Sometimes, as a musician, I get so wrapped up in learning the notes of a piece and playing them “correctly” that I forget that I am an artist, an individual capable of giving life to a piece through my own ideas and creativity. At times I find it useful to have a tunnel-vision focus in the practice room, with logically-oriented tasks and goals to help me get from A to B. However, if I forget about my primary role as an artist, I end up merely reproducing what is on the page. When this happens, my playing ends up not very inspiring. Boring, even. I merely go through the motions by executing the instructions handed to me, doing what I am “supposed” to do and not letting myself be moved by the music and have an emotional response that translates into a personal interpretation of the piece.
I find that this type of machine-like tunnel vision tends to turn on when I feel under pressure, such as while playing in a lesson or masterclass. This is because I become especially attuned to the judgment of those listening to me and worry about outer expectations of what I should do, rather than listening to my inner muse (who, by the way, already knows how the piece goes because I’ve done it that way so many times in practice).
This fixation on the outside opinions of others is a common trap that any of us can fall into when we want to do a good job on something, as musicians or people. As I described, worrying about performing well for these “others” – your audience, your teachers, or the instructions of the composer – can lead us to playing in a mechanistic way and consequently ignoring our own musical intuition. This shift away from our musical intuition is related to my last post, where I discussed the traps of solely focusing on developing our technique as musicians. But let’s step back for a moment. As musicians, we aren’t mere executors, we are artists, if we allow ourselves to be. But what exactly does it mean to have artistry in what we do?
Artistry = Technique + Voice
This formula is inspired by a masterclass I attended last summer given by flutist Donna Shin. Technique represents the physical skills a musician-artist has. It also reflects the intellectual and aural knowledge they have about the music they play– a piece’s historical context, ways it has been performed and interpreted, their idea of how a piece sounds. As musicians, we gain this information through the various experiences we have built up through the years, through lessons with teachers, masterclasses, time in an orchestra or other ensemble, music classes such as music theory and history, the list goes on. In other words, we acquire this knowledge through outside sources. But there is another aspect of artistry that must be acquired internally. That is the artist’s voice.
What is your voice as an artist? Your voice is what you have to say as a unique individual. What do you have to say, and what do you have to express to the world that no one else can say or express? Your voice is very personal, and is connected to your identity as an individual. I once heard a teacher say, “to have something to say on your instrument you first need to develop who you are.” This remark honestly discouraged me a bit when I first heard it. As a young person, I felt a bit lost and was still in the process of figuring out who exactly I was. Well, here’s a little secret: you are always growing and changing as a person, no matter how old you are. Those unknown, foggy parts of ourselves are still a part of us, even we can’t quite understand how quite yet. Both our known self and our untapped potential are core to each of our identities. And as you begin to explore and grow into the unknown parts of yourself, your voice becomes stronger. When you become more attuned to and comfortable with your authentic self, that is, the self aligned with your inner desires and principles rather than outside expectations and “should,” you have a greater capacity to express it freely.
At many points in our lives we may come to a threshold where we are leaving a period of “fitting the mold” and faced with finding our own voice. I am personally at one of those thresholds, having recently graduated college and navigating what it is that I really want to do with my life. To recognize the sound of your own voice in these moments in life is to be able to identify what parts of your identity have been given to you by others. We have all been shaped in various ways by our families’ beliefs and values, the culture we grew up in, and the educational institutions we learned from. Once you have parsed out what voices in your head are coming from others and which are coming from within, you are able to take a step towards deciding which of those outside voices and beliefs you want to keep as aligned with our identity, and which you want to let go. With this clarity you can then seek out new beliefs and values if you wish, exploring other outside voices (reading books, gaining new knowledge), and taking the time to look deeper within yourself through a contemplative practice (through journaling, meditation, a physical activity like walking or yoga – how you do it is a personal choice).
This perspective allows me to see myself as actively shaping my own identity, through a process carving out the beliefs and values you choose to live by based on my daily actions. The wonderful thing is that this process can be ongoing for the rest of my life, if I continue to let myself grow through learning and exposing myself to new experiences and perspectives. We are all in a constant, never-ending process of becoming. This process of becoming is what formulates our voice as a musician-artist. With your unique voice, you communicate your idea of a piece of music as filtered through your own values, experience, and perspective.
Of course, as musicians playing a piece of music that is written by someone else, and to an audience that may not share all of our beliefs, we aren’t necessarily just expressing our own personal voice. You are trying to navigate the complex combination of the composer’s, your teacher’s, and your personal intentions. How do we balance all of those voices in the act of performance is an art in itself.
To put these other intentions aside at the moment (maybe I’ll address them in a future blog post), how can we take practical steps to strengthen our own voice in the context of the practice room? First, recognize that in order to make your own sound and own it, you need intention. That is, a knowledge of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Your intention is not simply “I am doing x because x told me to do it that way.” Rather, your intention is a melding of what you have collected from the outside with what you believe from the inside – yes, what your teacher told you to do, but also what you have found to work from listening to recordings and experimenting on your own. You need to know what you are saying it, how you are saying it, and why you are saying it in that way. In other words, you need to know as much about your playing as the audience does.
This is where technique comes in. Use the tools from your technique toolbox to convey your voice. You’d be surprised to see how many tools you have at your disposal – articulation, tone, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, knowledge of musical structure and form, rhythm, character… these are all factors you can manipulate to be more “musical.” While practicing, think in terms of how a tool can be applied to convey the voice you are aiming to express. Experiment, and exaggerate differences to get it across to an audience. And don’t just think analytically. Can you play a phrase angry? melancholy? anxious? joyous? Often without even thinking about technical directions we can change a lot in our playing through getting the imagination involved. Playing music is not executing technique. Playing music is using technique as a tool to express your voice. Have your vision, and the tools will be employed. This is the approach I am personally striving towards as I make the transition from self-identified student to a more whole musician – student, teacher, creator, listener, artist.