Why We Play Music
I was sitting backstage in the greenroom of a venue this past Saturday getting ready to walk on stage for the first time in almost a year when the question “Why do we play music?” popped into my head. This wasn’t a moment of crisis, not an “Oh, why, why do I play music?”, but just one of those thoughts that drifts through your head when you are trying to clear your mind. Driving home from the performance, reflecting over the good, the bad, the ugly, and those unexpected moments that reached the audience, I returned to this question. Why, in fact, do we do this music thing? I ask this because doing it well is really, really – oh heck let’s add in another – really challenging.
So, I dug back into my library of books and interviews looking for insights on why we are compelled to plop ourselves on stages, in front of microphones, and cameras to make sounds for a group of people. Here’s my takeaway: Music allows us to connect with people in a meaningful, authentic, and at times, intimate way, often without words. And, whether you are listening to it, writing it or in my case playing it, we all have to get out of our own way to engage with it.
The first part of this is perhaps the most exciting and creative. I get to gather a collection of pieces to share with others, I go into my musical vault of wondrousness and choose what stories I am going to tell, which feelings I am going to explore. The performer becomes a musical curator, the brown coat and cap are optional. Then the work begins where I get to “know” each piece and solidify an approach to each work. I am lucky enough to become a sonic tour guide and advocate for what I choose to play, and if I’ve done my job, the individual spectator forgets where they are for a few moments and they’re connected together into an audience sharing a sonic experience with me and each other. That’s a pretty good day’s work.
The latter part of this takeaway statement, for me, is the biggest challenge. I say that because as I was in the middle of the first half of my program, this past weekend, I heard this little tiny voice offering free commentary on what was happening in real time. Don’t worry I haven’t decided to become Puppet Show and Zane Forshee, me on stage with a wise cracking ventriloquist’s dummy. Actually, the closest thing I can relate this inner monologue to is if you’ve ever tried to meditate and found, once seated, that your mind is bouncing from one thing to the next whilst trying to focus, simply, on breathing. It’s amazing to witness and even more fascinating to experience on stage before an audience. Critics can be tough but that little narrator is brutal. It’s the kind of self-sabotage we need to let go, as Timothy Gallwey and Barry Green discussed in their book The Inner Game of Music. Basically we are all hard on ourselves, but when you’re putting yourself and a composer’s hopes out there it can reach another level.
On my self-imposed literary hike I rediscovered an interview with Evelyn Glennie from the Mastery of Music by Barry Green. Eveyln’s approach really puts things into perspective:
“I have to believe and to be one hundred percent committed to the music—to what I feel at that particular moment. There is no holding back. I have to just do it consistently. It is just a way of life. I cannot let the music overwhelm me. I know this because in recent years I have been learning how to ride a motorbike. At first it was one of the scariest things I had done in ages, and suddenly one day, I just thought, now I’m riding the bike. I’m in control of the bike as opposed to the bike controlling me. It was something that just happened and it wasn’t forced. It needs to become a part of me…It is much better for me to create the sound, rather than stepping back and observing it. It is the control aspect of knowing what I want, and this is what gives me satisfaction.”
Regarding live concerts and audiences she goes on to say:
“I can’t get them to all feel the same way. It’s just like going to a restaurant and everyone ordering the same exact meal. Some may eat more quickly than others, others may mix the vegetables in a different way, and in different combinations. So the meal will not taste the same to everyone. It is the same way in a concert. They come into the hall with all different reasons as to why they are there—some coming from work, some curious, some percussionists, some friends of the composer, some who had a crisis at home—this stuff in life all affects how they digest this music. Even the sound of my drums will not register the same to the people sitting in the balcony as to those sitting close to the stage. All I can do is be honest…and serve the best dish possible.”
Evelyn makes some great points, and offers an honest approach about what a performer can (and should) choose to focus on while in performance.
I couldn’t have revisited these ideas at a better time as I’m setting up to perform a new program of pieces by living composers for the Livewire New Music Festival. I have dodged the laser beams, passed the retinal scan and pushed my palm into the goop that takes finger prints – all to get into my safe of great music which is incidentally located in the musical vault of wondrousness, I could turn all of the anti-theft devices off but I have to get my cardio in somehow. . . With that done I’m preparing a riotous collection of works by Linda Dusman, David Revill, Ingram Marshall, & Ronald Pearl and with any luck I’ll get out of my own way so that the pieces have the opportunity to connect with the people who gather to hear them. For me to perform a piece is to bring it to life, for many composers their work only lives when it is played. The notes cannot just sit on the page, or screen, but need to be heard, whether it is fleetingly in a live concert or repeatedly on a favourite recording. As Glennie says everyone will take something different away from the event and I hope that there is a flavor in there that each and every person in the audience will enjoy. I have to say that I think music just adds something good to the everyday, and being someone who can help deliver it is pretty darn cool.
Perhaps Frank Zappa summed it up best: “Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.”
Yeah, Frank, that’s why we play music. That’s why.