Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Fear, love, courage and performance

Today has been rather long. Nearly six hours of it was spent in an orchestra rehearsal.

As a musician I feel like I've been put through a wringer. The conductor is very good. He has a lot of good things to say, he is trying to encourage us, trying to get us to take risks and play from the heart as (I feel) true musicians ought to.

The difficulty is that he also expects, nay, demands, a very high standard of performance. In the long term, this is entirely compatible with his desire for a heartfelt, musical performance from all of us. The way to get to a point of taking risks and giving a committed and heartfelt performance is to take the risks in a safe environment, to discover that yes, we can do this well and no, the odd technical problem really doesn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

The problem is that it isn't a safe environment when we're being encouraged to take risks and then chastened when the results of those risks are perhaps less technically brilliant than they might be. We're all nervous already--because we care about the music, we care about getting things right. There are two responses to that. One is to love the music all the more, pour heart and soul into performance and accept that, oh, we might miss some notes. The other is to switch off. The conductor doesn't want us to switch off, but he also doesn't accept the missed notes.

All day it was like this. We played, perhaps a bit too nervously, certainly too woodenly. He begged us to play properly, play the music not just the notes, get off the page and into the soul of things. We responded, and then someone messed something up--usually something small, something we could fix given another time or so to go over it. And then he stopped, to tell us we shouldn't really be making those mistakes, we should have better technical skills, focus, control than that. And the defensive walls in our hearts went right back up and we repeated the whole thing again.

There are a lot of reasons we're not playing at our technical best. Some of it is to do with the way the orchestral projects are run at Academic Institution; in order to give a fair chance at orchestral playing to rather unbalanced instrumentation, there isn't a set Symphony Orchestra with set players in it; rather, players are chosen on a project-by-project basis. This means we aren't used to playing together as a group and haven't had time to really start to listen to one another the way a good ensemble should, or to iron out the worst of the (inevitable) problems with intonation and with starting and ending notes together. The conductor can do only so much for ensemble issues.

For my part, I've had a very very busy six weeks. A lot of my own playing is not at the technical standard I would like because I have had to skimp on practice time in order to get everything done; my 90-minute technical maintenance routine has had to be shoehorned into 45 minutes far more often than I would like. The result is a lack of consistency in my playing, and of course that inconsistency is in itself disconcerting enough to cause problems. But there's very little since January that I've been in a position to turn down, and I know several of my colleagues are in a similar position of wanting to do better at the music but straining at the limits of their physical and mental capacity to do more work.

For the most part, though, I think the biggest problem is that we've all spent a few years now trying to improve our playing. Musicians have to be self-critical: if we can't hear our own mistakes we won't be able to improve without help. Every slight indiscretion is noted, to be examined later in the practise room or in a lesson, and when we're playing together with others and for a conductor we don't know that all gets magnified.

I hope that we can find the generosity and love for the music that we will need to create an honest and courageous performance. Playing it safe, being driven by fear, is not my preferred mode of performance.

This isn't unlike some of the issues I've looked at before here. I think there's an element of this love-vs-fear problem for any performing artist.

I think there are broader applications, too: are we judged by our intent, our efforts to do right, or by the results of those efforts? Is it better to take a risk on something that might improve the world, or to play it safe and do no harm?

I'm still pretty tired so it's off to say my prayers and go to bed. Maybe I'll have time and energy to discuss this stuff further at some point.

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