In the last blog post, I likened musical performance to athletic performance. Just as an athlete needs to practice nearly every day, has little “down time” away from their sport, and performs in very challenging environs with stiff competition, so too does the musician. Just as the athlete must demonstrate terrific coordination, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness for optimal sport performance, so must the musician have expert fine motor coordination, muscular endurance particularly of the upper limbs, and excellent respiratory control.
The athlete, however, is able to measure the fruits of their practice objectively in sport performance: a pitcher can clock the speed of their fastball or the accuracy of their pitch in relation to the batter’s box, a runner can track their improvement by race times, and a hockey goalie can calculate how many shots they were able to successfully block during a game. In sports, there is a clear winner and there are various criteria to objectively grade performance. The musician is not so lucky.
Yes, the musician is assessed certain concrete aspects of performance such as their ability to play rhythms and notes correctly. So much of musical performance, though, is the sum of various intangible parts: tone, timbre, emotion or “feeling”, phrasing, etc. When playing mezzo-forte, how loud is too loud? Exactly how many beats per minute should that accelerando get to? Where, really, is the best place to take that quick breath? How is your tone? Is it clear? Too bright? Too mellow? Too breathy? What does that mean, actually? Is your tone improved if you play on a different instrument? Should you play that flute excerpt using a silver head joint or a gold one? Which one sounds “better”? Which one “fits” the piece? Are you conveying the emotional landscape set forth by the composer? Are you interpreting that musical landscape “correctly”, and are you able to convey that spirit to the listener?
…and down the rabbit hole we go. Musical interpretation and assessment of performance is, at its core, a subjective experience. My definition of something as seemingly simple as “good tone” may not exactly match yours, just as my reading of a composer’s notes and markings may not fully align with your interpretation. This variance and freedom in artistic expression can at times yield two wildly different performances of the same piece. Both performances are valid and that’s what keeps the world of music (especially classical music) alive, interesting, and relevant. The audience, however, is always going to judge which one is “better” and thus the musician is always going to strive for perfection and to optimize their performance…this often yields a cycle of seemingly endless practice. With so much subjectivity, how can a musician best prepare?
....continued in Part II....
Allison Shearer, mot, otr/l, cht
Allison is a flutist, occupational therapist/certified hand therapist, and founder of Resonance Wellness. When she's not treating--or playing--you can usually find Allison out for a run, sitting by the river with her dog, Lacey, or curled up with a cup of tea, a good book, and her cat, Willow.