Monday, April 10, 2006

Counteracting the Forces of Dull Music Making

There's some good discussion going on over at Greg Sandow's The Future of Classical Music site regarding the issue of dull performances. Which, the consensus seems to be, are not helping the situation.

I read recently that Richard Strauss said that conducting had to be a balance between "faithfulness to the score and inspired improvisation." Of course, Strauss was talking about improvisation of rubato, dynamics, emotional spirit, etc., not the actual notes.

Improvising actual notes, though, is a wonderful way to free up the spirit and one's creativity, even for those who are going to improvise only in private and stick to classical music in their public performing.

Free improvisation in particular can counteract the sort of forces I discuss in the following, which I also submitted as a comment on Greg's site:
Dull music-making is indeed a big issue. And the ironic thing is that conservatory training, the orchestral audition process, and most music competitions emphasize technical perfection, discourage genuinely individualistic performance, and are much of the problem.

The more charismatic an established performer, the more likely (s)he is to be ridiculed by teachers and by other players of that instrument. The more impassioned and original a young artist, the more likely a member of a competition jury is to be offended by the interpretation or stage presence and give a low score. (That's why I'm in favor of having competition juries made up of fine musicians who play a different instrument than that which is the focus of the competition.)

And the same sort of thing happens with the orchestral audition process, in which a committee has, usually, total say over who gets into the final round heard by the music director. The usual advice for people taking orchestra auditions is to be able to play everything with technical perfection, good musicianship, but little "personality." And again, the less bland the playing the higher the liklihood of offending a committee member.

When I was a teenager at the North Carolina School of the Arts in the 1970s, I had a cello teacher who encouraged me to play with emotional and physical abandon. I was overtly emotional and moved around a lot. Audiences and singer friends loved it. Other instrumentalists? Once I got into playing like this, some wouldn't even speak to me. I was (sniff) "acting." And sometimes in the heat of the moment I played out of tune. How very, very distasteful!

I recently attended a master class by a very famous cellist, now retired from performing, who was known for his rather reserved stage presence. As he does quite often, he devoted part of the class to making fun of players who show the spirit of the music in their faces and bodies. He did this by, rather comically, mocking this behavior while playing. I thought he actually sounded better. Whether he did or not, his students, and their students, are being taught that to be physically demonstrative is to be deserving of scorn and ridicule.

There are even lots of cellists still denouncing Jackie DuPre, who's been dead for nearly 20 years! And I never heard so many second-rate conducting teachers put down anyone more than Leonard Bernstein, not realizing that his "showmanship" sprang from genuine passion and knowing his scores inside and out, as well as a natural theatricality. Think of all Bernstein did for classical music! And to hear some people talk, back when I was a student, you'd think he was some sort of evil force.

So the bad news is in much of classical-music land, we are teaching our students to have a boring stage presence and exert social pressure on each other to do the same.


Terry said...

Improvisation for the Audience -

It seems to me that many, maybe most, musical genres have their roots in social dance: "Classical," and others such as jazz, rock n'roll, folk/ethnic, Country/Western... The protoypical forms gave the ordinary people an opportunity to perform and improvise.

As the musical genres evolved the music tended to get more cerebral and shift away from dance for the audience (the exception being C/W which is perhaps devolving, getting decidedly less cerebral).

I once attended a lecture by a string bass player who started playing dances some 20 years ago. At first he felt doing dances was a major step down from sit-down concert performing, but after a while he came to feel the dance was the higher and more satisfying art form. He finds a chemistry between band and audience, and the responses of the dancers encourages him to improvise on his own part to match the energy and mood of the dancers.

Consider also Andre Reiu. The classicaller-than-thou crowd might sneer at his schamltzy watered-down arrangements, poofy hair, brightly clothed orchestral women, but he always gets the audience enthusiasticallly singing and dancing. The audience comes because it participates. An idea that seems anathema to classicists, for whom music seems to be "all-about-me."

Paulius said...

well, according to my current teacher (and a great teacher he is!:), there are two types of teachers: those, who raise artists, and those, who raise sportsmen, and this is quite a problem, but if we shoud discuss movement, I think there is (as always:) an other side of the coin. I like to see performing music as speaking, telling a story etc. and speakers are always more interesting if they enrich their speach with non-verbal elements like gesticulation and such . But I think you'll agree, that there are some people that gesticulate more than they say:) thus, movement can get quite boring too. another thing is that, in my opinion, too much movement can sometimes be a sign that the performer is uncomfortable and tense while playing (it's sometimes very visible in the face muscles, for example, - even Rostropovich used to play with his mouth open now and then:) and it becomes and obstacle then. To sum it up, it's quite nice to see that the performer is alive and eager to tell something, a smile from time to time is pleasant too, but physical appearance should not overcome the music itself and it's not always 100% passion (i'd like to exclude conductors here, being very poorly familiar with their art:)

Paulius said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The bobbing and weaving of musicians seems to have started in the '50's most noticeably with pianists. There already were "long haired" conductors who had been flailing their heads about for some time.

I first noticed this when college friends and I attended the Thursday evening Rochester Philharmonic concerts in the late 50's. As time moved from the mid fifties toward the 60's the exaggerated movement of (especially) the soloists increased noticeably.

It's no wonder Jackie DuPre used this style. She probably had observed it in others long before she hit the stage. The bobbing and weaving routine had become almost required behavior for the soloist by the time she reached her stride.