by Lachlan Davidson, 2014
“It was great playing but it left me a bit cold. Something was missing.”
You’ve heard these performers, felt the lack of satisfaction and wondered what the missing element was. What is the motivation behind the player’s musical decisions? What are they trying to do? How much of themselves are they sharing with us? How spontaneous or in the moment are they? Are they playing safe or risking something?
Technically brilliant playing can be disarmingly attractive and compelling and it’s very easy to believe that that’s what it’s all about but we all know that it isn’t. Miles showed us that, or Sinatra’s “One For the Road”, or (Corative or Colea’s?) “Hallelujah”, or Chet Baker.
People label it differently. Heart, spirit, honestly, soul, it. So how do you get it, or how can you switch it on?
Coming back to the earlier questions might offer some insight. After all, you can’t answer a question that hasn’t been asked.
A player’s motivation for performing is complex and personal and inevitably acts as a personal mission statement, albeit, a mostly subconscious one: why do I like to play music to people? I like to impress them, ie. Leave an impression on them. I have something I want them to know (about me) that I’d like to share with them. (Music can do this in a deeply personal way without words or even knowing each other) I want/need to entertain people, keep them interested. That is my role and job that I have accepted. I don’t want to bore people anyway.
I have skills and (prowess?) to display. I’m trying to get my part right and play it beautifully. I am wanting to play my musical role appropriately with the other musicians in my ensemble. Sometimes all I can manage is to go close to that – and if so, that must be enough. I enjoy a sense of achievement and satisfaction at a basic level. Sometimes I find something happens with the music I am playing. I am drawn in by it and I start to interact more with it. I never fool with it. It starts to play itself with me as a witness. What I don’t realise is that I am playing in the moment and reacting spontaneously each moment to the previous moment, setting my imagination free. These occasions are rare and wonderful, but what we aspire to. They are equally marvelous and engrossing for an audience and what they keep coming back for.
However, in an age of pre-(something?) food, synthesized music, pre-(something else?) everything, handmade nothing – we’re shown ourselves easily pleased by shallowness and (something), bright lights, gimmicks, tricks and razzle-dazzle. Genuine story-telling and old-fashioned entertainment is proving an underappreciated art-form. So many audiences are easily satisfied – despite that missing element.
Musicians could learn a lot from modern comedians. They explore the world from their perspective, in an imaginative way, not only without fear of humiliation – but using as a source of fun. And nobody risks performance (something) more than a comedian. They can’t play safe.
Cutting belatedly to the chase, how do you play using your imagination? First, you must get over your need to impress and show off. See it for the shallow and ultimately dissatisfying waste of time that it is. You must also deal with the perceived pressure in your mind of what you think the audience wants from you.
Usually the pressure we feel is to play higher, louder, faster, and more excitingly. Give them more credit than that. Audiences of live music are the enlightened folk who have chosen not to stay at home and watch reality TV. They understand beauty, subtlety, taste etc. Resist the urge to blow them away and enjoy teasing them. Don’t try to chase applause. The best musical moments are often too precious to be broken by applause.
Having got over yourself, you can now focus on the music – your job. In fact you need to give it all of your attention – but don’t try too hard. Yes, a bit of an anomaly. You cannot however play to please the audience, because you can’t read all of their minds, and they are all listening with different energy. You must therefore play to please yourself. Trust yourself to understand the context of your performance, ie. A jazz club or a wedding, and then play what you would like to hear. If it’s an exam, it’s the same thing – play to the criteria but use your musical judgment. In a way, you have to entertain yourself. It’s kind of like laughing at your own jokes – but you tell those jokes because you thought they were funny. You have to risk that your musical choices may not resonate with people. If you back yourself and trust your own judgment and don’t allow doubt and perceived pressure to panic you into resorting to playing safe, and resorting to tricks and licks and playing the higher, louder, faster game.
Take your time, as it is your time to take. You get to decide. Don’t play too long, as you will get boring. Don’t sell yourself short either, finish the story.
We think that using our imagination means coming up with something new every time. In a way this is true but it doesn’t mean you have to change everything – or become overwhelmed by the thought of doing so. A poet doesn’t use words he’s not familiar with to write his greatest poems. Don’t try to do what you can’t do, use what you have and play what you would like to hear. You might not get the regular applause or the ego trip but you will have the deep satisfaction of being true to yourself, having entertained yourself and having surely connected with a few souls who were paying attention in the audience. You’ve know that you went for it – the right way – that you risked them finding out the truth about you and that you played imaginatively and did your best to tell a musical story, or take the audience along with you on your musical journey.