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!