on excellence

There is a time (perhaps several times) in a musician’s life when he worries about whether he can sustain a suitably high level of performance. If one has an orchestral job, there are standards to be met, of course, but if you’re part of the string section ‘herd’, then it’s possible to slip quite a bit before you really catch yourself noticing it.

I’ve entered that phase where nothing can be taken for granted, technically speaking. I may be confident of a mature musical sense, but when the fingers and bow arm don’t necessarily answer the call, it can be disconcerting, indeed.

What makes this such a troubling thing for a professional musician is that I am pretty relentless in my self-criticism. If my colleagues are thinking “Charles is starting to lose his edge”, then imagine what I’m thinking!

We musicians are trained from our first lessons (if we had good teachers) to constantly strive to improve our playing every time we pick up our instruments. It becomes an obsession to realize that internal standard that we hear in our heads, that’s an amalgam of every great instrumentalist and singer we’ve ever heard, all wrapped into the single greatest [insert instrument played] ever. That’s what we want to achieve. What we get often falls far short of this. Is it any wonder that many musicians are neurotic and crazed most of the time?

If I could construct my ideal violist, they would have Michael Tree’s sound, Roberto Diaz’s intensity, Yuri Bashmet’s derring-do, and Tabea Zimmerman’s laser focus. There are many other violists who have other attributes that come from my inner ear’s sense of how a piece of music should go, but these are my top four, in general terms.

This leads to another problem that often dogs musicians from the point that they start to get really focused and intense in their study of the instrument, and for years after. It becomes very difficult, in the face of these overwhelming internal ideals, to actually differentiate them from what is actually coming out of one’s own instrument.

I’ve told many a student over the years that they needed to make a big crescendo over a particular phrase, say from ‘pp’ to ‘ff’. They would play something that very much sounded like ‘mf’ to ‘f’. I would again urge them to make a bigger crescendo, starting at a softer dynamic level. They might make larger movements of their body while playing the passage, but again, no major improvement. Then I would demonstrate what was coming out. A blank look would ensue. “That is what you are doing” I’d say. “Now, make a huge crescendo – one so huge that you feel like you’re barely touching the string at the beginning, going to where you feel like you’re going to saw your instrument in two at the end”. Then, and only then, would they really start to hear what they were playing, not what they were hearing in their head.

So, improving is always a constant struggle.

More thoughts on this subject coming soon.

2 Replies to “on excellence”

  1. How many times have I asked a student to exaggerate wildly (which I will usually demonstrate!) and that’s when they finally do just enough?! What’s up with that? We always have a good chuckle together when I point that out…

  2. I’m guilty of the dynamic range issue, but ever so slowly getting better. For me it is not being able to focus on several techniques simultaneously especially on a new piece of music, awareness of how much dynamic range I can actually achieve, and being a little embarrassed to “emote”.

    Speaking of which, I need to get back to practicing exactly that…

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