Monday, August 13, 2012

When Musicians Collide

I know it's hard to believe, but musicians don't always see eye to eye. Seriously! Musicians (myself included) are people with strong opinions that are expressed with lots of assertion and emotion. Those are the things that make them great artists. Those same things are why we are so hard to work with. So what happens when two musicians with differing opinions attempt to work together? It will either be an exercise in compromise and collaboration or it will end in a train wreck.

I've found myself in both situations as a collaborative pianist. (I've had personal conflict with other musicians as well, but that is another post. Today's post focuses solely on the musical disagreement.) When two highly opinionated artists bring opposing idea to the table, the exploration begins. Considering both points of view with honesty and fresh eyes allows a new interpretation to emerge that often results in the musical magic we constantly strive for. However, when one member of the ensemble refuses to bend, others can feel slighted and that their opinions are inferior. In any ensemble, every member is important and has ideas to bring to the table. The issue is deciding how to consider all of these ideas and still end up with a musically sound result.

I'm not perfect by any means and have been known to make others feel inferior. I hate it, but I recognize that it can be a problem for me, especially in relation to music making. I find this happens most often when I am sensing that my contributions are under-appreciated by the other musicians involved. I despise when a "know-it-all" attempts to show me the error of my ways in a manner that will cause me public embarrassment. Those are the times that I generally come out with both guns blazing! Here are a few techniques that I try to employ in these situations to avoid the possible train wrecks of music making.

  • Allow others the opportunity to express their ideas. It seems so simple, but it can save a lot of heartache! Even if I disagree with the logic, I can respectfully listen and then respond calmly.
  • Clearly establish a time frame. Nothing will get me in an uproar quicker than suggestions for change being offered in the 11th hour! While our performances never become perfect and above the need for modification, I personally find that there must be a date for an upcoming performance when we simply have to agree that this is the interpretation of the score that we are going to present. After that date, I encourage players to make note of ideas that can be used when the piece is programmed again in the future. (Please understand. I am not talking about wrong notes here. I'm referring to things such as phrasing, accents, etc.)
  • Clarify who has the ultimate decision. Clearly the decision will normally be made by the musician who is featured most of the time. That makes early sonatas a little easier. When more people are involved and/or all lines are truly equal, it can become more difficult to make a fair decision. Let's be realistic: we're never going to agree on everything! In order to present a clear interpretation of a piece, it often has to be the vision of a single person after they have carefully listened to the ideas of others. It may be advisable to allow each member of a small ensemble (2-4 players) be responsible for the direction of a specific piece -- especially if everyone is a volunteer player!
  • Keep personal issues and performance issues separate. How I wish this would always be practiced! I have seen more performances fall apart because the two aspects could not be separated. I want to be friendly and welcoming to you while we're performing together, but it is not necessary that we be the greatest of friends. As a general rule, I don't socialize with the musicians I am performing with. That's simply my preference. One of the most rewarding ensembles I have experienced stopped working together because of this very fact. While we performed together wonderfully, personal differences could not be left outside the rehearsal hall. To this day it saddens me to recall those final performances, but I am not naive enough to think that things can be corrected.
Musicians are emotional about music because it is an extremely personal art. We are sharing our innermost thoughts and ideas with a listening audience. Remember that everyone in the ensemble shares the same passion about the music that you do, so treat them as gently as you would want to be treated as well.