Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sources of Cookie-Cutter Performances

Last week, my thoughts were sparked by comments made by Dolly Parton and Seal about returning to "pure and simple" performances. I came to the conclusion that the trend toward multi-media enhanced Classical music performances may often be attributed to a poorly developed interpretation. This week, my mind has been asking a single follow-up question: "WHY?" Here are a few of the culprits that I think are contributing to these less-than-inspiring recitals.

Emphasis placed on technique over artistry. Much of our work in music education is devoted to helping young artists develop their technique. After all, without a solid technique it is impossible to effectively communicate with an audience. However, there comes a point in the preparation process where the performer's focus needs to shift from the mechanics of making music to artistry, communication, and personal interpretation. When the shift occurs, the student often discovers the necessary step of improving their technique in order to accomplish their goals. This can result in a renewed interest in technical study on the part of the student now that they see the purpose of the work in their own repertoire.

The prevalence of recordings. I am an advocate of listening to performers from all generations and schools of thought. However, recordings can be intimidating to a young artist. When listening to a recording that is considered the gold standard, it is possible for the student to become convinced that they will never be able to perform at an acceptable level. Additionally, students may begin to listen to one artist exclusively -- resulting in mimicry rather than using the album as inspiration. There is another danger for the student that listens widely and indiscriminately to recordings. When one encounters a large number of mediocre performances, it is easy to fall victim to the opinion that things are "good enough" in their current state, eliminating the pursuit of higher levels of artistry.

Necessity of quick preparation. Music is not ready for public performance when the notes and rhythms are accurately learned. Time is needed for the melodies and harmonies to marinate in the soul. Collaborative partnerships need time to develop a mutual sense of direction and interpretation. Quite simply, the music needs ample time to mature. Sadly, it has become a trend in many schools to prepare and present material as quickly as possible so we can move on to the next program. The resulting music can often leave the audience wanting more and the musicians not fully enjoying the experience of presenting a mature, well-prepared recital.

The lost arts of reflection, experimentation, and imagination. Because students are preparing performances so quickly for fast approaching deadlines, there is rarely an opportunity to experiment musically. I don't see many students reflecting on the music and developing their personal interpretation. I long to have a student enter a rehearsal and tell me about the idea they have regarding a turn of a specific phrase...and then we give it a try. I believe that it is in the reflection and experimentation process that performers develop their own voice and begin to become contributing members of the artistic community.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Am I completely missing the point? Do you see additional sources of these cookie-cutter performances? Join the conversation by adding your comments below.