Perspectives on Performance – Finding the Spiritual in the Visceral

Different musicians have different approaches to performances, and how one approaches performance can say quite a bit about how one views music. Many of the musicians I have worked with have a more blue-collar approach and perspective. They do care about music very much, and it is their passion in life, but they approach the gig in the same manner as one would go to work. You arrive, set up, maybe socialize or get something to eat before starting, and when start time arrives, you go up and go to work. This is a very common approach, and is one that gets the job done while maintaining a level of professionalism and decorum. You’ve been hired to perform a service, and you deliver that service just as anyone would in any business relationship. It does employ your creative energies and specific skills, and you do get something more from it than the money, but it’s a job. There are also many musicians out there who carry a somewhat different perspective and approach to their performances. Most of these individuals tend to move in a higher skill set and mental attitude toward their profession than the usual bar band mien.

For these musicians, and while this is more common in classically trained circles it does extend to higher level musicians in most genres, each performance is a significant event that requires spiritual, emotional and mental connection and preparation going into the performance. The musicians prepare themselves as if they are performing a sacred duty, often following pre-performance rituals such as meditation, stretching, and centering prior to the performance. Every performance, regardless of the venue, audience, or any other venue is of equal importance and requires total focus and 100% dedication to giving the best possible delivery of the music to the audience that the performer is capable of rendering. There is an element of love and respect for the medium that goes into the preparations and intent behind this perspective that infuses the experience with a deeper seated meaning, making each performance an event in the performers’ lives as well as, hopefully, the audiences’.

From this type of perspective, each performance is both carried in the actual moment of the performance but also into the hearts and memories of all present, and if it is a successful moment, then it will be carried for years by those on the receiving end. It’s not over with the last note of the night. It nurtures the souls of the performers and the audience, leaving both better than they were prior to the performance and with the sense that life is best lived when one has the opportunity to have a long succession of such fulfilling experiences. For this type of musician, it’s not simply an evening of work, enjoyment, and some cash at the end of the night, though it is that as well, hopefully, but rather a fulfillment of their purpose in walking the planet and extending that relationship to whomsoever is willing to take the journey along beside them.

From the blue-collar working band performance perspective this train of thought might be met with a defensive perspective that the other approach is just a bunch of romantic drivel. So you have a performance, get over it and on to the next one. But herein lies the rub, why are you doing this? What are you getting out of it, and wouldn’t you like to get more than you are? One of the reasons for the difference in perspectives does lie in the types of performance situations the players find themselves in. Most classical and higher level popular genre performers are doing their jobs in venues that cater to specifically music. People go to these places solely for the music and with the intent of giving their focused attention to the performances. They’re not going to dance, meet and talk with friends, or find someone to go home with. They’re not going to drink away their troubles, worries, and concerns, nor are they going to watch their favorite teams on the big screens while the bands are doing what they can to garner their attention. They are there for one reason only, for your performance and the music you are presenting to them, for them.

How we go about things as performers does have an impact on the outcome and so do our expectations and perspectives on things. If you are happy and content as things as they are do you need to change your approach? Not if you are truly content and desire what you are reaping from your performances. For many years I have been performing with bands and musicians who have the more blue-collar approach to performance. They have a definite passion for music, and they do well with what they do, but it is definitely a more informal perspective on making music than what I encountered so many years ago at the conservatory. In some ways this has led me to experience more freedom, specifically from performance anxiety, and has led to some risk taking that I wouldn’t have taken in a classically oriented situation. For the last two years I have been straddling both worlds and have been encountering both perspectives on a more regular basis. This has led me to reconsider the approach to performance that I want to take because if the medium is my passion, shouldn’t I dedicate myself to presenting it in the best manner I can every time I perform? Doesn’t it deserve my full focused attention and abilities? How one approaches something often dictates what one gets or achieves from the experience. Go beyond the immediate, and look to the world.

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Memorization: Is it the Defining Moment in Professionalism?

Memorization of material is both a gift and an acquired skill. For some individuals, memorizing a piece of music is process that occurs naturally, primarily through the repetitive process of practicing the piece. For others, myself included, repetition alone is not sufficient to lodge the material in the gray matter, to be called upon at will in a performance setting. Some pieces I latch onto and do manage to log into my recall centers. It is interesting to me, however just exactly this recall ability varies from genre to genre. With pop genres, I find that I’m essentially playing along to an inner track inside my head, guided by my memory of how the song sounds. I essentially push the playback button and off I go. The issue becomes more complex when it comes to classical guitar and fingerstyle guitar, because reproducing the soundtrack involves quite a bit more intricacy. I would also contend that some of my memorization disability comes from years of being an excellent sight reader. This can hamper memorization because folks who aren’t have to work harder through sections and thus have a much higher immediate benefit from memorizing the material. Some musicians believe that it is more professional to perform music from memory than to use the sheet music during performance, while others, and I count myself amongst these, maintain that it is the overall quality of the musical performance that matters, not whether one has the sheet music on stage.

The point here isn’t whether or not memorization is a valuable and important skill for a performer to have, nor is it whether one should or should not employ this skill. Those points are very clear as they stand. Yes, it is a valuable and important skill to have and whenever possible it should be employed. Professional musicians do use their reading skills on stage all the time. In some genres this is seen less, but this is also largely because in some genres the bulk of the musicians performing can’t read music aside from chord charts, and often find those to be problematic. Many jazz performers go to gigs toting along their fake books, pulling them out when someone calls a tune they don’t know and reading the material on the fly. Boom, it’s part of the gig. Orchestral musicians always read their material when performing together, for many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer volume of material they have to plow through in a concert season. Even when they break into trios and other smaller formats, more often than not they are performing with musical scores in front them.

Solo artists, particularly in the classical music genre, often perform from memory, but that does not mean that they will not perform a piece until it is memorized. If you can perform the piece well before completing memorization, use the sheet music and get on with it. Give the best performance that you can, memorization in most cases is icing upon the icing. The important things are linked to the music itself, the quality of your connection to it, your ability to communicate the piece, and what the audience can see of your performance. As long as you’re not hiding behind the music stand and the audience can see your performance as well as hear it, the presence of sheet music is really a non-issue. Once again, it boils down to what enables the performer to give the best possible performance of a piece that he or she can.

The lack of a music stand on stage isn’t really a mark of professionalism. All it really tells you is that the performer, hopefully, has excellent memorization skills. Granted, some forms such as opera absolutely require memorization skills because there is movement involved and the performers cannot be tied down to a specific spot on stage. If you can’t memorize the arias, you won’t get the role, no matter how well you can perform them with sheet music. Popular genres have an established no music stand on stage norm, once again largely because most of the individuals couldn’t read the material on sheet music anyway. However, the irony is that most recordings that come out industry hubs like Nashville are produced with studio musicians who are reading charts of one sort or another during the recording sessions, a skill that if they lacked they would not have the gig to begin with. In these cases the studio cats aren’t usually the same people who go out on the road with the headliners and they’re all fine with that. It’s a simple relegation of duties based upon skill sets, and often life style preferences among all of the musicians involved in the entire process.

The ability to read musical charts and scores is actually more of a sign of professionalism than the lack of a music stand on the stage. It requires very specific training, often formal training, and is a life long skill. It opens a world of opportunity to those who can read, much like the ability to read written language does for the entire population, and can actually lead to the ability to take musical jobs that non-readers simply cannot even apply for. Memorization is indeed an excellent skill, and should be encouraged, but it is not necessarily a be all end all mark of professionalism. When I go to a concert, I want to be presented with the artists’ best rendition of the music they can give. If it involves reading from a chart, so be it. It’s not robbing me of an excellent experience.

Tuning and the Nylon String Guitar, a Quick Note

Tuning is something most of us pay attention to. We play an instrument that requires attention to detail and the very nature of the classical guitar is such that tuning is a constant. The strings are less stabile than steel strings and the instruments respond to even small changes in temperature and humidity. One of the great conveniences that has come about is the evolution of the electronic tuner, most notably the clip on variety which attach to the headstock of the instrument for as long as they are needed.

At a recent masterclass with Maja Radovanlija of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, the topic of tuning came up, in particular when dealing with ensemble performances. Guitarists tend to rely pretty heavily upon electronic tuners and generally subscribe to the concept that A440 is always A440 on every tuner. It is supposed to work this way, but even the slightest discrepancy between “A440s” can create discord. We use our tuners somewhat religiously and rely on them to match each string to what is the accepted standard. For the most part this works, however strings differ, instruments differ, and anyone who has played a guitar for an extended period of time has been known to make adjustments depending upon the key to bring the individual instrument in tune with itself to provide the best performance.

This becomes more complicated when playing with other folks because their tuners might vary from yours, as well as their string choice, etc. In short the best way to deal with this is to have everyone tune using their tuners and then designate the “master tuner” and fine tune by ear to his or her strings. This will result in the best overall result. Radovanlija recommends devoting 10 to 15 minutes prior to performance ensuring that the group is perfectly in tune to maximize the over all tuning of the group of guitarists performing together.

Of course there will still be the need to check tuning throughout the performance as our instruments warm up in tandem with ourselves, and while tuning stability varies from guitar to guitar and string to string, it is not something we can afford to take for granted. In a perfect world, the temperature and humidity level will be the same in the green room as it is in the performance space of the venue, but often this is not the case. We also have to face those performances that have multiple groups playing in them and there are varied staging areas gradually progressing to the green room and then onto the stage. In these performance situations we can be certain that we’re going to be exposing our instruments to varied environmental influences which will affect our tuning negatively, necessitating quite a bit of adjustments along the way.

No matter how we choose to paint it, tuning is something that requires our attention and care. If we short change the time spent on it, the music suffers, the audience suffers, and ultimately we turn in a shoddy performance regardless of the amount of time we’ve devoted to rehearsing and practicing our parts. Take the time to complete the deed and we’ll all be thankful in the long run.

Musicality and the Quest for Technical Perfection

It’s odd, but a real thing. Sometimes musicians, in their quest for hitting the right notes at the right time, forget to be musical and need a reminder to get it together and make actual music. Hitting all of the right notes at the right time is important, yes, but quite frankly I’d rather hear a musical performance with a few mistakes here and there than one that was technically stellar but lacked the soul of the music. Phrasing and dynamics are two key aspects to providing some of the piece’s soul, but in order to make it all make sense the performer must have a solid understanding of what the piece has to say as well.

This is not to say that one needn’t put in the time to work toward technical perfection. The fact of the matter is that more often than not one of the main reasons the soul is missing is that the performer is under prepared technically. In this case the performer is struggling with simply putting everything where it’s supposed to be on the fretboard when it’s supposed to be there and for how long it’s supposed to be there. When one is struggling with this, the ability to focus on the musicality of the piece is severely hampered. So do you need to wait until you have the piece memorized to work in expression and imbuing the piece with life? To put it simply, no.

When we start working on a new piece we often start by sight reading as much as we can to give ourselves a chance to assess the piece in relationship to our abilities and get an idea of what sections will need the most work, as well as to give ourselves an idea of how long we can expect it to take to get it in hand. From there we should start working on the physical mechanics of learning the piece and start actively listening to others performing it, following with the score as well as simply listening to it. This gives us an assessment of what others have made of the piece, how they phrased sections and what dynamic shifts were present. Then we should start analyzing the score, looking for relationships between thematic motifs and the structure and additionally how much help the composer or arranger has given us through marking phrasing, dynamics, and additional instructions. This sets the stage for understanding how we should approach the piece both from a logical and emotional perspective. What is exactly being expressed in each section is there in the score but often takes some digging on the performer’s part in order to wring out the best presentation of the piece that we can. We need to work on this aspect of the piece in tandem with working on the physical ability to play the piece, because in reality this will often impact the choices we make in fingerings as well as where we are playing on the instrument physically.

Some folks firmly believe that the performer can only achieve a truly exemplary performance of the piece if it is memorized and I understand their perspective on this. Memorization implies an understanding of the music that has become an innate part of the performer; however, I believe that stellar performances aren’t necessarily tied to memorization skills. It is quite possible to be quite musical while having a score in front of you, as long as you have the understanding of the piece and are essentially using it as a reminder. Not having the piece memorized doesn’t mean it’s not ready for performance; it just means it’s not ready for performance from memory. Different people have different skill sets and some folks are simply not good at memorization. If those musicians waited until they had a piece memorized to perform it, they would have vast amounts of time waiting between performances that they could have given quite well with the score present. Let’s face it, most orchestral musicians do almost every performance with a score in front of them and still churn out wonderful performances. They have done the work, understand the music they are working with and bring it to life night after night without memorizing it. Yes, they have a conductor who helps, but nonetheless they have to do the work themselves to ensure the success of the performance.

If we adopt an approach where we learn the piece musically as well as physically simultaneously, the chances of delivering a sterile performance are dramatically reduced. What we want to achieve is a symbiotic relationship with each piece that we perform and in order to do so we have to understand that it is truly a symbiotic relationship. The score needs the musician to give it life and we need the score (or the piece) in order to do what we do. Neither is successful without a solid understanding and emotional connection between the performer and the piece. If this isn’t present we’re shortchanging the music, ourselves, and ultimately, the audience as well.

Rehearsals: Another Run-through or Are We going to get Something Accomplished?

Last spring I went to the Mid American Guitar Ensemble Festival in Fort Wayne, IN. The Festival had commissioned a guitar orchestra piece from Patrick Roux, a French-Canadian guitarist and composer with a long time association with the Canadian Guitar Quartet. The piece was to be performed by a guitar orchestra comprised of about 150 of the participants in the festival. The piece had its inherent challenges and was very much a contemporary classical piece, which I enjoyed participating in the world premier of. I must say that as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to work on the piece and perform it, I relished the opportunity to rehearse the piece under Roux’s directorship. All told we had close to five hours of concentrated rehearsal time under Roux’s baton and it was essentially a masterclass in how to run a solid rehearsal.

To be quite frank, most of the band rehearsals I’ve been involved with since graduating from music school have been poorly run, focused more on running tunes than actually focusing and working problem areas. We’re all supposed to do our homework, but more often than not it amounts to simply sketching out what our parts are and then coming to rehearsal to run tunes, with good enough as the predominant standard and if we went beyond notes into dynamics, it would be classified as an excellent rehearsal.   While this type of rehearsing does keep the frontal lobes tuned into the gross aspects for memory purposes, it does nothing to actually make the performance of the pieces better by fine tuning them, and if this is the type of rehearsal one comes to expect from a band, you can be certain that the band members are going to practice less on their own because fine tuning isn’t expected.

Roux, on the other hand, focused more on timing, phrasing, dynamics and sections rather than consistently running the entire piece. Out of the time we spent, he maybe had us run the piece in its entirety four times, which accounted for about 40 minutes of the rehearsal. The rest of the time was very focused, with no breaks, nor time misspent by relating anecdotes or going off on tangents. We were gathered for one purpose and one purpose only, to work on the piece in front of us and present the best version of it possible in the limited time we had, and that is exactly what we did during the time allotted. One might think that this was all accomplished through a rigid approach and an iron hand at the wheel, but this was not the case. Roux was demanding, yes, but everything was couched in good natured terms and requests, even when he was essentially giving orders. He did what he needed to do, so did we, and we were all quite happy with the results.

This approach carried over to the performance master classes given under Roux and the current members of the Canadian Guitar Quartet. Once the performers finished their performance, the critiques began. All of them were good natured, and while their delivery varied due to their different personalities, the critiques were solid, focused with precision, and involved working on sections, phrasing, attack, dynamics, breathing (both physically and within the piece), matching tone and color, and numerous other aspects. None of it was running through the piece repeatedly, but instead was entirely focused on what needed attention. I was impressed with the sometimes even radical improvements that were made within the allotted 30 minute time slots. This, in total, seven hour window into their world gave a solid experience with what exactly a good rehearsal consists of and just how much can be accomplished through doing so.

Since my experience this spring, I’ve been back in rehearsal with the band I was with when I went to MAGEF. I wish I could say that my experience at MAGEF has wrought change in how the band I’m currently with rehearses, but that hasn’t been the case. I have seen changes in how my classical group rehearses, but it has yet crossed over into my other genre-oriented group despite attempting to instill some changes in how the rehearsals have been run. Old habits can be extremely difficult to change, particularly when everyone isn’t on the same page. It is frustrating to experience the way things could be and then come back to the way they are, but once you’ve done it the right way and seen the rewards, changes must be made.

Dealing with Emotional Difficulties and Performance

Fear is something we all face at some point or other. Fear ranges from the subtle undercurrent of unease to light and deep levels of anxiety into absolute terror. It affects us in many ways, but more often than not is debilitating, affecting the quality of our day-to-day lives and inevitably our ability to perform. The more powerful fear becomes the more it links to our fight or flight impulse and the farther it gets from our ability to reason. It can become an obsession very quickly and monopolize our lives despite our desires for it to be otherwise.

As musicians, fear can have a disastrous effect on our performances in various ways. We’ve all experienced stage fright at some point or other with dry mouth, shaky hands, sometimes accompanied by nausea and memory slips. Usually this passes during the performance, once we get going with things, and for many of us after we gain experience performing, we find the incidences of stage fright to fade away, never or rarely to be experienced again. But that doesn’t mean that we’re no longer subject to fear and the accompanying debilitations, because we are human beings with complex lives, relationships and potential health problems. What happens in our non-performance lives does impact us holistically and crosses over into our stage lives all too frequently.

As performers we have all heard the cliché “the show must go on,” and we do our best to adhere to that maxim. As musicians we have it drilled into our heads that unless you, or someone you love has died (even then there are caveats), you’re hospitalized or otherwise incarcerated, you will still perform the gig you’ve been contracted to perform. A case in point was when my paternal grandmother died whom I loved very much. I was in college at the time pursuing my musical dreams. On the day she died my parents called to let me know and make arrangements for me to picking me up in the next day or so to go to her funeral. I had a performance that evening, and that’s what I did, perform. I was an emotional mess, filled with a sense of loss I’d never truly felt before, but I still had a job to do, and I did it to the best of my abilities. It doesn’t matter how sad you are, how afraid you are, how sick you feel, or whatever is affecting you personally, you are supposed to show and perform to the best of your abilities. There is no paid vacation, sick leave, bereavement leave, or any of the other benefits of a formal job in the corporate world. You perform, or someone else takes your job.

When you are dealing with a strong emotional influence, such as debilitating fear, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to perform at any level, particularly when you’re approaching panic levels on a regular basis. Fear is a major point of stress, so it basically boils down to stress management. First, try to step back from the emotion as much as you can so you can try to engage your logical self in the situation. Physical activity also helps, so hitting the gym, going for a run or walk, or cycling, can help put you physically in a better place through getting the endorphins pumping. Meditation helps many people settle into a more peaceful state. Making lists of things that need to be done and then getting busy working on them helps too. In other words, try to occupy your mind and your body as much as you can. It will yield benefits that help to counteract whatever is having the negative influence on your emotional well-being.

The most important thing to do is take care of yourself and your relationships. If you do so then ultimately the primary sources for stress will be maintained to the best of your abilities, thus lowering the potential for stress. There will always be the unexpected to deal with, from mild to catastrophic, but if you are taking care of your business, health (both mental and physical), and working toward your goals, then chances are you’re going to be hitting more in the way of bumps in the road than downed bridges.

Instrument Maintenance: What do I NEED to Know?

Instrument maintenance is something musicians deal with throughout their careers, some more directly than others. For guitarists this, at a minimum, means being able to perform the most basic of basics, string changing, tuning, and cleaning the instrument periodically. Many stick to these basic requirements and farm out any other work that is required to people who specialize in instrument repair, either due to convenience, a firm belief that they can’t acquire the skills needed, or fear that they will irreparably damage their cherished instrument. If you are a dedicated player, however, the benefits of being able to do basic to intermediate level work on your instrument can yield many positives, not the least of which is the effect it has on your wallet. Today it is fairly easy to access information on how to set your intonation, adjust your truss rod, change pickups and various other relatively easy repairs and modification work you might desire to do yourself.

The first step in any of this is to do your research, whether it’s through browsing the internet, reading, or watching instructional videos. Along with the venerable YouTube information, companies like Stewart-MacDonald offer instructional videos and books for purchase on virtually any level of building or repair work you could desire along with a wealth of tools and supplies that provide virtually everything you need to do whatever level of work you desire. By far, from my own personal experience, the easiest approach to most of this is with an electric guitar. Acoustic instruments generally require a higher skill set and are not as user friendly, nor as forgiving for the novice.

It is very important to due your research before you start tinkering, so you have a solid understanding, at least intellectually, of what you are undertaking and how it relates to your current state of handiness. Doing your research will give you an understanding of both what is required from you physically, and what you will need to do the repair or modification. There will be tools that you need to do the work, and having the correct tool for the job is a need, not a luxury. Purchasing tools to do this type of work is a worthwhile investment, because once you start down this road and gain confidence, chances are you will continue to do your own work as long as you continue working as a musician. When you have what you need to do the work, start and take it slowly, following the steps carefully and referring back to your instructions as you go.

Many of us have friends or know people who already possess these skills and wouldn’t mind helping us learn to do these things. There are also places that offer workshops and instruction on doing instrument repair/building, if you’re willing to shell out the cash and make the investment. I worked at a music store for a couple years where my boss, the owner, Nick Bucci, was a luthier who built and repaired instruments on site. I benefitted greatly from being able to watch what he did, and then applying what I learned from him to instruments, mostly mine until my skills got to the point where I could do some work on other folks’ instruments. To this day I’m thankful for what I learned from Nick. While, since then, I’ve built some instruments from the ground up, through the process of this I’ve learned my limits in terms of what I’ll do myself and what I’ll farm out if the need arises. It does get to the point where you’ve got to decided whether you want to spend your time playing the instrument or building them – both skill sets require the same things, essentially practice and time.

Once you learn how, doing set up work on your electric instrument becomes a fairly simple process, and changing pickups in and out becomes a matter of budgeting the time to do so. If you find that you have an interest in learning how to do these things, then don’t be afraid. Start to do your research on what it is you want to do, and then have at it! As long as you are careful about it, keep in mind that most of what you don’t do right can be fixed. Some things are more finicky than others, for instance over-tightening a truss rod can potentially result in a major repair being required (actually witnessed an experienced repairman snapping one which was ugly), so remember to go slowly and don’t force anything! Anyway you look at it, doing your research, even if you decide to still hire someone else to do the work you need done, is going to reap benefits. When you understand how your instrument works on a deeper level, your understanding of what needs to be done and why can give you a better relationship with the person who ends up doing the work, and help you select who does the work required.