My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A call for a movement among classical musicians

Yesterday, Greg Sandow, a man whose opinion I respect greatly,  wrote a post on his blog that, although a bit on the melancholy side, made some points that helped  bring together in my mind and heart some of the thoughts and feelings I have been grappling with for a while now.  Here is the link to the post.  And here is the response that I submitted directly to his blog, in its entirety...
"Yes, this is a bit on the depressing side, Greg, but I think it is important to talk about this because I think it is all interwoven with the other issues you have been talking about on this blog and in your upcoming book. I think that in the classical music culture we have forgotten why it is that we play music in the first place. These days there is this absolutely unreasonable focus on perfection which overshadows practically everything. For soloists in particular, performing has become an Olympic sport - I think of figure skating in particular. And how did we get to this place? My guess is that it is mostly thanks to technology and the recording industry. I think that most of the younger generations these days can't really even conceptualize how much that industry messes with our perceptions of what is humanly possible and realistic when it comes to playing an instrument. Just recently I was working with a young cellist who was very upset after missing one note in an otherwise fantastic performance...she was in tears...I told her that no professional musician gives any performance without any mistakes, that it is virtually impossible. She did not believe me at all - it was like she couldn't even begin to comprehend what I was saying. And I know that she is not the only one that feels this way. I don't think this is a good sign. I don't think that this is how we(collectively) should be raising our young musicians today.
In regards to the state of classical music today, if musicians have been growing up with this mentality for the past couple of decades - that they need to deliver note-perfect performances - if that is now what music making is all about, then it makes sense that the classical music world is in trouble. Because in order to produce that type of performance, musicians cannot truly let go and freely express themselves, communicate or honestly make music up on stage. And in my mind, then you might as well ask, "What's the point?" and you have at least one explanation for why someone might decide to stay home instead of going to a concert. I wish we could infuse the right kind of passion back into performing and music-making again. It's the kind of passion that is infectious that needs to overtake the recital hall again and draw back into its arms both audience members and performers. Here's hoping that change will come in time :-)"

Greg tends to have lively followers that produce interesting discussions as a result of his posts and this one inspired yet another spirited debate.  Some readers feel that this obsession with technical prowess is not a new phenomenon, that there has always been a dichotomy between the those that play with feeling and those that don't.  Some readers wrote in, emphatically stating that yes, there is a problem with classical musicians not being able to leave perfectionism behind but that there basically is no hope because that's just the way music institutions function and that's how young musicians are trained...the comments are all really quite interesting and informative so if you have the time, I recommend reading them.  In any case, here are my further thoughts on the subject...

I agree that there probably always has been and will always be somewhat of a struggle within most musicians to balance perfectionism with musicality - it's the nature of the beast.  In order to be a good musician, one has to demand excellence from oneself in the practice room.  Unless you're a prodigy, there's really no way around that.  So do I think that there's a crisis right now in the classical music world?  Well, yes, I do.  Maybe "crisis" is too dire a word, I don't know.  What I do know, however, is that I do a lot of accompanying, I play with a lot of young people and I know what I don't see and that is joy - joy in performing, joy in music, joy in playing music and that is what I am concerned about.  And it's not just in them that it's missing.  It's with many professionals as well.  If the standard goal these days in performing is to go up on stage and deliver as close to a perfect performance as possible, both musically and technically, is that something to look forward to?  If you were a young musician would you think, "Oh boy, I get to go and perform today - yippee!"  I don't think so.  So yes, I think we have a problem here. Collectively, we have turned what should be experiences into events.  It seems like the problem mirrors the way our culture tends to be in general.  As a society, we have turned into consumers...we pay our money and expect that's all we have to do.  Participate in any other way? Engage our emotions?  Put our emotions on the line?  It's almost like we don't even know how to do that any more - often times it's as if we've cut the wires and we're disconnected.  

Now I don't want to leave this post on a dour note so I'm not going to.  Here's what I'm going to do.  I'm going to share with you this vision I have that has been racing around in my head the past couple of weeks.  It's been driving me crazy and I'm hoping that writing it down will give me some needed rest so here goes:

I picture a time when musicians, young and old, students, amateurs, and professionals, all find joy in sharing music with others.  I picture a time when musicians know that there is a time and a place for hard work, discipline, and perfectionism but that place is not located anywhere near the recital hall.  I picture a time when people walk on stage to perform, knowing that they've done the work, that they're ready, thrilled to perform and completely in the moment once they start.  I picture a performance experience unlike any they've had before, without those critical tapes that play in one's experience so thrilling that they almost can't describe it afterwards and neither can the audience.  And because of this new energy, this communication through music, performance art no longer has to be just a passive act from the standpoint of the audience - it can now be a participatory act as well because such joy in music, such a connection to music, can be infectious.  

So am I crazy?  Am I just a dreamer?  Perhaps, but I don't really think so.  I have been working with several young people lately to help them get into a different state of mind when they perform - to leave behind their concerns and to truly just experience the music and to "play" with the music during their performance.  The result has been very surprising and moving.  A few months ago I played for a young girl's cello recital - she's about 12 years old I think.  She's very talented and a very hard worker but has a very hard time letting go during performances which is, of course, typical of so many of us.  But I really encouraged her to forget everything else at the recital and to just play with me, to trust all of her hard work, to make music.  Well, she did and she was in a was amazing.  She blew me away with the level of music-making and interacting she was doing with me throughout the entire recital - and she's only 12!  At the end of the recital, I was speechless, utterly speechless because I had seen a side of her that I had never seen before and I had seen it through her music.  It was an unbelievable experience.  And I think she sensed it too because for one of the first times, I saw her beaming from ear to ear.  It translated into pure joy!  

It is because of moments like that that I am a dreamer and that I have this vision that I have just shared with you.  Please do pass it on, if you see fit.  And let me know what you think.  Thanks for listening!


  1. Hi Erica,

    I just clicked through from Twitter to read this. How terrific!

  2. Thank you, Gretchen...that means a lot coming from you!

  3. Hi Erica,

    This is a wonderful post. Makes me look forward to teaching tomorrow.

    I've been making some changes recently in my own teaching studio. Rather than have a traditional yearly recital, I've been having monthly "coffeehouse" performances. I set up card tables with tablecloths and refreshments and invite the parents to sit and enjoy the music seated at different angles - not staring straight ahead at the performers.

    The kids can choose to play with or without music, popular or classical, or even write (and sing) their own pieces.

    This past Friday I was so happy to see the students asking me if they could "go next." They all announced their own pieces and they were laughing and having a blast.

    Some parents haven't warmed to the idea yet. They probably still think piano lessons should be more like the way they were when they were young. But I'm hoping they'll soon appreciate that their children should come away with a love of music and happiness at being able to share that love.


  4. Thank you for your comment, Cathy, and for sharing your idea and experiences with your coffee houses - what a fabulous opportunity for your students and it that must have made your heart skip a beat when your students asked to go next - hooray! This is exactly what I was talking about and exactly what I'm dreaming about - let's pass it on :-)

  5. Erica
    Some very interesting observations and of course, it is wonderful when performers feel and communicate joy.
    It would not be helpful, however, if the need to achieve perfection was supplanted by the necessity to feel joy. Nothing counts unless it is supremely joyful. There would be no better way to obstruct it from happening.
    - Richard Letts, Australia

  6. Richard, that is a very good point, indeed. It is good to be reminded that there is possible to have too much of a good thing and that it can tilt the balance in the wrong direction if it becomes a demanded expectation. Thank you for that reminder!