Must we perform?
I have been following a pretty heated social media discussion about whether music students should have to perform pieces or songs. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that playing an instrument ought to be for the purpose of performing in public and that the end result of learning should be performing.
One teacher went so far as to say that she requires participation for any student who isn’t an adult and that those who are unwilling to perform are ‘welcome to find another teacher’. It is not clear to me why the distinction was made between adult and child learner.
Another teacher likened participation in performance to playing in a basketball team: ‘Would he have the option to play or not? No … There is no choice involved in the studios I teach in. It is compulsory’.
A lone voice suggested that perhaps students might have a choice.
Performing is of educational value, I think – it motivates students to practise and to achieve and it can illuminate the teaching and learning processes. When I’m teaching I sometimes find myself asking questions like, ‘Which line do you want the listener to pay attention to in this phrase?’ or, ‘How could you make this piece tell a story?’ I want the student to let the music unfold and explain itself although, during the lesson, the ‘performance’ is for me, an audience of one, or for a ‘virtual audience’. Students concerts can also show that we are good enough teachers and help to showcase our studios – and there is nothing wrong with that.
Certainly, practising performing is essential for anyone who wants to gain qualifications in music, since confidence, concentration and focus in performance are only developed by practising doing it. For this reason, I organise performing opportunities for my students; I expect that they will want to take part and mostly they do, but it is not compulsory. Because I have taught many students who were working towards Advanced Level Music Performance examinations, I have organised weekly Piano Club, during which students may play for each other in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Attendance was compulsory but playing was by choice, when ready. Students may choose to perform a whole piece or they might play a section of work in progress. After each student has played, I invite positive and constructive comments from the other students. The experience builds confidence and trust that the audience appreciates the good points in their playing and is on their side. It also builds a sense of belonging to a community of pianists.
There can be little doubt that music can be a means of communication. If we look at the most natural way of making music this could be said to begin with the dialogue between mother and baby, sometimes called motherese, which has a gestural vocabulary that is similar across all cultures; mothers and babies raise and lower their voices, simultaneously changing their expressions and moving their hands. In this definition, communication is of importance in music making, but it is a very private form of dialogue and does not involve an audience.
Charles Darwin’s suggestion that the function of male birdsong is to communicate the male’s capability of protecting its territory, thereby seducing a female, has been put forward as evidence that the purpose of music is communication. The comparison between bird and human seems spurious and simplistic to me, however; does the bird consciously know it is ‘performing music’?
Perhaps music is simply what the performer says it is and wants it to be, so we can choose what, if anything, we want to express when we play. Stravinsky, famously, said that music is:
essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.
It is wonderful to share music, to perform it and to listen to performances but playing simply for the joy of playing, whether or not anyone is listening, seems to me to be intrinsically worthwhile too. There is, perhaps, a case to be made for studying, but not performing, a piece of music that is at the edge of one’s capability technically, but within one’s intellectual and emotional grasp. It is impractical and also dogmatic to suggest that a public performance is essential, at some point, for music making to be valid. Those who genuinely want to play for their own pleasure and not necessarily for the purpose of communicating, competing or gaining certificates are free to make that choice.