WAMP until ready

Phil Ford

In another post I wrote about the awkward fit between western art music performance (hereafter abbreviated as WAMP) and the academic study of music. I wanted to share something about Andrew De Grado, a pianist I knew at Indiana years ago, and how I learned simply by watching him:

Just seeing Andy play taught me a great deal; it made me understand, in a way no precept or maxim could, that piano playing on the higher level I wanted to attain entailed this kind of paradoxical ability to become a vessel of energy while remaining unmoved by it. My sound changed; my playing got faster, more confident, more forceful, more athletic. Andy taught me a lot, though he was never my teacher. I suspect this transmission of kinaesthetic knowledge — which obviously has nothing to do with the mental concepts we take as the basis of art music — is not at all rare in music schools around the world. It is part of the hidden life of art music performance.

And my larger point was that this kind of “kinaesthetic knowledge” is the sort of knowledge that remains hidden because it is not the sort of thing that humanities academics think of as “knowledge” at all. Since academics write all the books, the things we tend to care most about — music as an abstract “work” rather than as something heard in performance, and consequently music as structure and form — are the only aspects of WAMP that anybody reads about. Which means that performers will be written about, when they are written about at all, as if they are simply the passive vessels of someone else’s inspiration. As Jonathan Dunsby writes,

Both [Heinrich Schenker and the 2nd Viennese School] rest on musical idealism: the musical score, it is hoped, offers the most complete possible evidence of what the composer intended, and the performer has the responsibility of decoding this information and representing it to the last detail in musical performance. The reality is different, if only because musical notation itself, in skilled compositional hands, is so economical with the truth, but in general because of the inescapable halo of historical contingency in the playing, singing, or conducting of other people’s music. Within neither of these dominant forces which have shaped our preconception about musical performance is there a systematic place for the pragmatism of the rehearsal room or the teaching studio, in which aural and verbal tradition is the essential currency.”*

This puts the problem squarely. I’ve taught a graduate seminar called “Performance and Recording” which tries to get at this problem, and part of it is exactly this question of finding a “systematic place for the pragmatism of the rehearsal room or the teaching studio.” How is one to recover that experience and make it legible? There are surprisingly few things you can assign students to read. There are a couple of books that transcribe masterclass teachings — the best by far is John Ardoin’s transcription of the Callas Juilliard mastersclasses, though The Piano Master Classes of Hans Von Bülow is valuable too. And there is Henry Kingsbury’s Music, Talent, and Performance, an ethnography à clef about the New England Conservatory that has valuable stuff in it but which WAMP students haaaaaaate, even though it’s a good read. (My students felt insulted by the general pith-hatted tone of bemused among-the-natives condescension. Is this what it always feels like to be ethnographed?) But for the most part the daily lives of WAMPers is, as I say, a hidden life.
But the blogosphere seems to be opening up this essentially private and closed realm, as it is in so many other areas. I spend this morning gripped by Matt Heller’s eight-part narrative of his recent audition for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Matt’s blog hella frisch has no pretense to be anything more than the chronicle of one musician’s life and a useful resource for fellow bass players. But his account of preparing (mentally, physically, musically, emotionally, logistically) for the harrowing ordeal of the audition will probably be a revelation to those outside of orchestra life. There are so many familiar details here, things I know of from personal experience or from the experiences of friends and loved ones, but which I’ve never seen written about in such detail. Like, for example, the fact of screened auditions (i.e., you play the first round of an audition in front of a wooden panel, so the judges can’t tell who you are and play favorites), and what it’s like to play them. Or the anxiety of travelling with an instrument. Or the psyche-out experience of having all your friends show up for the same audition. Or having to summon courage when called on to execute some difficult passage.** And, finally, the grinding anxiety you have somehow to put behind you in order to play music like a human being and not just execute tricks like a trained circus dog. My favorite moment occurs when Matt is warming up at his hotel:

I had gotten through my warm-up scales and arpeggios when the housekeeping lady knocked on the door and came in. I was going to stop and wait, but she said, “Please don’t let me interrupt!” and so I kept playing scales for a couple of minutes. Then it occurred to me, this might be my last chance to perform for someone before the audition – so I checked my tuning, took a deep breath, and performed my Bach Bourrees for her! Then I did some Mozart 40, Beethoven 5, Heldenleben – all my nemesis excerpts. They didn’t all go perfect, but she was very appreciative and complimentary, and I started feeling confident and secure again.

This blog series is TEH COP SHOW.
PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT
*Jonathan Dunsby, “Guest Editorial: Performance and Analysis of Music,” Music Analysis 8, nos. 1-2 (1989): 7.
**Matt’s analogy for what you have to do is exactly the same as what James Tocco once told me when I was dealing with the perilous leaps in Scriabin’s fifth sonata: like a race-car driver, you have to accelerate into the turn — not in terms of actual tempo, but mentally. My own mental image is of a young Mike Tyson throwing a punch: he would sort of lean into the punch, or not really lean in so much as somehow realign the fabric of spacetime so that he shortened the space the punch had to travel, but with the kind of feral avidity that you need to cultivate for the most extreme moments of virtuosity.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to WAMP until ready

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Great posting, Phil, thank you.

  2. 0re0 says:

    Great post — sounds like a great seminar, by the way.
    Have you looked at Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery? It get’s a little New-Agey at times (it comes with a CD of Kenny freely improvising at the keyboard for purposes of “meditation”). It probably doesn’t directly address what you are talking about, but it is a pretty good account of a professional musician trying to “get at” what it means “know” how to play an instrument, and in that respect it is perhaps more useful than stuff like “The Inner Game” series. The central idea-Effortless Mastery-seems to be at the heart of what you describe above: the “ability to become a vessel of energy while remaining unmoved by it.”

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  4. G says:

    You’ve brought up Gumbrecht’s “Production of Presence” before on this blog, I believe, but it seems particularly à propos here, since one of its main lines of inquiry concerns the epistemological status of physical practices like music — and dance and sports, etc.

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