The Dignity of the Performer

essay on the dignity of music making

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

The Dignity of the Performer

by Rolf-Peter Wille

"Teacher, can you please give your opinion about my play?" Exam time at TNUA (Taipei National University of the Arts). The eyes of the student are brimming with humble eagerness. But I was not convinced by her performance. What am I going to say? "Do you know the tempo indication, Beethoven gave to this movement?" I ask. But with this innocent question I must have exhausted the humble eagerness of the student, because—strangely—she does not know the answer. Neither, by the way, would she have committed to memory any other indications concerning expression, dynamics, etc., and I am beginning to wonder why I became the object of all this flattering eagerness. If the student indeed is deadly determined to improve her skills, how come she has not trusted the authority of the composer in the first place. Is 魏樂富 more trustworthy than Beethoven? This student, in fact reminds me of that famous driver, who, having run a red light, stops his car to ask a policeman, how he could improve his driving. What a chutzpah! What a hypocrisy!

Yet, it is not just the student, who is to be blamed for acting hypocritically, but mainly us—the teachers. Through the system of exams we send the message that a music performance is an object to be judged and graded, and that it is the obligation of the student to satisfy the expectations of the examiner. In case it has never occurred to anybody: A music performance during an exam is still a performance of music. If it is merely treated as an exhibition of skill, we will have profoundly undermined our own status as artistic performers. Unlike, for example, a performance of the 100-metres dash, which can be measured in a fairly objective manner, the performance of a sonata is about the spirit of the sonata and the performer is the representative of this spirit. The 100 meters are conquered, but spirit can only be transmitted. In other words, the performance of music is based on belief, and the reciting of the performer resembles the words of a priest rather than the legs of a runner.

Let us contemplate for a while the role of a priest. He believes in God. He is the servant of God and delivers His word. His audience is the congregation of which he is the "shepherd." The congregation has to trust the authority of the priest. One goes to church to hear the word of God from the mouth of the priest. Imagine now an exam for priests in which the congregation would judge the skill of the priest. Imagine the sermon being cut short by a bell: "Thank you! Recite the next sermon please! Don’t say ‘Amen’ because it takes too much time." Imagine the priest being ashamed, giggling in a childish manner and walking like a cartoon figure. Imagine the priest having to hand his "repertoire" of sermons to the congregation and apologize for some embarrassing spelling mistakes. His dignity would surely be compromised, he would no longer be the servant of God. Ultimately such a blasphemous act would undermine the belief in God.

Do we believe in the spiritual power of music?
I think so. This is why we are musicians.

Do we believe in the dignity of music?
I hope so.

Is it possible to have exams in the style of TNUA and still believe in the dignity of music?
Is it possible to engage in prostitution and still believe in the dignity of womanhood?

If we sincerely believe in the spiritual and creative power of our music, we have to submit to the attraction of this power at any occasion and at any time of the day. God is God wherever you meet Him in the universe, and a Chopin ballad is still a Chopin ballad if it is performed at Carnegie, at a subway station or during a TNUA exam. Whoever carries the word of God is His messenger, and whoever is performing Bach is the representative of his music. A diplomat representing a country is treated with the respect that is his country’s due, even if he is a complete idiot as a person. Likewise any performer of a piece of music should be regarded as a representative of that piece and, during the ceremony of the performance, the dignity of the music is bestowed upon her/him. More than that: He/she needs the trust, love and curiosity of the audience in order to project the spirit of the music. A projection cannot be directed against a wall or into empty space. It would make more sense to voice your love to the three oranges, or, as a saint, to preach to the birds.

Listening is not merely a passive attitude but a concentration of interest, a power that should attract communication.

"Es liegt ein sonderbarer Quell der Begeisterung für denjenigen, der spricht, in einem menschlichen Antlitz, das ihm gegenübersteht."

Heinrich von Kleist

The communication between composer, performer, and audience is a ritual ceremony, based on centuries of tradition. It is comparable to the ceremony of communion at church, and it should not be compromised because of any mundane or pragmatic considerations (saving time, etc.). The ritual of music performance is based on the transmission of artistic vision. This vision is transmitted not in a democratic but in a hierarchical manner, and the hierarchical order is incontestable: The composer has trusted his vision. The performer trusts the spiritual value of the composition, and the audience, eager to obtain the artistic vision contained in the composition, trusts the skill of the performer in projecting this spirit. In other words, the performer is the shepherd of his audience and he/she should be treated with respect.

Let us contemplate the style of our exams. The performer is treated as a "student," somebody with less authority than the audience. The audience (the teachers) treat her/him with critical mistrust based on the assumption that, maybe, she has failed to learn the assigned repertoire. The ceremony of performance is controlled by the mood of the audience. The performer is intentionally pushed into a state of infantile stupor that undermines any spiritual intent from the very beginning. If we mistrust the discipline of a music student it just means that we mistrust the disciplining power of music itself.

Why do we not restore the dignity of music making and lend our attentive ears to the efforts of the performing student? The most famous pianist of the 20th century depended on the attention of his audience:

"My father was very aware of the mentality of the audience, of the emotional make-up of the audience. He thought about it a great deal. Because he gave so much to them when he played he was therefore very attuned to them. He was a musician who loved his audience. And when there was no audience—as in a recording studio—he would make the technicians and anybody else, who happened to be around, feel like an audience. […] He had to have everybody attuned and enthusiastic about what HE was going to do before he could really do it and he was terribly sensitive if that wasn’t the case. If he was practicing in some hotel and a maid would come in and do the bedroom, he would look at her: Is she impressed, is she involved? And wouldn’t be happy if she just come in and do her job. He would even try to get her [attention]."

John Rubinstein (about his father, Artur Rubinstein)

Most of our students have never had the experience of a loving or even interested audience. They have never seen a person in tears after they played, they have never heard a "bravo." They did never have the chance to experience the mystery of performance as communication of souls. Playing piano for them is an exercise in goodwill, diligence and filial piety and the exam is the forum to show off those qualities.

When are they going to experience the power of performing?
Never? In America? In their next lives?

As an Institute of the Arts are we representing the childish expectations of society who needs the arts as a "cultural fig leaf" to cover its spiritual corruption?

Or are we not rather artists who try to inspire and hope to impregnate the souls of our students with the seeds of artistic creativity?

Why are we smothering the sprouts of creative awakening with a flood of meaningless activities and bureaucratic hustle?

Why do we not generously provide time and energy to the contemplation of inner strength?

"The artist lives alone, and when circumstances throw him into the middle of society, he, in the midst of discordant distractions, creates an impenetrable solitude within his soul that no human voice can breach. Vanity, ambition, greed, jealousy, and love itself, all the passions that arouse mankind, remain outside the magic circle he has drawn about his ideas. There as though in a sanctuary, he contemplates and worships the ideal that his entire being will seek to reproduce. There he can envision divine, incredible forms and the colors that the most gorgeous flowers in the brilliance of springtime have never presented to his eyes. There he hears the eternal, harmonious music whose cadence regulates the universe, and all the voices of creation are united for him in a marvelous concert. A burning fever then seizes him, his blood courses impetuously through his veins, filling his brain with a thousand compelling concepts from which there is no escape except by the holy labor of art. He feels himself prey to a nameless misery; an unknown power demands to be brought to light in words, colors, or sounds, that ideal which takes possession of him and forces him to endure a thirst of desire, a rage to possess such as no man has ever felt for the object of an earthy passion. But once a work of his is completed—one that the whole world may acclaim enthusiastically—he is still only partially satisfied, still discontent, and would perhaps destroy the work if a new vision did not arise to shift his gaze from the thing accomplished to the heavenly and sorrowful raptures that return his life into a perpetual pursuit of an unattainable goal, the mind’s unceasing effort to rise to the accomplishment of those things it had conceived during the extraordinary time when eternal, unclouded beauty made itself known to him."

Franz Liszt (written when he was as old as our students)

related essays by Rolf-Peter Wille:

Betrayed by the Audience
Magic Circle of the Stage

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