Performance is Not Listening
"Enjoyment while performing … would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.” — Steve Martin
Take, first, the act of listening to music. Before, this took place in a very limited number of arenas. Churches, homes, concert halls, theatres, and street performers were essentially all the ways people had to access music. Now we have sound recordings distributed on radio waves, over the internet, on CD’s and Vinyl, as well as streamed performances, and all the usual (and some unusual) live performance venues. Listening to music has become a ubiquitous and commonplace activity of modern life.
When someone listens they make a lot of very rapid computations about sound, music, and aesthetics. The topic of music cognition is worth an entire book, but briefly, think about all the things you hear in your favourite song. Do you hear lyrics? A melody? Piano? Strings? Harmonies in the vocals? You might also be thinking about your favourite groovy riff that is about to enter, enjoying a really uplifting chord progression in the bridge, or reflecting on the genius transformation of a subject. Some listeners are even able to make musical equations: “these lyrics plus this melody equals this exact feeling”. Even for those who say they are “tone deaf” the acuity they possess to process music as a listener is remarkable.
But, this is not performance. A performer may love music (really, a performer should love music) and share in these responses to music, but whilst performing they do not always have the brainpower spare to enjoy the moment their music is creating. Complex rhythmic patterns, subtle nuances of phrasing, and sections with difficult hand coordination or breath control require a shift in thinking. Performers have to be less concerned with the emotional processing of music and more attentive to the logical translation of musical concepts into a physical interaction with an instrument. A pianist playing the brutal cadenzas of Rachmaninov has not got the present state of mind to reflect on the powerful emotions contained within—there is far too complex a task demanding immediate and unbroken attention.
It should not be taken that the practice and performance of music is a logical and emotionless pursuit. A good performer must understand the emotional effects a work has on an audience, try to understand the emotional context of the composer (think how the interpretation of Beethoven changes as he grapples with hearing-loss in his later works) and use those understandings as a guide to shape their interpretation. There is no better lens to do this through than a performer's own emotions. Some practice time must be spent reflecting on the meaning and effect of the music, and then the rest of practice time planning, developing, and rehearsing a choreography with the instrument to be deliberately and consciously executed on stage.
If the facility of the performer is sufficient, then their emotional reflection may also find its place on the stage beneath the active and present task of working with an instrument to create a sound. Indeed, this is often the ideal—performances where the artist is emotionally present are (for me, at least) enormously more engaging and rewarding.
It naturally follows that the artist must be aware and comprehending of their own emotions (no small feat!) to be able to do this. There is not much room in performance for confusion or apathy.
It would be remiss for any musician to defocus and enjoy the effect of the music, especially if this causes their interpretation to suffer. While such an activity is personally very gratifying it is inconsiderate of an audience who has made the effort to come out and witness music created. Anyone wishing to simply hear music need only turn to their smartphone.
Lastly, remember Jamie Muir: “You exist to serve the music. The music does not exist to serve you!”
Words by Stuart Andrew.