Performing with Heart and Mind

Abstract: This article describes how American Double develops its interpretations and addresses the need for combining cognitively derived performance insights with intuitive interpretative impulses.

In its performances, American Double strives to present interpretations that are inspired by the emotional reaction to the music as well as to incorporate thoughtful cognitive insights. In his book, “Cello,” William Pleeth (Jacqueline du Pré’s teacher) states the following: “The spirit of the music is the only thing which can rightfully dictate physical action on the cello.”1  In our understanding this statement means that the musical impulse is both emotional or intellectual in nature and must dictate how the perceived meaning of a composition is expressed instrumentally.

A performer often tends to hold the conviction that interpretation comes from, and resides solely in the “heart” or one’s emotional reaction to a piece of music.2 But, as Wallce Berry puts it in his book Musical Structural and Performance, “the purely spontaneous, unknowing and unquestioned impulse is not enough to inspire convincing performance, and surely not enough to resolve the uncertainties with which the performer is so often faced.”3 To complicate the issue further, some theorists admit that they “wouldn’t know where to begin in teaching a course entitled “Analysis for Performers”.4 Thus, on the one hand, many performers feel ill-equipped to analyze in a manner applicable to their performance, while theorists, on the other hand, do not seem to come to any consensus on how to apply theory to performance. As a result, performers, sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to apply whatever theoretical knowledge they do possess, feel discouraged to deal with the issue.

Tim Howell explores a middle ground when he says “the potential role of analysis is only one part of the process of interpretation, with the performer assessing both analytical and intuitive responses.”5 But why is there a need for this middle ground that Howell is describing? The need arises from the fact that in any piece of music the composer makes conscious decisions involving structure, texture, phrasing and articulation, to name only a few criteria. These are as much a part of compositional process as the initial inspirational impulse. Thus, it is necessary for a musically complete interpretation to integrate an understanding of the cognitive aspects of this compositional process in addition to responding to the music on an emotional level.

How does a performing musician go about identifying these compositional elements in a practical manner? The initial overarching issue that needs to be addressed is that of expectation: what does one expect to happen, and what actually happens in a piece of music? This is true in other fine arts as well: what keeps our interest in a film or a story is the interplay between the expected and the unexpected. Being aware of expectations and of whether or not they are fulfilled allows one the possibility to illuminate this interplay through one’s performance. Therein lies the drama!

Happily, the means to identify the above are skills that a musician already possesses, even though he might not be aware of this. As a start, he simply needs to be purposeful and somewhat objective in observing what happens in a given composition. Naturally, there are some guidelines by which this skill can be enhanced. First he needs to understand how musical form functions within the work in question. Then, to become aware of common phrase structures, principally the sentence and the

The idea that one needs to be a trained music theorist to understand these concepts is an overstatement: any musician who has rudimentary grounding in analysis is sufficiently prepared to observe the drama of a composition. For instance, it is a simple exercise to compare the exposition and recapitulation of a movement in sonata form.  It is through experience that one develops the ability to observe the differences and gains insight into how to illuminate them in his interpretation. As with many skills, the basic concept is simple; it is its application that is challenging, but always richly rewarding.

American Double confidently sides with those who agree that all three aspects, technique, heart and mind are needed to create a musically compelling interpretation. It is understood that music plumbs the very depths of human emotion and is profound in its effect. The skill of intellectual insight, refined over time, can only enrich this experience. It would seem that even the most simple intellectual insights are often missed because of the aforementioned stigma analysis has in performance. American Double seeks to bring an extra level of insight to every work we play. While we celebrate the emotion that is part-and-parcel of any meaningful musical performance, and work diligently towards higher technical exactitude, we also feel that any interpretation needs to have that third essential element, the judicious use of the intellect, in order to make this interpretations meaningful and compelling.

  1. William Pleeth, Cello. With Nona Pyron. Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides (London: Macdonald & Co., 1982). back »»
  2. Joel Lester remarks on this with a humorous anecdote in his review of Musical Structure and Performance, by Wallace Berry, Music Theory Spectrum 14, no. 1 (1992), 77.back »»
  3. Wallace Berry, Musical Structure and Performance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 217. back »»
  4. Ibid, 75. back »»
  5. Tim Howell, "Analysis and Performance: The Search for a Middleground," in vol. 2, Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought, ed. Howell Paytner and Orton Seymour (London: Routledge, 1992): 697. back »»
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