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.
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?
“I’ve just received some letters from Vienna regarding Liszt. He caused a stir as Vienna has never known. He is truly an artist whom one must see and hear for oneself. I regret that you won’t meet him because you two would really get along well. He likes you very much. He ranks your compositions far above Henselt’s, above everything that he knows in our time. I played your Carnaval for him (I also played it for Ms. Cavalcabo); he’s delighted with it. ‘He’s a genius,’ he said; ‘that’s one of the greatest works I know.’ You can imagine my joy.”
“Once again I survived playing at the theater. The applause was as usual, but my playing seemed so bland and so–I don’t know how to put it–that I almost lost interest in continuing with my tour. Ever since I heard and saw Liszt’s bravura, I feel like a beginner. Maybe my courage will return again–I hope it’s just a passing melancholy which I often have. I know it’s not right to be so dissatisfied, but I can’t help it. The only thought that can cheer me is to live as an amateur pianist later, to give a few lessons, and not to play in public anymore. You’ll always love me, my Robert, won’t you?”
– Clara Wieck, to Robert Schumann, April 1838
Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).
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.
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.