During this Mental Health Awerness week, I’ve decided to share something I wrote not so long ago at an extremely difficult time for me mentally. I share this in the hope that those fortunate enough to not have expierineced such difficultes can perhaps come to appreciate some of the effects mental health conditions can have on anyone, and, at this difficult time for us all due to the global pandemic, will be encouraged to support the arts in any way they can so that the power they bring to our lives as both performer and listener can continue to be felt.
“…I stopped playing and just held my flute in my hands. I’ve spent many hours with this beautiful instrument yet it felt like this was the first time I was really feeling it. It had always been there for me, like an old friend, and now I knew I needed it more than ever.
I pulled out my old copy of the Telemann sonatas – on old favourite which I’d explored many years ago. I’ve turned my back on this style of music as a performer, perhaps due to the feelings of not performing it correctly (whatever that means) but I knew it was this that I needed to play right now. The notes were fuzzy from the start, some barely audible, and there were many more incorrect than right, but that didn’t matter. It was still my voice and my heart which was carrying through them. Even though my out of practice lips were screaming at me to stop, I just kept right on going, not allowing anything to get in the way, least of all my failing fuzzy brain. I surrendered to the fact that it didn’t matter, this was for me, my therapy, like my music always really had been. And I vowed to hold on to this feeling – a feeling of enough, of contentment in knowing that allowing myself to share my musical self is ok, and that it doensn’t need to be anything more.
Thank goodness for music, for what it can do to us if we only let it, and for the ability to see it for what it is. I know that my playing will get me through this, now and probably again in the future, and I also know that this will help me honour it during the good times as well.”
This coming Tuesday (26th May) I’ll be playing the Telemann Sonata in F major in full live on my YouTube channel. To be able to perform it now, honouring the music as it was intended from a place of stability and quiet confidence is something that I feel so grateful for. And if you’d like to join me to hear it I’d be even more thankful.
When analysing any musical performance, it is easy to focus solely on those elements which are traditionally seen as being the building blocks of music – pitch, rhythm and dynamics for example. Whilst these are no doubt fundamental in the accurate portrayal of any piece, and mastery of them alone may appear to create that ‘perfect’ performance, should these elements be allowed to be the ultimate goal when it comes to a musical performance?
I would argue not. Although I’m not a composer, I’m pretty sure that if you asked the vast majority of them what they would like a performer of their music to ensure that they get right when they perform, it has everything to do with intention and less to do with the actual instructions which have been provided in the score. For it is often those elements which cannot be fully notated – the length of a pause or breath, the exact use of an accented note or the way in which a crescendo is executed for example, which can only ever be controlled by the performer themselves in the moment and which require a thorough understanding of what the piece is really trying to say in order to bring a piece to life.
And because of this, there may be a price to pay when it comes to being ‘note perfect’. If the sole focus remains on the notes alone during a performance, then the real intention of the piece is not given any attention. Of course, the intention of some pieces is to be precise and that is all, and professional performers at the top of their game are quite rightly expected to never get a note wrong. But for those of us who are still striving to progress in our musical abilities, and particularly those who are new to performing itself, I feel that if the intention of the piece is allowed to be the overriding aspect of the performance, then it will be a successful one, despite any misplacement of notes or details which may take place. It will also be a personal one, where performer and perhaps teacher have worked together on what the intention of the piece is, from their own and the composers point of view, and have sought to use the performers current skill level and musical abilities to shape the piece in a way which is possible and suitable.
So the next time that you hear a live performance that you particularly like, try to think to yourself why that is? I can almost guarantee that it will go beyond the basic elements to deliver music which has it’s focus firmly on intention and not just on what it’s composer set down on a page.
I’ll admit that when I first became a singing teacher, and for a good few years into my teaching career, I blinkerdly looked upon it as a sideline, a way to work in music and earn money whilst supporting my own singing and studying. Despite the admiration that I received from those who learnt of what I did for a living, I couldn’t see the joy that could be found, and the knowledge that could be gained, in what I now come to regard as one of the most important and fulfilling ways in which to share your own passion for music making.
In the nine years that I have now been teaching, I can honestly say that I have learnt more about life and music making directly from it than from any other activity. I have had the privilege of working with a massive range of people of all ages who have come to lessons for a wide variety of reasons – to challenge themselves, to try something new, to resurrect an old skill, to pursue a musical career. All of these reasons may have given them a different starting point, yet they ultimately all end up experiencing the same negative and positive feelings during the inevitable challenging moments and the successful times which arise. Even though this roller coaster journey which every musician finds themselves one is one which inside I know all too well, it is only now when I get to experience it over and over again through the differing eyes of all my pupils that I can understand its merits and its importance.
And it’s not only in this way that I’ve seen what teaching can offer to the person delivering it. Over the years I’ve experienced moments of joy and laughter during teaching, especially when a pupil experiences a breakthrough in their development or when I can hear the beginning of a new vocal sound emerging. I’ve been privileged to witness numerous performances where pupils have gone far beyond my expectations and have given me more enjoyment and perhaps more to think about than if I had been performing myself. I’ve had the chance to explore pieces that I thought I knew well from a new perspective which has deepened my own understanding and interpretation. And above all, I’ve formed relationships with people which have become so well bound that the teaching and leaning has become so comfortable and instinctive as brushing your teeth.
How many aspects of music making can boast all that? Teaching, I’m glad you found me.
Browsing through internet news pages earlier today, I came across this BBC news article in which it is claimed that Adele is unhappy with reports that her music is being used by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. This got me thinking about how music can easily become associated with a person, place or event but this can often be a difficult bond to break. Could this therefore cause a big impact on the composer or performer either negatively or positively and should this be something we should consider more carefully when putting our music ‘out there’?
Adele isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to come face to face with a negative association with her music. Perhaps the most famous example is Adolf Hitler’s adoration of the music of Richard Wagner. This has caused such a strong link between the two that many people refuse to even listen to Wagner’s music, and indeed none of his operas have ever been staged in Israel for this reason (it is worth adding that there is evidence to show that Wagner himself held anti-Semitic views but maybe if it wasn’t for the Nazis this would have been somewhat overlooked?) On a lighter political note, who cannot fail to think of Tony Blair when hearing D:Reams ‘Things can only get better’ (and if you google the title, one of the most searched for phrases is ‘Things can only get better Labour’). Or on hearing the rousing anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel not be reminded or a certain football team who plays in red?
But all these associations on a global scale are perhaps not as important to us as individuals as the personal associations which we all find ourselves making from time to time. Those moments when a song or piece captures just how we feel or enables us to express something better than we ever could ourselves. Or maybe a time which stays with us in our memory has a certain piece connected with it, perhaps because it was being played at that very moment? Then there are of certain associations which are made by the composer or performer themselves – the time you performed in a certain building or with a certain group or even that dreaded audition piece all hold different memories and feelings. And maybe that’s just it. Musical associations are meant to happen and are part of the deal. We all make them. Music is an art, and art is perhaps the most evocative and powerful language known to man which paradoxically is also is wide open to individual interpretation.
Artists will always be quick to react to negative associations which are formed with their work in the public arena. But perhaps they would do better to remember why they do what they do in the first place and the musical associations that they themselves have made? For every public negative association, isn’t there bound to be an unobtainable number of positive associations by people on a personal level which can bring so much joy and comfort to us and yet go unnoticed in the wider world? In the case of Adele, the fact that her latest album ’25’ has now sold more than 15 million copies worldwide must surely be proof of this. And ultimately, as musicians and artists, if we are brave enough to share our musical ideas with the world in the first place, we must learn to be brave enough to accept that how they are perceived is ultimately out of our control.