Performance Thoughts

Steve was helping me to edit some sound clips for my website (they’re not up yet – that’s my next project) and it’s amazing how hard it is to come up with 30 seconds of CD quality material from an hour long recital that was well received and that I felt very good about even at the time. There’s always something a little inconsistent, or a little bit of water in a key, or a little bit of a rough attack. There are moments, too, when in playing from memory I catch myself starting the wrong note and instantly switch to the correct one. It’s not finger slips, it is memory slips, but more along the lines of an “er” in an otherwise articulate conversation than a complete loss of train of thought or than a garbled or meaningless speech. In general I prefer to play from memory because of the intensity of focus it requires, and the lack of anything physical between me and the audience, and a little bit of a mumble every now and then I think is a small price to pay for that level of excitement – for me and for them as well. Steve got onto me a little – why would you play from memory and have these little mistakes all over your performance that make it impossible to use complete movements for CDs? A demo or even just a little clip does have to be perfect, because it’s so easy to judge a recording on the basis of mistakes. I do it myself.

I have made studio recordings, and I have listened to plenty of CDs and recordings of famous and less famous musicians playing great works of the repertoire. The CD recordings are amazing, but there’s something a little unreal about the level of perfection that is attainable on a disc. I have been on recording sessions enough to know that you really only have to play each note correctly once. It is so easy with the technology these days for anyone to make a “perfect” performance of a piece. All it takes is time and know-how, and while I don’t want to take anything away from that process, it is not necessarily a realistic depiction of the way someone actually plays or performs.

For me, though, playing live is such a different experience from that. It’s not that I don’t notice the little inconsistencies that creep in, and it’s not that I think they’re OK. It’s that in the moment there is not time to worry about them. Paying attention to mistakes is a sure way to make more and more of them, and more useful is to look at the big picture and at the next thing coming – the phrase I’m turning, the passagework in progress, the idiosyncrasies of the reed and, most importantly, what I need to do to keep giving the audience what they need to enjoy the piece. The energy between performer and audience is such a delicate balance, and happens at only one moment in time. Worrying about objective perfection at that moment, it seems to me, takes away from the immediate experience. It’s the same way I feel watching someone with a camcorder obsessively documenting a vacation. You may have a great record of your event to look back at later, but aren’t you missing the essential experience that is going on RIGHT NOW?

So when Steve calls me on performing from memory, I want to argue with him. And I’m not positive that I’m on the correct side. It is important to play well. We always need to choose the high road, and strive to learn the music as deeply as necessary to play exquisitely, and not accept errors born of insufficient practice or of carelessness. But if I’m giving a live performance, my responsibility is to the audience, not to the recording engineers and not to my ultimate archive of tracks. And if I can deliver the music better, in a more exciting and unfettered way, without a music stand blocking the audience’s access to me, or if in visually showing my phrase or characterization I accidentally miss an attack or a slur, does that detract THAT MUCH from their immediate experience? Would anyone prefer to have me tied to a stand and delivering a stony cold version of flawless? I can do that, but I prefer the intimacy and freedom and, yes, enjoyment, of discovering a piece of music right along with them, or perhaps I should say bringing them along with me in discovering the work.

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