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Playing Like We Mean It

Last night I was watching Itzhak Perlman on The Colbert Report, and couldn’t get over how easy he made it look to play difficult music on the violin.  Kind of almost too easy.

Perlman has had a long and storied career.  He’s the real deal.  And I don’t want to say that he was not taking his Colbert performance seriously.  If he wasn't, whatever - this was just a three minute encore piece after a puffball interview on late night comedy TV. 

He has impressive technique - there are lots of notes in the work he played, and they were all there.  But to watch him play is somewhat off-putting - if the piece is difficult, shouldn’t he be working a little harder?  If he really doesn’t need to break a sweat or even sit up straight to play it, do I feel like he earned my attention?  The answer is that, as a VERY casual observer (flat on my back on my couch) I didn’t perceive that he cared about the music he was performing, or about his audience, and purely from a performance standpoint, I was disappointed.

I’ve been musing about this topic recently anyway, because Barret Night is next week.  This is the first big event in my teaching studio this year - a performance masterclass featuring short etudes.  It’s hard for students to give compelling performances - between the struggle just to realize the notes and the nervousness of standing up in front of an audience, and the physical difficulty of actually playing non-stop through a page or half a page of music.  Some of them were very hard to persuade - they are SOOOO anxious about it.

There is little danger of any of them standing up and phoning it in.  No one is at a point where they own their oboe studies that much.  They’ll be fighting for survival, I imagine, and as hard as that can be to watch it at least smacks of effort.  I work with high school students on trying to break through to an appearance of effortlessness which, when it is achieved, is very attractive.  The sense that you are singing through the oboe and not doing pitched battle with it certainly helps your audience relax, and does great things for your own heart rate as well. 

Watching Perlman last night made me think about my own performances, though, too.  One of the most frequent comments I get after recitals is, “You made it look so easy.”  I have always taken that as a compliment, and never really thought deeply about its implications.  I do work very intentionally at keeping my body and face relaxed when I play.  It’s less exhausting that way, and also looks more pleasant.  When people watch me, are they missing that compelling sense of engagement, energy, and WORK that makes music exciting?  Have I gone too far to the Perlman side?

I’m fascinated by the question, and will be exploring it in my practice for the next few days.  And perhaps in my demo performance at Barret Night I’ll strive for a range of intensity in my affect as well as my dynamics.  Let’s see what we get!

Comments

  1. To me personally, there's a difference between making it look easy to play and looking bored. It can look easy but unless a player is passionate both about the instrument they are playing and the piece, it just doesn't cut it for me no matter how many notes they can fit in. On the other hand, I don't want to see a player fighting with the instrument the whole time they are playing, either. So, ease and passion?

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  2. Yes, there's always that, too. I want to see someone look like they OWN the instrument, and then that the music owns them, at least while they are performing it. Is that too much to ask?

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  3. It’s hard to keep up with your posts Jennet. And given that everything on the Internet is ephemeral, one struggles to stay abreast.
    I rushed to watch the Perlman piece through your link. I have heard him countless times in many venues but I was a little surprised that you thought he should have played- how shall I put it- less effortlessly. He is, of course, physically incapable of standing erect, or for that matter standing at all. I watched carefully and saw, almost palpably, in the constant movement of his facial muscles that his whole inner being and physical strength was being absorbed in that effort. Allow me the immoderacy of a suggestion. Go back to the link, mute the sound, cover the area of the violin with a piece of paper and watch his face. Then you can tell me whether that’s someone who’s playing insouciantly or more likely looks like someone being tortured
    You joined an august, imperial circle when you said the piece had many notes. It reminded me of Amadeus, when emperor Joseph II told Mozart that the Abduction from the Seraglio had too many notes, and Mozart said it had just the right number!!
    I have seen you and heard you warbling. I can think of no reason for concern about the appearance you project and the sounds you produce. They are in perfect sync.
    Good luck with the student recitals. And may be you can post some segments of their performance, so that they can proudly tell their friends: “I’ve been posted!!”

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