We as classical musicians often have the concert or performance as our primary focus and are generally highly focused on results. We are being judged by the performance of the same musical works and within the same genres as thousands of our colleagues and the competition is tough. We perform an activity where the mastery of extremely complex motor skills must be coupled with a very small frame for errors (the musical notation gives us very few degrees of freedom) – in other words, it is really hard just to play the notes only. And to convey those correctly is just the means to an end, which is: Ultimately to achieve a musical performance that moves the audience, that has a high personal integrity, that conveys a varied and mature emotional content, that, briefly said, is deeply artistic. As a music student at a conservatory, our feedback usually consists of our teacher’s corrections to our performance, with suggestions for changes on the detail level – or on a more general level – as well as instructions on how to practise particularly complicated places. But maybe we not so skilled at helping the student finding his own way into the musical piece?
Likewise, it is quite surprising that we rarely talk with our colleagues about the actual work process, on which we all have spent far more than the much-debated 10,000 hours, namely our practice. I know how my colleagues play in a concert, but I know very little about how they practise. There is namely another key issue at stake here: As soon as we have come a long way in our artistic career, it becomes important for us to appear as optimal as possible to the outside world. That is why bad reviews are so hard to accept, because we know that they can put a negative value on our professional career, both figuratively and literally. Consequently, even though we have to live with the possibility of playing a bad concert, we are reluctant to talk about the process leading up to the concert (let alone to show it), as it by its very nature contains unfinished results.
This is why students often are nervous for playing at a lesson, even late in their studies. And this is why we are reluctant to show the process to our colleagues where we are making mistakes. In the classical music world, your market value is directly proportional your reputation – so it’s a dangerous business! I also think, that for me this phenomenon has had an effect on my own self-perception, so I initially felt unwilling to look into my own practice processes. Many of these processes are experienced as relatively automatic, and as long as they “work”, I think that many musicians actually feel it as a relief, not having to look at our own shortcomings every day (See About recording yourself).
But the question is whether we hold back our possibilities for development in this area? (See About reaching out for your full potential). I am convinced, that if we begin to share knowledge and experiences about how we actually practise, we can:
Become much better teachers
Learn much more about, how we can improve our own practice
Get a clearer picture of what really happens during the lengthy job of learning a musical work – also for the benefit of professionals in other art forms as well as the audience.
These hopes have been the starting point for my project FormingPerforming. It has actually been very challenging having to look at your own practice from the outside and showing this side of yourself to students and colleagues. But my hope is that I can encourage others to share their experiences as well, and that in the long term we may develop a common language and conceptual framework for this essential part of our praxis, not least for the benefit of future students.