Friday, 7 January 2011

The emotion of music making

Last month there was an article in the Guardian titled 'The pull of love' – or why music can be a quasi-spiritual practice. In it, there got to be a bit of a discussion of various aspects of performance, and I'm going to pull out some of the comments I made there, clean them up and put them here.

The commenter jeremyjames made this comment

Incidentally, I asked a horn player chum which frightened him more - the beginning of Bruckner 4 or Mahler 5. He said whichever one he happened to be playing!

I've played both, and if it is to be done well, the solo at the opening of Bruckner 4 is one of the most dangerous moments for a horn player in all classical music. The entry is fairly high, so it is very easy to "crack" the opening note. You can reduce the danger by playing the opening note louder, but that destroys the ethereal effect of the opening. If you do that, you are merely playing the notes and have abandoned the music. The note almost mustn't actually start, instead the audience should realise that it is there when previously it wasn't, but not notice the transition from nonexistence to existence.

The horn player will always be sweating a bit at the start and his concentration will be needle-sharp at the instant of playing that first note. After the first note, you can relax a bit. You know you can do it and the rest of the solo will go OK.

Then savvymum, with whom I've had many enjoyable and stimulating conversations on the Guardian website, made this comment:

I hope he's going to help me explain the difference between listening to music and playing it. There is also the world of difference between playing the piano and playing orchestrally. Not only are different skills needed to sit and rattle off your Rach' and Chopin, but the subjective feelings and critical skills are different., when you are a solitary player. Joining in with a good symphony orchestra is a different ball game, which requires a further set of skills, and a different mindset when you play.

Anyway Jonathan might be able to put the meat onto the bare bones I've laid out here.
I don't think playing is a semi-spiritual practise, and I bet Jonathan and I have done enough of it over the years, so I reckon we know what we're talking about. Sure, I get a feeling that I can't get elsewhere, and it fulfills me in a way that nothing else quite does. In fact I admit to being so bad, I can't live without it, as it actually is my life being a musician.

I could hardly turn down such an invitation!

Great musical performance (or even just pretty good musical performance) requires that you get into the emotion of the work. There is an interesting thing about emotional thinking.

One can simply experience the emotion itself. Almost everybody can do that, and this is all that audiences really need to be able to do to enjoy a good performance.

Then you can also be aware of the emotion in a detached part of your mind, and have some idea as to whether the emotion is appropriate. A surprisingly large number of people haven't really twigged how to do this.

And then you can also direct your emotions, turn them on and off to a degree under conscious control in order to communicate. Very few people are adept at this, but some degree of this skill is essential for musicians.

But it isn't much talked about. Partly this is because it is so hard to put into words. Talking about instruments and techniques is so much easier. Partly it is that few people would understand what you are saying.

Some people, when I talk in this way of awareness and control over emotions, comment that if I'm forever analysing things this way, I can't possibly feel the emotion fully itself. The reverse is true. The additional awareness allows you to have a much richer experience on more levels. You don't feel the emotion any less fully, but the other aspects of the experience are available to you as well.

And when that is wrapped up in a musical performance you are participating in, so you are engaging your motor control skills to produce the music, and your empathy and awareness so you keep up with everybody else, you can get into a state described by the psychologists as flow, which in its more intense manifestations can give you such a sense of euphoria that you can be walking on air for days after. And that gets communicated to the audience, who (hopefully) experience it as a great performance.

If there is no emotional engagement by the musicians, they are concentrating solely on the notes, even the most untrained listener will recognise that there is "something missing" from the performance, even if they can't articulate why.

But the emotion isn't all you have to do.The thing about playing music is that you have to think emotionally and technically at the same time, at very high speed and with great precision. You have to know what emotions you want to convey, but you also have to be concerned at some level with the technicalities of extracting the sound for the instrument, and you have to be highly aware of everything that the other players are doing, so you can be sensitive to what their emotions are and fit in with it all. So collaborative music making requires great skills in empathy as well.

While there's a lot of grinding practice needed to acquire the skills necessary to do all this, the performance itself is a spur of the moment, no going back, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. You launch yourself into the piece as if you are a canoeist in rapids, and there's no way out except to navigate the obstacles and reach the calm water at the end. And the water won't stop for you while you work out how to get round some particularly forbidding rock that is right in the middle of the stream!

Occasionally you will founder on that rock, and a performance will go horribly wrong. That is part of the fear and excitement - you never quite know what is going to happen. And for an audience, this is the key difference between listening to live music and listening to a recording. Live performance is exciting, not only because you can see what is happening as well as hear it, but because it is happening now and you don't know what is coming next.

No comments:

Post a Comment