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.
Rodgers, Berlin, Hammerstein, and Helen Tamiris, watching auditions at the St. James Theatre (source)
Many student musicians are now feeling that heart-quickening mixture of excitement and dread as they enter the school audition season. They pack their best clothes and travel to strange cities to play in front of strangers for fifteen minutes…and then return home to await the answer, all the while praying fervently for a positive one.
Auditioning for schools isn’t an easy process, but there are some things we can do to feel more at ease and successful throughout the process. I’m by no means an old hand at auditioning, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been on the receiving end of valuable audition advice.
- Practice the audition, not just the music. You’ve likely been investing hours into the preparation of your pieces, but hold mock auditions–multiple times–by inviting friends, family, and/or colleagues to sit in front of you and watch you play your audition pieces. Have them follow the audition process by stopping you in the middle of a piece, telling you which piece to play next, and selecting movements in random order.
- Visualize a successful audition. This ties into the mock audition: by imagining yourself in a strange studio or auditorium, playing in front of judges, your actual audition will seem less like foreign territory. Rather than putting energy into fears and worries about the unknown, program your mind with positive mental images.
- Practice calmly. Especially on audition day, resist the urge to rush through your pieces beginning to end. Play through them slowly and mindfully, start at different sections, and review problem spots calmly and carefully for confidence’s sake.
- Don’t apologize for mistakes. A friend once made the astute observation that competitions are about a single performance, but auditions are about potential. Teachers and judges understand that the audition process is nerve-racking, and they don’t expect flawless performances. Rather than letting technical slips distract you, accept the mistake and move on as quickly as possible. Music is a living, breathing, emotional art, and you’re not there to show that you can play a Beethoven sonata without missing any notes–you’re there to show that you’ve worked hard and that you’re passionate about and invested in music.
- Be memorable. The faculty might see dozens of hopeful students in a day, and hundreds of them in a month. Besides ensuring that your musical interpretation is logical, creative, and nuanced, it might help to put yourself in the shoes of a businessperson. Dress well. Show your personality. Look people in the eye. Walk with confidence and purpose. If you have the opportunity to talk with the faculty, try to ask thoughtful questions.
- Be an artist. Finally, remember that passing a single audition is not the final destination. What judges think of you is secondary to your own convictions about, and love for, music. One of the things that helped me the most when auditioning for grad school was hearing a friend advise me to imagine myself as a touring musician, concertizing in new and exciting cities. That image of being an established artist, sharing music in front of fresh audiences, inspired me to care more about my music, to infuse my interpretation with more personal creativity. I once heard a quote similar to: “Practicing is the work. Performing should be the enjoyment.” Imagine your audition as a performance, another chance to express yourself through art, and it will be a more positive process for you (and the judges too!).
Finally, a quote from another field which deals with auditions, on not worrying too much about the audition process and accepting whatever the outcome may be:
“They are dying for you to blow them away. They’re on your side. What do you think—they want to go through hundreds of people and settle? No. Just do what you do. Either you’re right for the part or you’re not—let them decide.” –Ian Tucker, acting coach
The Violin Site – Fearless Audition
Bulletproof Musician – What is the Most Overlooked Step in Audition Preparation?
What’s your best audition tip?
Although directed toward people in the business world, this article by Scott Stossel in the Harvard Business Review addresses some points about performance in high-pressure situations that are equally as relevant for us musicians.
For those who choke during presentations to board members or pitches to clients, for example…the best approach may be one akin to what Beilock has athletes do in her experiments: redirecting your mind, in the moment, to something other than how you’re comporting yourself, so you can allow the skills and knowhow you’ve worked so hard to acquire to automatically kick into gear and carry you through. Your focus should not be on worrying about outcomes or consequences or on how you’re being perceived but simply on the task at hand. Prepare thoroughly (but not too obsessively) in advance; then stay in the moment.