Wednesday, July 5, 2017

What? and How?

This week in Intermediate Concert Orchestra, in the days prior to our performance, I 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.

Response: I can see Passion and Emotion in the performance.

The response that I received from my students was primarily that they can see and hear passion in a great performance and that they could see and hear emotion in a great performance. This interested me a great deal because neither of these words 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.  The want the performers to feel something and they want to in turn feel something.

How do we show or achieve passion in performance?

The larger question, of course, is what do we need to do to give that same experience to our audience. When I asked that question, the answer was significantly less clear. The students know what they want to see and here, but were certainly not sure how to get to the point of giving that to their audiences. They definitely knew that 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 that 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 the 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 that an ensemble can achieve in order to truly demonstrate passion and emotion inner performance.

I have been reflecting on these same questions throughout the week. I want to be able to articulate a model to my students which they can fall back on in 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 that they will be less than purposeful in their practice and rehearsals. So, I have come up with a simple model that can begin to tell the story of this process.

I believe that an artistic, moving performance requires the following:
  • Technique
  • Artistry
  • Purpose
  • 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 isolate various techniques in 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 all of the aspects of artistry. This includes shaping phrases, adjustments and variations of tone quality, dynamic contrast , fluency, and many more.  This is where the young musician begins to find a voice as a an artist. Their music begins to take on a personality and the process of true communication with the audience begins.

Now we get into the nitty-gritty . I list purpose next. Purpose, from an ensemble perspective, is having a clear understanding of 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. Sometimes a voice provides harmonic underpinning. Sometimes they are plaing the role of another instrument.  They must know when the tempo stretches and when it pushes. 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.

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 listeners of live music take cues not only from the aural information that they are receiving, but also from the physiological information that 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 a great deal of subjective concepts and decisions come into play. It gets a little abstract. And, thus, can be a roadblock for a young artist.I was talking with a friend last night who was a jazz musician. He was telling me that in order for a jazz musician to perform a great ballad well, they must know the lyrics to the song. This, is perspective.  In order to perform an instrumental piece as a soloist, or as an ensemble, everyone must have a unified perspective on exactly what they are saying.

Almost 10 years ago, I gave a session to the American String Teachers Association and many other state organizations entitled "The Art of Developing Passionate Ensembles."  For that presentation, I developed the following model. It stated 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
I feel like, after a decade, 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 I believed it was understood. And, I find the variation in the models to be interesting especially as one is directed particularly at the person in the ensemble and the other is directed at the one leading the ensemble.  It is, I believe, an important distinction.

I will continue to consider these models as I move through the summer with ICO. I will continue to challenge the ICO musicians with these concepts. I will also bring them to my work in the fall at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. I welcome your input and thoughts on these and look forward to possibly hearing from some of you.

Here's to many passionate, emotional performances as we all move forward.



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