Taxidermy vs Tracking: Some musings on mindfulness, performance, and musical expression

Taxidermy vs Tracking: Some musings on mindfulness, performance, and musical expression

[UPDATE (February 2019): Yesterday, I posted on Instagram about the importance of allowing ourselves to write shitty first drafts. Sometimes we need to just start already and edit later. Get some paint on the canvas, so to speak. Well, funny thing: The first (and second and third…) draft of the blog I was working on when I posted that was so shitty that I decided to save it for another week (or never) and instead riff on the notion of shitty first drafts in music practice. I wanted to write about this because, more and more, I find myself encouraging my students to not decide on an interpretation too quickly. I find myself saying stuff like, “Yes, that’s one way it could go, but let’s stay open to other possibilities.” So, I guess it’s not so much about allowing a shitty first draft in the practice room (although that can be fun too!) as about not rushing to the final draft.

Anyway, I started writing but then I remembered that I had explored some of the same ideas in another post a few years ago. I went back to that post to review and realized that it was MUCH better than what I was working on this week, so I decided to just repost it. (And, the old post also includes a winding, disclaimer-ridden introduction, so that’s a nice bit of symmetry.) It’s funny though: When I posted the original blog, I thought it was an incoherent mess (hence the disclaimer-ridden intro). But now I think it hangs together pretty nicely. It’s funny how our perspectives change over time. It was originally posted on Nov. 18. 2015. I hope you enjoy.]

I don't really know what this post is about. Taxidermy, clearly. And tracking. My plan was to talk about mindfulness and musical expression -- via the metaphors of taxidermy and tracking -- because I was feeling bad about focusing only, up to this point, on how mindfulness can help us with our neuroses in the practice room.

But it hasn't really worked out. I realized at a certain point that I wasn't writing about one thing but several things and I couldn't seem to pick one. The more clarity I sought, the less clear things became... I had this metaphor that I couldn't (and still can't) let go of even when it became obvious that it was not helping to move the plot forward, so to speak.

The thing is, I promised myself when I started this blog that I would use it, in part, to practice not getting too hung up on every little thing being just so like I do with most things in my life, especially music. I also promised myself that I'd post every Wednesday no matter what so that I'd be forced to just stop tweaking already and hit publish.

Right now, those promises seem like a bad idea. But I'm going to keep them anyway. One of the things this post definitely IS about (I think) is having the courage to express yourself even when -- maybe especially when -- you're unsure about what you want to say. 

So, this week you're getting more of a free-form reflection than a clearly-constructed argument...fragments of what should probably be 3-4 separate posts. But hey, it's my blog and I'll meander if I want to. If and when these ideas firm up, I'll share them in a more coherent form. You can come back then...or meander with me.

Enough stalling. I'll start with something nice and concrete -- a study!  

I - A study

Harvard psychologist and mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer conducted an illuminating study designed to examine the effects of mindfulness on musical performance. I will preface this by noting that Langer's definition of mindfulness is slightly different from the one that we have been working with. She refers to mindfulness as an approach to any activity that has the following characteristics:

  • The continuous creation of new categories

  • Openness to new information

  • An implicit awareness of more than one perspective (Langer, 1997, p. 4)

Since these are all documented outcomes of the practice of mindfulness as I have been defining it -- that is, intentionally and non-judgmentally paying attention to present-moment experience --  I think her study and its implications are worth exploring. 

Anyway, Langer and a colleague had the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra perform a familiar piece, the finale from Brahms' Symphony no. 1, in two different ways. First, she asked them to play the piece while trying to recreate their best performance of it. Then, she asked them to perform the piece while looking for subtle ways to make the music new and fresh. Both performances were recorded. The musicians were then given a questionnaire asking them how much they enjoyed the giving two performances. An overwhelming majority of the musicians reported enjoying the second performance more. The recordings of the two performances were also played for 150 members of the orchestra's chorus -- so, a musically knowledgable bunch. Almost 90 percent of the chorus members reported detecting a clear difference between the two performances and over 80 percent of those who noted a difference between the performances indicated a preference for the second one. (Langer, 2005, p. 35-36)

Mindfulness for the win!

Oh, wait -- was it clear that the second performance was the mindful one? I ask because my sense is that as classical musicians we typically default to the first condition. We try to recreate our best performances or to bring to fruition imaginary "ideal" performances. And, I doubt most of us would think of these efforts as being mindless! But in Langer's view, mindlessness is characterized by:

  • Adherence to old categories

  • Automatic behaviour that does not take new information into account

  • Behaviour that operates from a single perspective (Langer, 1997, p. 4)

Ouch. Guilty as charged. 

II - Taxidermy

The performance of classical music is a re-creative art form and, as such, it presents us with an interesting creative challenge. As performers, our job is to try to suss out and communicate the composer's intentions and to adhere to stylistic conventions all while executing whatever technical wizardry the music requires of us. No small feat! On top of that, the general consensus seems to be that we are also supposed to bring something of ourselves to the music. But what does that really mean when what to play and how to play it has largely been decided for us? 

Over the years, I have come to the unsettling realization that my preferred method for dealing with this conundrum has been to engage in a sort of "musical taxidermy". Like a good taxidermist, I am conscientious, even reverent, and I try produce as authentic a rendering of the score as I can (setting aside for the moment the fact that I often play pieces written for other instruments centuries before the tuba was even invented...). I try to uncover and communicate the composer's intentions. I try to play in a way that is stylistically appropriate. I try to put something of myself into the music. And I have worked hard to develop my technique to a level that makes all the rest of it possible. Nothing wrong with any of that, I don't think.

But then I take it one step further and, once all of the above is working to my satisfaction, I try to freeze my musical vision in place, to burn it on my brain, to etch it into my muscle memory. This way, my thinking goes, I have a much better chance of faithfully reproducing it each time I play it. Oh, I know we all say unpredictability and spontaneity are part of the "magic" of live  performance. 

But do you know what I like way better than spontaneity? Having everything go according to plan. 

Okay -- I'm exaggerating a bit. I don't really strive for every performance of the same piece to be exactly the same. But the amount of variability that I consider acceptable and, more to the point, safe is pretty small. 

Is it just me? 

Maybe...but I doubt it. I think that in classical music we generally place a much higher priority on consistency than spontaneity, even if only implicitly. And I don't think it's because we're all a bunch of un-creative stiffs. One reason might be that the technical demands of our repertoire are so exacting that it feels as though too much spontaneity could bring the whole thing crashing down. Also, the more I do it, the more I think getting up and performing in front of people is not normal. It is normalized in certain contexts. But that's not the same as being normal.

III - Performance 

"We get frightened at the moment of performance not only because we want to do well but because we feel so alive. We fear life itself, the feeling of our heart beating, of letting music and vital energy flow through us beyond our control. ... When we take our place onstage shaking with fear and dare to make music, we re-create not only a musical composition, but also ourselves."

~ Madeleine Bruser, The Art of Practicing

"Can I be with what is Now, with the immediacy of my experience? Can I get to the point where I am able to experience unity between my thoughts and my actions? When this happens, I can make decisions based on a deeper commitment: a commitment to be present, to be myself..."

~ George Mumford, The Mindful Athlete

"Thus part of the enrichment we get from performing is a discovery -- the sense that artistic understanding is not only a solo journey for the performer but a communal wisdom that transcends his or her personal boundaries."

~ William Westney, The Perfect Wrong Note

IV - Tracking

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by two animal trackers about the overlap between tracking and mindfulness. It was fascinating. They talked about tracking as a process of letting go of one's own agenda and assumptions in order to "zone in" to an animal. They described how quieting the mind in this way helps to awaken capacities -- such as intuition and an integrated sensory awareness -- that usually lie dormant, and how bringing these capacities "online" opens up richer and more nuanced possibilities for action. They described how changes in the environment or in the information issuing from the environment, must always lead to an accompanying change in the tracker lest the trail -- the thread of communication between tracker and tracked -- be lost. 

You can see where I'm going with this, right? Clearly, we should all approach music like trackers not taxidermists! Problem solved.

And actually, I think most of us do approach music this way, at least in the practice room. But in performance...maybe not so much. For me, it is easy to be in tracking mode when I'm learning a piece. The process of "tracking" the inner workings of a piece of music and of developing the technical skill to be able to reveal something of those inner workings is joyful and often exhilarating. But when a performance approaches I tend to panic. I just want to kill and mount the damn thing. Which is to say, I want to know how the performance is going to go. So I try to come up with an artefact, something I can hold onto -- even if only in my mind -- to reassure me that everything is going to be okay.

But, the thing is, I don't know how the performance is going to go. We can never really know for sure how the performance is going to go. And I know I said before that that's all part of the magic of live performance -- and I really believe it should be part of the magic of live performance. But I think many of us behave as though it is actually the scourge of live performance.

V - Mindfulness

One of the things that mindfulness can do is help us learn be okay with things that we are profoundly not okay with...like the big unknown that awaits us on the other side of the stage door. In The Perfect Wrong Note William Westney describes performance anxiety as stemming, at least in part, from the fear of losing control in front of others (Westney, p. 120). This rings very true for me. I experience it as an almost existential fear.

Sometimes, before a performance, I sit quietly and let that terror that I do not know what is going to happen when I walk out there just wash over me. I invite it in. And do you know what? It usually loses some of its grip on me.

When we really look at what is happening in the present moment, as mindfulness invites us to do, we see that in addition to whatever thoughts or emotions may be preoccupying us, there is all kinds of other stuff going on that we don't usually notice. The breath is always there. Awareness is always there, pure and boundless, a wide open space from and through which the music can speak. 

VI - A practice

It occurs to me that rather than trying to normalize the performance experience, we could try to live more fully -- to actually experience more of our lives -- everyday. I think we often flatten out our experience so that it appears to align more closely with our preferences and expectations. But what if we actually sought out and learned to be okay with more texture, more nuance, more drama? Might the performance experience seem less fraught? 

Ellen Langer's study ends with an exhortation for musicians to be in the present moment in order to "...take advantage of new opportunities, amending their performance to make use of physical, emotional, psychological and environmental changes." (Langer, 2009, p. 133)

We can practice this. We can develop an orietation to learning and performing music that is less focused on a fixed end-point, that encourages us to enter fully into the dynamic flow of experience inherent in every performance situation. Here is an exercise I have been doing for the past couple of years in my own practice as well as with some of my students. I don't have a name for it. Maybe I'll call it "Tracking." Its purpose is to develop a feeling for and a comfort with getting out of the driver's seat and making music in a receptive, responsive way. Here's what you do:

  1. Choose a short passage -- a couple of phrases or a section of a piece -- that you know fairly well and that you can play through comfortably. This works particularly well if you use something you can play from memory. On the other hand, if you plan to perform using music, you might find it helpful to also do this while looking at the music.

  2. Decide in advance that, beyond observing basic style and articulation indications, you are not going to try to play the passage any particular way. In other words, you are not going to try to mimic your favourite recording or play it the way you did yesterday.

  3. Play through the passage with the explicit intention to notice things about the music you have never noticed before and to bring these things out. Listen to the music and listen inwardly, responding to whatever arises in the moment.

  4. (This is the most important step.) Reflect: How does it feel to play this way? Is it natural or unnatural? Is it easy or difficult to get out of the driver's seat? Did you notice anything new about the music or your relationship to it? (It's okay if you didn't...) Notice if and when the urge to "taxidermize" arises.

  5. Keep doing this, right up to the very day of a performance, so that you make a habit of continually experiencing the music anew. That way, maybe it won't seem so risky to do it on stage.

***

Thanks for sticking with it. Happy practicing!

References

Bruser, Madeleine. The Art of Practicing. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997. iBook.

Langer, E., T. Russel, and N. Eisenkraft. "Orchestral Performance and the Footprint of Mindfulness." Psychology of Music 37, no. 2 (2009): 125-36. 

Langer, Ellen J. On Becoming an Artist. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Langer, Ellen J. The Power of Mindful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1997.

Mumford, George. The Mindful Athlete.  Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2015. 

Westney, William. The Perfect Wrong Note. Newark: Amadeus Press, 2003. iBook.

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