One of the most difficult things about being a music student is avoiding the temptation to equate good musicianship with good technique. We pour hours into practicing to improve our technical skills, to untangle knots, to reduce our mistakes–and sometimes this can create a tunnel vision in which we judge our own, and others’, performances with simple tallies and check marks. Number of wrong notes. Clarity of articulation. Adherence to the score.
While it’s crucial to pay attention to all these technical details, it’s easy to forget that these are only means to an end. They’re tools in a toolbox, paints in a palette, to help us achieve the primary goals of music: communication, emotional expression, beauty with the power to rejuvenate the soul.
That’s why I loved reading this interview with Christian Tetzlaff, in which he reminds musicians that there’s more to making music than merely “playing well”:
Tetzlaff advises players not to be afraid of being emotionally vulnerable. The more vulnerable you can be in your real life, the easier it will be to transmit to an audience successfully. “You have to allow yourself to talk about yourself onstage. It’s a complex issue,” he says. “As a violinist, one might be scared of doing that for several reasons: It will screw up your intonation from time to time if you really get lost in there, and it is also simply difficult to do—especially at age 20—to really show who you are.”
If opening up helps in music, it also helps in real life. When you really share, it’s better for everybody, and everything becomes more meaningful. “In the long run, it’s better to live life without armor,” Tetzlaff says. “Armor might save you some pain, but as a musician you become meaningless. Many soloists go onstage invincible and impeccable, but not communicating about the composer and the music’s emotion. The look-at-me attitude is the last thing our music should have. One should not go onstage with this idea of being adored. It takes away all the essential qualities of the music.”
Read the full interview here.
Improv comedy and classical music may seem like two very disparate worlds, but certain principles about performance–about sharing yourself and your work with an audience–remain true across the board. It’s always enlightening to hear great performers, from any field, share about their processes and philosophies. This GQ interview with Stephen Colbert is intimate, descriptive, and even profound.
“Our first night professionally onstage,” he said, the longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski told them that the most important lesson he could pass on to them was this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”
“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”…
He said he trained himself, not just onstage but every day in life, even in his dream states, to steer toward fear rather than away from it. “I like to do things that are publicly embarrassing,” he said, “to feel the embarrassment touch me and sink into me and then be gone. I like getting on elevators and singing too loudly in that small space. The feeling you feel is almost like a vapor. The discomfort and the wishing that it would end that comes around you. I would do things like that and just breathe it in.” He stopped and took in a deep yogic breath, then slowly shook his head. “Nope, can’t kill me. This thing can’t kill me.”
It can’t kill you. Sometimes courage comes when your love for something outweighs the embarrassment and discomfort of failing, and no matter how experienced a performer you are, it’s good for most of us to be reminded of this. Read the whole article here for more insights into Colbert’s work process, and a surprisingly emotional discussion about suffering and acceptance, and gratefulness and loving God.
Liszt in concert (1842), by Theodor Hosemann (source)
It’s not memorizing that’s the problem, a friend said once. It’s having to perform from memory. This 2013 New York Times article discusses the controversy surrounding the de facto requirement of playing works from memory, raising the valid point that, up to the time when overachiever Franz Liszt decided to play concerts memorized, most concerts were performed with music.
In earlier eras there was composed music, which was always played from the score, and there was improvised music. Since performers were almost always composers as well, as Mr. Hough explained, for a pianist to play, say, a Chopin ballade from memory would have been considered the height of arrogance, as if the pianist were suggesting that he had composed the piece.
Read the rest of the article here.
What do you think about the tradition of playing by memory? Is it helpful, or harmful, or becoming obsolete?
The question is usually:
“How do I get rid of the fear?”
Perhaps a better question would be:
“How do I dance with the fear?”
Click over to Seth Godin’s blog for a very brief but poignant post on what our true enemy is. (Hint: it’s not fear.)
Have a little bit of free time? Watch Jeff Nelsen, horn teacher at Indiana University, share some thoughts about performing. Compassionate, entertaining, insightful, and takes only ten minutes.