. Of course, you can always opt out—put down a book or leave the theater. Meanwhile, the content that you are taking in is supposed to be in itself strongly pulling and pushing you toward that state of non-disbelief.

Is there anything comparable in music to the willing suspension of disbelief? Let’s leave aside for the moment vocal music that has fictional characters in it—there the phenomenon of the “music” as such and the verbally mediated concrete images are separable, and the latter can be just as susceptible to this matter as any other verbally delivered fiction. But what about music in and of itself?

In Examples 1 and 2, is there something that can be believed or disbelieved? Clearly not, I think. So, is there anything comparable in music to the concept? One way of looking at that is that the “willing suspension of disbelief” is probably usually better described as “willing choice to be affected as if one believed.” And with instrumental music the corresponding phenomenon is perhaps the willing choice to be affected, just as such—to let the music inside of one’s self and one’s emotional life. Perhaps one of the roles of performance is to help nurture that willingness.

Playing a character

I keep returning to this notion of playing a character or not. It is in drama that “playing a character” can be most clearly what is going on. It is the norm. When Patrick Stewart plays Vladimir in Waiting for Godot he is playing a character; likewise, when he plays Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek franchise. Stephen Colbert played Stephen Colbert in The Colbert Report. (I once had the good fortune to hear Stephen Colbert doing a long Q&A—out of character—in front of an audience. Someone asked him, about some little routine or shtick that the character Stephen Colbert occasionally did on the show: “Do you ever just do that in real life?” Colbert just laughed a bit and said, “No.” No complicated explanation, he just is not his character.) How much “in character” is Stephen Colbert as host of The Late Show? In that capacity he is not ostensibly fictional. How identical is he to the person that he is when he wakes up at home and has breakfast each morning? How much is Patrick Stewart in character during an audience talk-back after a play or during a non-fiction personal appearance with audience questions?

It is a habit of audience members and fans to conflate the character and the actor, and this probably is not something that happens with performers of music. There is no character with which to conflate the player. And what of the composer? If anything, listeners retain a very strong awareness that the player and the composer are very different (leaving aside relatively rare cases where they are literally the same). This is why the question of how well a performer realizes a composer’s intentions not only exists as a question at all, but often looms very large; sometimes it is given as almost the definition of performance.  

I have mentioned over the years that I sometimes attend immersive theater, in which the performers and the audience intermingle and interact. The setup is different from one production to another, but it is not uncommon for there to be moments where by design or by chance an audience member is alone with a performer/character, with the latter acting out a scene. I wonder how many people there are in that room? I think that I can count five: the character, the performer him- or herself, the audience member as a “regular” person, the audience member in whatever slightly different persona they feel themselves to be in, in this artificial setting, and sometimes the audience member in a role that the performer is temporarily casting themself into via the content of the scene being played out. (For example, I have had a character in a play greet me as if I were her son and talk to me in that vein for a while.) 

Am I exactly the same person when I perform in concert as I am when I stroll into my kitchen alone to make a cup of tea or when I sit on the porch in the sun for an hour reading? How about when I am sitting and typing this column? On the one hand I see a clear distinction—an actor playing a part is in character, and everyone else is not. Given this clear distinction, I see a question: is “performance” that does not involve playing a character the same thing as performance that is all about playing a character? I am actually more interested in the areas in between. If we are not exactly the same person while we are performing that we are at another moment, does that help or hinder our ability to present our performance? How does that relate to the notion that performance should be “authentic?”

Since that word is used to mean all sorts of things, some of them even possibly in conflict with one another, I will say that I am talking about “authentic” meaning both “true to oneself and one’s own vision” and “convincing,” having an air of authenticity that in itself tends to create communication. I am not talking about “authentic” in the sense of “what the composer would have done or wanted.” That is also often important, but different. It is possible that when either or both of these two forms of authenticity are perceived to be present in performance, that creates an ability on the part of listeners to trust the performer and also the composer.

The other idea is one that appeals to me and that I have written about before: that when we perform music that someone else has written, we are in a sense playing the character of “someone who could be improvising this music.” It feels more subtle to me than trying to feel like we are playing the character of the actual specific composer of the piece. I would in a sense hesitate to suggest this idea to a student. Or more accurately, since I have shared it with students fruitfully, I would try to be very careful to make it clear that I do not believe that it is necessary or something that any one player would find fruitful—I just happen to. It seems to be a technique that I can use to feel committed to music and my own vision of it and to justify to myself that feeling of commitment. It seems to help with the question of whether I am exactly myself while performing or playing some sort of part. It is very important to hold onto this idea lightly, not to make it too serious or literal.

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