Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When Perfection Paralyzes

I’ve worked with musicians of various stripes in their endeavors to prepare artistically for a performance. As an artistic coach and conductor I have found there are usually three types of preparation styles that musicians use to develop their performance concepts of a work.

The first type of player looks to others for answers to How does the piece go? What is the right way to play this piece? The outside source is usually an esteemed teacher whose words are treated as absolute and right. This performer seeks to perpetuate at the best of their ability, the way that was passed down to them in a sort of pedigree approach.

This style, then, is pre-occupied with producing sounds in close replica of an external model. The player competes internally with their own skills to come closer to the teacher’s example. This model is typical for young players and provides a good launch site for developing a sense of musicianship.

However, a player stuck in this mode, unable or unwilling to develop personal music maturity, will often come to a coaching session seeking confirmation that their teacher/ideal model continues to be right. They are usually unwilling to absorb new possibilities and can even become hostile if their idol’s methods are questioned. If a musician continues in the servitude of this external ideal, the romance may eventually wear off. Unfortunately without the skills to develop personal musicianship, the player often becomes unfulfilled and disgruntled.

(Consider this instance from a rehearsal of the Dvorak cello concerto. When I asked for confirmation that the soloist did indeed want to move aggressively ahead at the point in the score where Dvorak writes dolce. The surprising reply was, “Hmm, I’m not sure, I need to listen to X’s recording again.” This, from a player who had just graduated from a top school with a doctorate degree in music performance! I’m tempted to suggest that the longer one remains in school the more committed the player becomes to this ‘pedigree’ style of musicianship. It does bring success in that environment!)

The second type of player wrestles with a piece, looking for answers to artistic questions from within.
The ‘right way’ of performing will be one that is genuine and true to the self and the music. They see their role as a creative artist, rather than a reproducer. Their competitive drive is towards developing musical depth. These types of musicians are very pro-active and are usually artistically satisfied. This player also knows that no one else is exactly like them; as a unique artist they feel no rivalry towards other players.

(This musician is an absolute pleasure to coach as everything becomes grist for their artistic mill.
Note that this musician will find working under mediocre conductors - who keep them on a tight leash - justifiably torturous!)

The third type seeks to execute a ‘right way’ of performance which is neither based on what another person offers as a roadmap , nor what is discovered or created from within. This musician strives to play a piece perfectly. Perfection - as defined by some vague cosmic, super-human ideal.

This third style incorporates one striking aspect. Whereas both the ‘do as the teacher says’ reproducer and the ‘I will dig deep and discover’ creator are following the respective routes out of a desire to communicate and connect with a listener, the perfectionist’s style is concerned solely with their own achievements. The listener remains outside the artistic equation as the artistic goal is to prove one’s ability to attain perfection to oneself.

I see a familiar analogy of this mindset in the Olympic athlete whose goal of acing a perfect ten or nailing a triple jump fulfills the performer’s own desire; the audience is only an observer or witness. Performance art, however, includes the audience in the goal. Actors, for example, judge their ‘rightness’ or the value of a performance on Did I get them? Did I connect to the audience? Did I move them? The value received by the audience is a priority. A perfectly spoken, paced, and acted scene has no meaning and no value if nobody ‘got it.’

To perform on stage in front of listeners and present art in a manner of an Olympic athlete is stingy. One can admire a player’s intense drive to continually improve, but when the listener is removed from the equation, this behavior become self-gratifying and conceited. For a musician who touts having high standards and a relentless - even heroic - drive for being perfect, it can be a crushing blow to realize how perfection can cripple one’s art.

When a player is stuck in this mode, perfection paralyzes artistic development. Only note-production remains. Such players tend to approach a piece as an engineer would, seeking the one correct way, exacting the notated data, calculating the required technique, refining the logistics; counting, measuring, redesigning.

So how do you coach a perfectionist? I try to re-frame the drive for perfection to a drive for excellence; artistic, communicative excellence. When perfection paralyzes, the artist becomes pre-occupied with inner-dialogues related to technique, the bits of music which are measurable, countable, and tangible to the ear. So my comments direct the player to consider the listener’s version of the event, something much more difficult to grasp. I try to redirect their concern of “Was it perfect?” to include the audience’s needs and help players develop the skills to understand “Did it work?” This may require a frank discussion about music-making and the role of the performer. (Most perfection-driven players will resist re-direction because it goes against their way of approaching music – and, I suspect, way of life, too. In such cases, I respect their human-spirit and offer to be a neutral ‘third ear’ in their endeavors.)

When the drive for perfection dominates a performer’s mind set, music loses heart, poetry, and depth. Surprisingly, if not tragically, I have worked with musicians who are unable to grasp the poetic, metaphoric side of music. Notes are just notes. They tend to be well-programmed, extremely sensitive and finessed machines with acute ears, but lack a sensibility as to how sounds might relate to qualities other than what is scored on the paper. They can realize the composer’s blue print with precision and ease, yet the concept of conveying meaning is foreign. Perfection paralyzes the soul and chills the muse.

(A player with this type of artistic preparation usually finds a niche in modern repertoire where a correct performance tends to require a literal reproduction of the notated instructions. The more technical challenges a piece offers, the more satisfying the preparation process and final performance.)

What causes some players to pursue perfection rather than artful performance remains unclear to me. I’m hardly qualified to speculate, either. However, what is most concerning is the player’s detachment from their audience. Musicianship differs from a sport that awards medals we take home around our neck. Rather the artist sets out to win the sort of medals which every audience member takes home and carries with them forever.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Twilight Zone Revisited

It’s time to revisit the question of audience age. In the essay Twilight Zone from 2009, I explored people’s relationship to time, one of our stronger life-shaping metaphors. Since then, I’ve continued to dig deeper into metaphor and have found new and compelling ideas applicable to music. There are good reasons our audiences are typically over the age of 40.

Music offers sounds that “when viewed through a lens of metaphor” become meaningful. This metaphorical thinking is a basic requirement for composers, performers, and listeners. (Because the word metaphor can be rather dry and mysterious I often use the phrase a  "wine-tasting approach to music" )

Surprisingly, the ability to form metaphor is a cognitive process which begins to develop around the age of nine. In the teens to mid- twenties, metaphorical thinking remains limited, with the use of simple metaphors usually based on similar, concrete characteristics. After these years the richness and complexity of a person’s metaphor-building gains  psychological and personal depth. Our metaphors develop out of the richness of life experiences.

For younger minds, metaphor is more imaginative – usually based on some physical attribute that easily reminds a person of something else. As we gradually experience more of life psychologically, the connection between items moves beyond similar outward appearances and gathers complexity and depth, leaping between more distant notions.

Haydn’s “Clock Symphony” offers an easy example of the age-related development of metaphors. Most young people will easily imagine the pizzicato celli/bass parts as a clock. There is an easily grasped, audio description of a physical thing. With some imagination, they may decide it is like the grandfather clock in their aunt’s living room. How delightful and fun that Papa Haydn wrote such music! This is the simple metaphor-building of younger minds.

It is further in life - and studies suggest beyond the late twenties - when people develop more complex metaphorical responses and understanding. Instead of a clock, a real clock, an older listener might connect the bass line with a more abstract notion of clock work, tapping into their rich psychological and emotional inner world through this metaphorical lens. Ask most 49-year-olds about this clock-sound motif and there will be complex responses quite unrelated to the machinery in auntie’s living room.  A 65-year-old would potentially have yet even richer, more complex metaphorical connections when hearing this Haydn symphony.

(Staying with the clock, another example comes to mind: Beethoven’s 8th Symphony. If it is ‘about the metronome’ – this is a simple, imaginative response: unfortunately, this is usually about as deep as we go with this symphony, too.)

Everything music offers us through sounds can be used in metaphor-building. In terms of our audiences then, consider this important fact:  metaphorical thinking is dependent on a having a rich reservoir of life experiences, i.e. age and fullness of life.

I’m reminded of a recent concert of Mahler’s 1st Symphony. I had disturbing images of Scooby-Doo cartoons in my head instead of the usual Mahler-esque tragedies. The shifting character and dramatic ‘monster chords’ were slick and easy - as a cartoon sound track. Was it because the conductor was so young? Was the metaphor-building that Mahler asks for still beyond the cognitive and psychological experience of the youthful leader?

I have a friend who is an English teacher and often leads high school students through Shakespeare. He is so acutely aware of what concepts are ‘available’ to each age group. The freshmen will relate to some layers of the drama, while be unable to comprehend a more complex, psychological event that the seniors will grasp instantly. The pacing and selection of layers, the density of metaphor and character types – all this is offered to students in a manner which suites their cognitive and emotional stage - and opens the door for further depth and exploration.

I’m concerned that we assume we can speak to fifth-graders and 53 year-olds about music as if is contains the same truths for each. When we lecture our adult listeners about the historical facts and structure of a piece, we miss an opportunity to guide listeners towards meaning. Metaphorical thinking requires the development of internal references - and no matter of memorizing names, dates, and trivia will enhance metaphorical thought.

Why are we reluctant to guide people into the metaphorical realms of music? What would music education look like if approached as part of metaphor-building of the human experience?

What would our box-office and programming concerns look like if we had an understanding of our audiences the way my English-teacher friend knows his students?

Contrary to feeling disappointed when only the older crowd shows up, perhaps we would value their presence. Rather than seeing them as soon-to-be-obsolete patrons, we might acknowledge that an older listener is a deep listener.

Indeed, when we fail to feed the spirit of the older listener, classical music becomes a soon-to-be-obsolete art.