I consider myself to be a real appreciator of clarity. Among my big messages to musicians, I emphasize how important it is to clearly define goals and strategies to attain them. For many of us, it’s almost second nature to break down tasks into smaller pieces, stages, and responsibilities. This is common in the formal approach to teaching and learning, including in music education. We often think of a future performance as a goal, and then outline what needs to happen for that performance to be a success. The teacher will provide instruction on how to perform effectively. Each musician will practice individually. If it’s a group venture, then the ensemble will rehearse behind closed doors in order to coordinate their music making. All this leads up to the performance…when the results of our efforts and improved musicianship are presented to an audience.
This approach works. A coming public performance is an effective motivator to many musicians–in some cases, the only thing that’ll get them to practice! And obviously for any large-scale production, advanced planning, organization, and division of labor is a must. But is it possible that other musical benefits may come with less clarity in some ways? I propose that there can be some real advantages to blurring the lines between practicing, teaching, and performing.
What might this blurring looking like? Let’s first consider what defines practice (and I’m including in this group practice, a.k.a. rehearsal). Practice is when musicians are in learning mode. They feel a freedom to work on skills they want to improve. They receive instruction from teachers and interact with other musicians. They’re focused on music making, and why it’s important to them. In contrast, performance can be seen as a finished product, and one that is presented for the evaluation of an audience. The spirit of growth and exploration can be suspended. Sometimes the specialness of performance comes with a certain pressure–at best a “one shining moment” experience, but at worst a “do or die” mentality.
I’m convinced that performance can remain a meaningful and culminating experience for young musicians without losing the learning orientation associated with practice. I recently came across an interview with guitarist Pat Metheny, in which he recounts growing up in then-rural Lee’s Summit, Missouri. His music learning really took off when he started playing gigs in the Kansas City area. “That changed my life and gave me an incredible head start,” he says, describing how he learned so much while performing, especially by observing a particular piano player he gigged with often. “Watching him play was probably the best instruction I could get.” Metheny goes on to share how these early performances were key in his development. They were a virtual testing ground for the musicianship that later made him great.
When I read Metheny’s description of these gigs, it struck me: they sound like practice, teaching, and performance…all rolled into one! I wonder what’s really in play here. What allowed these experiences to be so multi-functional for him? And most importantly, how can we apply these things to traditional music teaching to reap the benefits? Here are some considerations that I think are important:
- Performance as presentation vs. sharing – A presentational performance style is defined by a considerable psychological separation between musicians and audience members. Music students may benefit from a more relaxed setting, or even a participatory style with greater interaction between performers and audience. Many music teachers have had great success using “informances,” in which they and their students explain the processes behind their music as they share it. They can even involve the audience members in making music along with them (blurring the line between performer and audience).
- The occasion as special vs. customary – Having been a part of some great concerts and musical productions, I’ve felt the buzz of a big performance. But it may not be ideal if the specialness mainly comes from performance being rare and “fancy” (i.e., so different from practice). When young people see performance as a frequent and regular part of being musicians, then they may be able to get more out of the experiences. They may then have the necessary mental wherewithal during performance to observe and learn from co-performers, and to push their own skill development.
- The goal as being error-free vs. expressive – This can be tricky, especially when the performance is of composed music learned from notation. The development of technique is critical, since a certain facility on a musical instrument is required in order to be expressive on it. But too often, young musicians come to believe that the main goal of performance is simply to “not mess up.” To convince our students otherwise, we must first believe it ourselves! Perhaps there’s an alternative to the common approach of waiting until all pitches and rhythms are learned before adding in expressive elements. Can these things be addressed concurrently while working on a piece? Is it even possible to give expressive aspects higher priority than technical ones?
Above I’ve mainly addressed blurring the line between practice and performance. I’m sure there are other lines that could be blurred as well, to the additional benefit of developing musicians. What about the line between practice and teaching? There are music cultures in the world–Balinese gamelan, for one–in which individual practice is unheard of (instead, music learners develop exclusively in group settings under the supervision of experienced musicians). What about challenging specialized roles of musicians, and encouraging students to simultaneously develop as performers and composers? And what about delineations between styles of music, like classical, jazz, and popular music? I welcome your comments below, perhaps to share ways that you blur the lines in your performing and teaching.