A little long something I wrote years ago. The people I am referring to there have now changed their approach, and maybe I have as well… Anyway, based on true stories
Should a Musician explore and practice other art forms or must he/she only use music knowledge to interpret the notes on paper into music… or art?
“That was good. But now you it’s time to play music”, said the 60-year-old pianist to the 12-year-old music-prodigy who had just performed a concerto by Rachmaninov. Yes, I can’t tell you if this actually happened but I’m sure you can find your own truth within it…
“Other Art?!” they laughed. “We are musicians and we play music. It is useless to even study or get involved with anything else. Now let us study our notes!” It is better to learn one subject to its fullest than to get involved with more, particularly such different subjects, and as a result not be good in either. That was the answer I got from an unexpected majority of my fellow colleagues, some said it silently and some out loud. For some time, I pathetically sympathized with this attitude of the upcoming new musicians. It seemed to have a logical sense. However, for a person who never did one thing at once and always explored the world in every way, this statement was soon in doubt and in a short time it was considered to be one of the most outrageous comments young people, who believe are musicians, could make. That is the reason I chose this subject. As a potential composer, I experienced the effects this “life-style” may have. I felt ashamed and was utterly exasperated.
A musician – and any other artist whether he is a dancer, a poet, a photographer, acts – is at least obliged to be aware of what is happening in the world of Art (and not only). An artist that lacks such knowledge is more bound to present works that are weak of substance, in contrary to the artist who has at least studied facts that concern his latest work. A person sensitive towards the arts (or music and the arts), even if that person has little knowledge on music, can immediately feel and understand how this affects a performance. To present it from a musical spectrum; this is more obvious when the young musicians are asked to perform contemporary compositions, especially if it is performed for the very first time. I will not argue about the fact that they might be pretty good musicians, hard workers. Some (hopefully) are aware of the need to know even the most important facts of music history, try their best to develop a good technique, obey all the articulation signs, the dynamics, the rhythm, the tempo, nevertheless, you feel something is missing. There is a possibility that they feel what they are playing, yet the performance is “floating”. The audience may find it difficult in receiving the “dance like” feeling of a musical piece. Or it might be program music; you can not see the floating river, or the deep blue sea, or listen to the birds singing.
Poetry, for example, has a great influence on music pieces. Composers not only use them to create a song but it may also have a reference on an orchestral work. A composer often derives his inspiration from a poem. He wants to transfer the feeling of the poem into music notes. By playing just the notes written on a piece of paper, it is unlikely to transpose that feeling through “such an abstract art form” as music. When publishing a musical piece, a composer often refers to his inspiration (the poem) for a specific reason. So the performer will understand the composition and ascribe it to be as close as possible to the composer’s idea. That is, I believe, the performer’s job; to bring an idea to life. If a performer has no sensitivity in his soul as to just read that poem, then it is very likely that the final result will be far away from what the composer had in mind. It is important to state that it is (extremely) difficult for a performer to capture a composer’s view, however, if there are explanatory notes then the performer has an obligation to study them carefully.
Poetry is just one form of art, and perhaps the most common, that interacts with music. There is dance, architecture, painting, photography, drama and so many new ones that have developed with the rise of technology. Each type has something special, excites human spirit differently. Each Art uses different instruments to be expressed, yet they all use (in a basic form) about the same terminology and have about the same “rules”. Moreover, what is also worth mentioning is that there is a parallel development between them. Surely this must not be by chance.
Exploring and practising all of them (art forms) at once can be confusing. The Arts are such a delicate matter and need true commitment. In spite of this, it is not impossible to have a little or basic knowledge for at least some of them. The more you study the arts through history, how the techniques and ideas were presented in different eras, the easier it is to understand new trends that arise every now and then that will definitely affect music.
It is essential for a musician to be aware of what is happening in the Art world. It is probably more difficult for him to do so, as it seems that his art seems to be “cut off” from the rest. It is the only form of Art that expresses through sound only (here referring just to music sound not singing). For all the rest forms, it is vital for them to interact in order to exist, and this interaction comes without being noticed at first. For example, dancing needs music and acting, acting needs rhythm and movement, the photographer needs painting and so on. So, artists subconsciously get involved with other art forms simultaneously with their major one and stay informed about all the new trends that arise. I wish this statement could apply to the majority of young musicians, mostly referring to classical trained musicians. It seems that this “kind” finds it more difficult to understand the meaning and how important this state of mind is for them.
Must someone be blamed? If so, then first in line come the teachers. The teachers, who somewhere between teaching how to read and play the written notes forget to teach how to listen to the produced notes (sound). Some do not think it is important to guide the pupil from the beginning to attend to music concerts or to inform them about different kinds of music before they (teachers) start to narrow the repertoire given to the pupil to just classical; anything that was written from the baroque era to impressionism and expressionism (to more gifted pupils). Another fact that teachers often do not take seriously is the composers influence or what the composer had in mind for his work. Like Debussy’s preludes, which have a small descriptive title at the end; or the fact that the billion-times-played “Für Elise” that is indeed a love song from the beginning to the very end and not just until the middle. Sometimes a pupil finds it difficult to understand the meaning of a theme so an easy way to explain how the piece must sound and feel like is to make a picture out of it. Unfortunately some teachers are incapable of explaining sound with picture. By this the pupil is not intrigued to correlate music with something else other than music. And if a student is in fact gifted, and has the privilege of attending classes with an excellent teacher, the teacher frequently may be lost in trying to improve the students playing techniques and to maximise his repertoire. All this leaves little time and strength for the student to be amused or involved with anything else. Some of the examples and statements mentioned above might not sound so bad at first, or that some things are implied and do not necessarily need to be mentioned. However, nothing is ever implied when you are dealing with pupils, all ages and classes, and for everything there is an up and a down side that only time can show if it went wrong and to what point.
Coming across to the other side, the students have also a great deal of responsibility to this. My reference goes to students that are in their late teens and older. After that age you can make your own choices, observe, criticise, and give logical explanations to matters of concern. You can talk, listen, exchange thoughts, experiment with propositions. What is remarkable is that technology can offer this opportunity to almost every one but just a few exploit it as it should. Instead of opening the mind to learning new ideas and approaches, some tend to move backwards and find it hard to take in consideration anything that is unknown to them. Some do not recognise the importance of attending a play or even a concert, reading about anything that is off their subject, discussing about new trends that are happening in the art world, various cultural developments in their society…
This issue does not affect or apply only for musicians and artists. This is about developing human beings with spherical education and knowledge that have awareness towards the Arts and everything around them. Just as musicians believe it is vital to teach the lesson of “Music” in schools for every grade and the children must give the same attention to this subject as they do for Mathematics or Literature, it is to the same importance for a musician to be informed and involved with (at least) the high lights of some other Arts. I am emphasising more on the education and culture a musician should get, rather as the fact that this is a part of the necessities required for being a good professional.
But, how will all this help and affect the musicality of a musician? We can say that a composer is sometimes more likely to be involved with other activities apart from music for the reason that he gets his inspirations from just about anything that can intrigue him. I am referring to instrumentalists, performers (mostly). From my experience, this “problem” is more obvious on them. They played their parts excellently, no mistakes on rhythm, notes, and dynamics. The composition consisted of four parts that were all different but each part was the continuation of the other; there was a story tolled between the notes. The story was perfectly clear but what the musicians seemed to have a problem doing was to perform this music in the means of the story. There were many references on books, famous quotes and famous paintings in order for them to capture best the meaning of the play. This was to show them how the music they produced did not feel that it was one integrated story, but instead there were four parts that could be combined into one. They also seemed confused when the examples for understanding the music had references to a natural phenomenon or to famous paintings. The examples mentioned involved these points for a reason; the music had to have that feeling, give that picture to the audience. What was finally produced was not bad, although it was not close to the vision of the composer and that was because they did not use the references and instructions given properly.
Of course, there is the possibility that the musicians were not trained enough for this standard of approach, or they did not have much experience. Yes, that could be so. But the majorities of young musicians I have associated with in the last five years have this attitude and believe in this approach. It was sorrowful to confront young people who did not give any effort in understanding a musical piece by a non musical point of view. Was it because of their training, were they too narrow minded so they could not accept information given in other ways, did they have too little knowledge and experience as to do so?
If a performer performs a musical piece today and then after a year performs the same piece, it is most possible that the second performance will be far better than the first. His technique will be on a higher level but also his perception on the piece will change; it will “grow” on him. He will use his information more wisely, and with prudence. At last, he will consider presenting the purpose of the music piece rather just to play and obey the rules. Something similar will happen to the teacher, the researcher, the composer, the therapist. A researcher will have a better approach on his facts the second time he comes across them, and so on. Being an artist demands patience, maturity, vision, open mind, dedication (and many other facts). Most importantly, it is time that will make the difference and the change on the decisions made. Time is unbeatable but can be “tamed”.
Patience and maturity both involve time wile having a vision and an open mind mean knowledge and experience so again time. Dedication is devotion, putting your heart, soul, mind and time in your work. Time can be tamed if you care about everything that happens around you and not only about your self. Every film has a soundtrack and is musically accompanied. A musician could analyse this music according to the scenes, the dialogues, the genre, the period it is played in. It is amazing how many facts for the film someone can understand just by listening closely to the music. A musician has one more reason for doing so because he might one day need to write a soundtrack, play a composition for it, or explain to other potential composers what to do in order to create a good and solid composition for a film. Doing such work with a simple film is easy and perhaps less time-consuming, especially in our times, when we prefer to watch a two-hour film than read a two-day (or more) book. Music is everywhere, musicians know it. Just as Art is every where and a musician should get involved with it and gets involved with it every day, even if he has trouble realising it.
What older in aged composers have that younger ones do not have is life experience. When you perform or compose you tell a story about your life. Statistically, the older you get, the more stories you have to tell. But how can a young and “gifted” musician expose himself and his art in the most mature and cultured way? By exploring, experimenting and exchanging thoughts and ideas with other artists, who practice any other forms of art. To try and comprehend what they are playing or writing. It is difficult at the beginning to trait music in other forms but if one manages to do it once, he will find that it will be easier for him to reach to the point of producing music that he and his audience will understand.
What I am proposing for potential performers, is for them to pay attention on everything that goes on around them. This might give them the inspiration and the reason to play. There is no such thing as parthenogenesis. That is why I insist and strongly believe the need for young musicians who want to produce art to have a wide range of artistic knowledge. This will automatically provide them with a sense of sophistication and self fulfilment that in other means would probably take them more time of just instrument practice and repertoire research to reach that level.
As you mature as a person the art you produce matures with you, by all means. There must be more and more effort into this every day.
© Rania Chrysostomou, 2017