Blurring the Lines

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.

Pat MethenyThis 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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15 responses to “Blurring the Lines

  1. Thanks again for the great post and clarity!
    In my student’s recitals I basically say what you’re saying here. Many students happen to still be performing classical pieces learned from notation, and it is essentially the traditional classical performance. But I announce to everyone, both students and audience, that we should care more about sharing than presenting, that the idea is to be expressive and have fun, and that even though we’re doing a traditional recital, we can recognize that this isn’t the only way to share music.
    Basically, I think a good first step is just to have everyone aware of the broader cross-cultural context, and to be transparent.

    Students and teachers alike should read your post here, and just that awareness can make a difference even if they don’t yet change anything about their routine.

    • Aaron – I like your use of the word transparent. I think it’s good for musicians just to be real and let the act of music making speak for itself. Thanks for this comment!

  2. Sorry to keep harping on Abby Whiteside and incessantly commenting on your posts, but I find them fascinating. One of the main things she criticizes in pedagogy is an idea that is too often fostered in our current system. The idea is that practice is when you work out the technical details and performance is when you add in the emotional content. Aside from making practice boring and counterproductive, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of how body mechanics work. The body responds differently when it is emotionally engaged. We use different muscles. We actually play and sing better when we are emotionally vulnerable. Whatever the distinction between practice and performance, it shouldn’t be one of full engagement. Interestingly, I once heard an interview with Herbie Hancock when he talks about the later quintet being surprised to find out that Miles wanted them to practice on stage. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know it means that he wanted them not to loose that sense of experimentation and risk even when in the company of others.

    • Kurt – I really appreciate the insights you’ve offered. In fact, I just grabbed the Whiteside book you mentioned. I’ve just had a chance to flip through it, but…wow. Great stuff. Some of her comments are very pointed, and as you suspected, I haven’t found one yet that I disagree with. Thanks again for pointing me to it. I’m looking forward to digging into it more seriously very soon.

  3. Dr. Woody –
    Often one hears of “expressive” musical performance. I find, though, that while this is one of those terms that we all intrinsically “understand,” actually defining expressive performance (say, on a lesson plan) is rather elusive. I’m wondering if you could shed some light on what you would consider to be an expressive performance. Put another way, as an educator, what should I look for in the way of assessing expressiveness? How could I evaluate this all-important attribute of music in terms that an administrator, a parent, and a student could all understand?

    • Ben – You bring up some good questions. They’re not the most easily answered. Are questions like this your specialty? :)

      Regarding assessing expressiveness, perhaps a good starting place is your own musical expertise. You know expressive music when you hear it. This may be a bit simplistic…but the key is that a teacher in fact listens to a student and registers the extent to which expressiveness is present in his or her performing. And what likely goes a long way with administrators and parents is documenting this process.

      Maybe you’ve just given me a topic for a future post…

      • Well, the most concrete framework for the vague thing we’re calling “expression” that I know of is Juslin’s GERMS model: Generative (adjustments to make the patterns and groupings of the music clear) Emotion (like changed timbre and tempo and dynamics to express different arousal levels) Random (the nuance of being imperfect humans) Motion (musical changes to be analogous to things like slowing down to stop when running) Stylistic (the expression part being intentional deviation from stylistic norms in order to create surprise).

        This all seems to me to be a great foundation for being concrete in teaching expression…

  4. Wow, I just posted about my two big practice weaknesses on my blog. It’s so hard for me to get started because I know I am just going to criticize myself into inactivity. I can be very discouraging to myself, even though I have very big and very time sensitive goals! Thanks for this blog.

    • Jasmine – Thanks for taking an interest in my blog. I watched the video on your blog that you’re referring to. Some good ideas in there. Might I suggest that the key for you may be acknowledging your unique motivational traits. That is, it’s one thing to create big “destination” type goals for yourself, but it’s another to hash out short-term goals and devise realistic strategies (individualized to YOU) that will allow you to attain them. That’s how you’ll know–and really feel–that you’re making progress. And the topic of motivation can be a real complex one, but let me say one thing here. If what you really want to do is “just play music and not worry about scales” etc., then I think you should do just that, at least part of the time.

      Keep at it. From what I heard in the video, there’s much in your violin playing to feel good about!

  5. Bob,
    Thank you so much for this post. “Blurring the lines.” Wow, I love that and I completely agree with you that there is too often a completely different mentality with it comes to practicing and performing. The Pat Metheny example is inspiring to me and it brings such a vivid image to my mind of a performer on stage being in the moment rather than trying to reproduce a particular moment in the past, most likely in the practice room. So often when I see performers, there is such concentration (or fear) that I sense that they are completely closed off in their own little world, lest they lose control over the moment. I think the performances that most inspire me, however, are those in which the performer appears so very open physically and musically to the present. There’s a flexibility there, an ability and willingness to go with whatever happens, whatever inspires.

    Much food for thought here. Bob…thank you for that!

    • Erica – So glad you got so much out of this post. At times as I wrote it, I actually thought about some of our Twitter exchanges about performance anxiety. I didn’t mention the term specifically in the post above, but so much of has to do with that issue. Thanks for your comment here!

  6. Great post, Bob and I found it just at the right time. I’m preparing a workshop presentation for the PMTA conference and my topic is “creative performance experiences”. This blurring of the lines is exactly what I’m writing about.

    What you said about the difference between presenting and sharing hit home. For example, on Saturday, my students had their big Spring Recital (presenting/special) – and this Friday night, I’m preparing them to play for an art show at my studio (sharing/informance). I’ll let you guess which event is more fun for them (and me!).

    • Catherine – Thanks for sharing the example of the art show performance. I’m sure that’s a fun event for everyone involved. I Googled the PMTA conference and see that it’s in just a few days….hope you have a great session!

  7. Hi Bob,
    Speaking of blurring the lines–an exercise of mine that I often give to students is to improvise a melody to a poem that you like. By following the syllables of the poem and playing one note for each (using either a note set or random choice) you can come up with really beautiful melodic material that you may not have thought of without the stimulus. It’s best to use a poem with some intrinsic emotional content, so you can be inspired. I actually get more out of the poem this way than if I simply read it. Give it a try!

  8. Sue – Neat idea! It reminds me a bit of the Orff approach, which commonly uses rhythmic speech as a springboard to music making. I bet your students really thrive on creative activities like this. Thanks for sharing!

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