As we begin a new school year, we all aspire to top quality performances with our ensembles. We want our students to play accurately and with technical proficiency. But, I would guess that each of us as teachers and ensemble leaders desires more from our group. We want them to give inspired performances that move us and our audience. I recently asked my students to consider what inspires them when they see and hear a great orchestra, and how can we work to emulate that in our performances.
Student Response: Passion and Emotion in the Performance
Overwhelmingly, the primary response received from my students was they could “see and hear passion in a great performance,” and they could “sense the emotion of top-level performers.” This was particularly interesting to me because neither passion nor emotion have anything to do with the difficulty of the repertoire being performed or the technical prowess or capabilities of the players. My students (and all music consumers) want to be moved by a performance. They want the performers to say something important, and they want to in turn feel something.
How Do We Achieve Passion in a Performance?
The larger question, of course, is: What do we need to do to give our audiences that same experience? When I asked students that question, the answer was significantly less clear. The students knew what they wanted to see and hear, but were less sure of how to get to the point of giving that experience to their audiences. They definitely knew the first step was to play the right notes. They also had a good sense of the importance of finding the inner dynamic motion of a piece of music. So, I knew I had begun to do my job as their conductor. These, of course, are the first steps in developing a fine ensemble. Students must know and demonstrate correct notes and rhythms; they must play with the appropriate technique, and they must know and demonstrate the shaping of phrases and dynamic contrasts. This, however, is still not the end of the process. There is so much more an ensemble can achieve in order to truly demonstrate passion and emotion in their performance.
I have been reflecting on these same questions. I want to be able to articulate a model to my students which they can fall back on during their process of preparing music. They are all at various stages of working towards a goal of artistry and greater proficiency on their instrument. But, if they don’t have a sense of the path to giving passionate, emotional performances, it is possible they will be less than purposeful in their personal practice and group rehearsals. So, I have come up with a simple model that can begin to tell the story of this process.
Four Requirements of a Moving Performance
I believe an artistic, moving performance requires technique, artistry, purpose, and perspective.
Obviously, the technique aspect goes without saying. Many music students never get past this. The musician must focus on so many aspects of technique in their practice time. They must also isolate various techniques as part of their practice. For a string player, this includes intonation, fingering, vibrato, bow hand and arm, bow technique, tone production, posture, intonation, shifting, and many, many more. As I said, it’s easy to get stuck right here and never get past it. Technique is the first key to giving a moving performance.
Next, I would include the aspects of artistry. This includes shaping phrases, adjustments and variations of tone quality, dynamic contrast, fluency, and much more. This is where the young musician begins to find a voice as an artist. Their music begins to take on a personality and the process of true communication with the audience begins. I will never forget the summer my vibrato began to develop as a violinist. Suddenly, my sound was personal. It was me. It was such a motivator for me as a young musician. As I look back, that was probably the beginning of artistry for me.
Technique and Artistry are fairly easy to pinpoint. Now, we get into the nitty-gritty: Purpose and Perspective.
Purpose, from an ensemble perspective, is understanding the role of each instrument at every given time in the context of the piece. Everyone must know when they have the melody or a supporting role. They must know the purpose of each line, motive, and passage in the repertoire. Sometimes their voice must be the lead. Sometimes their voice is a response to a question. Sometimes their voice provides rhythmic underpinning. Other times, it provides harmonic underpinning. Sometimes they are playing the role of (or imitating) another instrument.
Students must know when the tempo stretches and when it pushes. They must know when the line arrives at an apex. And, they must know how to demonstrate these variations within the piece. These larger questions in the preparation of ensemble and solo repertoire are vital. If a musician performs an ensemble piece in a vacuum, without regard to their role and the role of others, they really can’t be part of a moving performance which requires that they interact with the other voices.
Finally, I would consider perspective to be a greater understanding of the history of a composition, the artistic possibilities of the composition, and a desire to emote all of the possible responses to the listener in both a sonic and physical way.
I believe that consumers of live music take cues not only from the aural information they are receiving, but also from the physiological information they are receiving. We must look the part in order to convey the message. We must know the message before we can look the part. This, of course, is not a fully objective task. This is where many subjective concepts and decisions come into play. It gets a little abstract. And, thus, can be a roadblock for a young artist. This, in many ways, is one of the great pleasures of the conductor/teachers. We get to interpret and articulate our vision for any piece which we are preparing.
I was talking with a friend last night who is a jazz musician. He was telling me that in order for an instrumental jazz musician to perform a great ballad well, they must know the lyrics to the song. Without knowing the lyrics, how could they possibly interpret the tune? This is perspective. In order to perform an instrumental piece as a soloist, or as an ensemble, the performer(s) must have a unified perspective on exactly what they are saying.
Almost 10 years ago, I presented a session to the American String Teachers Association and many other state organizations entitled “The Art of Developing Passionate Ensembles.” It was geared toward inspiring passion in the students rather than inspiring passionate performances. (Although I believe the two are inseparable.)
For that presentation, I recommended that in order to develop a passionate ensemble, the teacher/director had to provide and model the following criteria:
- The importance of the experience and the relationships between the members of the ensemble
- A safe artistic chemistry and environment in the rehearsal
- A clear understanding of the importance and value of the experience
- A clear demonstration of the human value and overall humanity of the process.
- The importance of the investment of self in the process
A decade later I still adhere to this model as an instructor. I find it interesting that I don’t list the technical aspects of the whole musician in this model at all. I think that at the time, I believed it was understood. And, I find the variation in the models to be interesting especially as one is directed particularly at the ensemble member and the other is directed at the ensemble leader. It is, I believe, an important distinction.
I welcome your input and thoughts on these ideas and look forward to possibly hearing from some of you. Here’s to many passionate, emotional performances as we all move forward with the new academic year!