Engaging in the performance of music

What does it mean to engage in the performance of music?

It’s a tricky one that I find myself exploring a lot. It is so easy to lose focus and concentration when playing, which is what I talked about in my last blog – ‘A meditative approach to practising’ – but this is something more.

Engaging is really ‘being there’ in the music, and that means feeling it, hearing it and being present to it. Feeling the music, in my opinion means that we need to be open to our own feelings. How can we express joy, grief and all sorts of other intense emotions in the music we are playing if we don’t have that range of emotions in ourselves? We all have the capacity to feel very intensely of course, but sometimes it is scary to feel and consciously or unconsciously, we shut down and numb out to keep those feelings manageable and under control. And if we do that, we are limiting the way we express through music.

I watched a BBC documentary on Lang Lang in September, which I found fascinating. He had a troubled childhood. His father took him away from his home and his mother to study with various teachers to fast track him along the path to the superstar international pianist he is today. What struck me was when he was playing in a competition in Germany at the age of 11 or 12, he admitted that he could bring out grief and loss in some of the music he was playing, because he was missing his mother so much. It is so sad to think of him going through that experience, but it enabled him to express the music in a very powerful, heartfelt way. He also learnt at an early age how to channel his own feelings through music.

It is not as if we need to cultivate these sad feelings in order to be able to engage with the music, but we do need an emotional range, and we need to know how to allow those feelings to connect with the music. We all know when someone is playing music with their heart and soul and we know when they aren’t. Music played with emotional disconnect doesn’t really communicate anything to the listener. A listener can be impressed by skill and virtuosity but without the engagement of the performers feelings, it is empty and dead.

Listening is another aspect of engaging with music. Listening is vital for a musician. We have to listen intently with great focus to the melodies, harmonies, the line of the music – everything, and all the time. Switching our ear off can have a disastrous effect on the music. Listening is a skill that we can cultivate and we haven’t all cultivated it! Think about it in normal everyday life. Have you ever been really listened to by another person? And have you ever given your full focus and listening ear to somebody else? It is easy to listen only in part with our attention wandering. How often have we just caught a minute part of what someone is saying in conversation and then concoct what we want to say in response, whilst they are still talking? This actually means we are giving a minimal amount of listening to that person.

But when we are really listened to, we know it. It is incredible. We feel someone is there for us, we feel valued and cared for. When we do that for someone else, they will feel the same. A connection is built and there is real, true communication.

I feel that this is exactly the same with music. If we are the performer, we owe it to the listener and ourselves to listen fully and with our total attention. And of course, there is nothing better an audience member can give a performer, than his or her full listening presence. We can feel it on the stage and it is magical.

And then there is being present. That is simply a case of ‘being there’ in that moment, whatever happens in the performance. Our presence, along with our emotions and our listening, is vital for our expression.

We need all this to engage fully in the music. It might be scary, and feel rather vulnerable, but this is what I feel it is all about. And when we have the courage to do these things, it has an incredible impact on the performance we give and of course on the people listening.

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