For The Love of It!
I’m a well-trained and experienced classical pianist. My husband is a well-trained and experienced jazz drummer. We both perform frequently in many different contexts, but who has the most fun? He does.
I met Paul almost five years ago and was immediately struck by his relaxed, comfortable attitude to performing and his affection for, and friendly approach, to his audiences. On every gig, providing he has the opportunity, he makes friends with those he plays for by introducing both himself and the band, talking briefly about the music and cracking a few jokes. The atmosphere always warms up instantly and everyone feels welcomed. It immediately put the difference between us as performers, into sharp relief.
It occurred to me that there is a definite divide between jazz and classical musicians and their approach to performance. Why is it that so many classical musicians prefer not to talk to the audience and instead, file onto the stage, bow modestly then get down to the business of playing without even a smile? It’s almost cool to be slightly aloof and nonchalant, perhaps in some sort of unconscious attempt to uphold the British stiff upper lip. And talking honestly about how we actually feel about our music-making? Forget it; It’s almost taboo.
Perhaps it all depends on how we are taught. The differences in the inner workings and learning methods of jazz and classical, contrast greatly. While musicians who have learnt by the classical route have spent years refining technique and fine-tuning their ears to subtle changes in intonation, tone and nuance for the sole purpose of reproduction, jazz musicians focus more on developing their inner ear and musicianship, in order to serve their creativity and freedom of expression. Whilst their skill sets are no more or less well developed than those of classical musicians, their music-making is inherently more social and naturally communicative. I’m certain that this fundamental difference plays a huge part in our attitudes towards audiences and how we feel about them.
Another deep-rooted and sensitive issue is stage fright. Classical musicians tend to work out programmes weeks, months, sometimes years in advance, while jazz musicians usually decide what they are going to play, and in which order, on the very night. (Occasionally while on stage!) The more hours we classical musicians spend practising interpretations to as near perfection as possible, the more pressure we put ourselves under to get it right. This routine and sometimes even ritualistic sort of preparation makes performing an ordeal. Debussy said that, “the attraction that binds the virtuoso to his public seems much the same as that which draws the crowds to the circus; we always hope something dangerous is going to happen.” * Both audiences and performers are, indeed, quite often on the edge of their seats.
The psychology of musicians and our relationship with performance is a subject of great interest to me, and I look forward to exploring it further. My intention here is to provoke thought and discussion amongst musicians about how we can change our ingrained behaviours and habits when we perform. We really need to start challenging ourselves, and questioning why we do things the way we do. Performing is something that is associated among the young with duty and formality, and very few young musicians are also active concertgoers. If we don’t find a way of changing our culture, the opportunities to hear quality live music will dwindle to the few remaining commercially viable venues in major cities around Britain.
After many hours battling with my own starchy disposition, and fear of relaxing just a bit too much so that I may screw up on stage, I have now adopted my husband’s approach to performing by talking to audiences, and adding humour and warmth to the programmes I present.
The result? A larger, happier audience, and a much happier pianist.
* Robert, Paul. 1996, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy. p.177