Performance: The Profession and Preparation for It

October 1, 1974

The music profession includes a diversity of occupations: performing, composing, speculating about the art, teaching, publishing, or using music in the pursuit of some practical occupation. The art of music touches on the daily life of almost everyone in modern society, and industries are based on the general interest and hunger for music. Despite the generally good condition of the art, there are signs that some of the institutions serving performers and audiences are in financial trouble, and it is possible that changes in the concert life and careers of musicians may have to be extensive in the coming years to adjust to new conditions.

Popular patronage of music at present is centered in folk, rock, and country music and the various hybrids of these. The American recording and television industry is almost exclusively devoted to these popular idioms, and successful performers of these styles are the most celebrated and best-paid today. Jazz, which was in the past extremely popular, has become the pleasure of a minority of listeners, a more elite art than formerly. It is possible to view the financial success of folk, rock and country music as the reflection of the taste of a particular age group which is willing to spend its money on the concerts and records it desires. The devotees of Beethoven, Verdi, Stravinsky, or Josquin are not so numerous or so generous as to support their performers in any comparable way.

There are many institutions devoted to the less popular styles of music, notably the symphony orchestras and a number of opera companies. The musical life of large cities often includes more than a symphony orchestra and part-time opera company, and may boast of a ballet or dance troup that employs musicians, choruses (although only New York supports professional singers in the way other cities support professional orchestral performers), chamber music ensembles, and recitalists. Few of these institutions are supported by box-office receipts, and their subsidies range from money from private individuals, foundations, government grants, to the most widespread and easily obtained support—the musicians' donation of their time and effort.

For chamber ensembles and recitalists in New York (or known in New York), there is the possibility of giving concerts on tour. This can produce a profit if the group is small enough and the tour is closely scheduled. Touring has declined over the past 20 years, and the competition has become more severe for an uncertain number of bookings. It is a physically demanding life, and relatively few performers find it agreeable for many years.

In some of the larger cities, musicians are employed to deliver their services for specific use in commerce: background music for television, films, commercials, muzak, etc. Such performers have great demands made on their technique and knowledge of styles but rarely get much artistic satisfaction from their work. Usually this well-paid work is a part-time opportunity for able performers from symphonic orchestras, jazz or popular groups.

The music profession demands extremely high standards of technical competence up to a certain point but often seems indifferent to some technical and esthetic matters, possibly because the general musical public is not always aware of many of the aspects of a performer's competence. An opera star may decide, for instance, to sing a recital of early music and approach this repertory as if it were a kind of easy-to-sing romantic art song. The attempt may satisfy an audience enamored of operatic singing, but such a recital would be a travesty of the original intentions of the composer and his performers. Such an hypothetical event seems objectionable because it is an unconscious travesty; it is possible to take delight in a conscious travesty such as Josef Lanner's waltzes on themes of Mozart, or Stravinsky's uses of Pergolesi's melodies, because of their artistic consciousness. The awakening of artistic and technical consciousness is one of the principal tasks of the education an artist should have in his college years.

I believe there is a deficiency in our educational process in this respect, stemming from the schism of performance teaching and music history teaching. Students are impoverished when their performance teacher accepts a low level of achievement in their "academic" training in theory or history. A violinist at a top conservatory must be offered and held to the highest standards of training in his studies in music history because he cannot develop his artistic consciousness on the violin without having his mind opened to history and what it teaches. Too many conservatories and music departments let such a potential musician go forth hoping that he may find an indulgent and ignorant audience. Of course that may happen, but the competition is becoming more severe and a greater chance of success can be foreseen for an artist who is fully conscious. The future of a music department graduate well grounded in concepts of theory and history but with faulty intonation or wobbly fingers is also blighted, yet standards for degrees allow this to happen.

Higher standards are partly dependent on better communication between the theory, history and performance sections of music departments and conservatories. The attitudes of the adherents of those different disciplines may have to change to bring about the necessary integration. There are many ways of bringing the opposites together, the simplest being to meet and discuss. Further collaboration may involve joint teaching of appropriate material where not only the students may learn, but the faculty may teach one another. There may be difficulties to overcome, but the consequences of the continued separation of performance, theory and history will be the emasculation of education and a lower level of student achievement.

The performer faces a number of opportunities and difficulties in pursuing his occupation that the usual education does not anticipate. In large centers of population performers frequently become involved with the more business-oriented aspects of the profession. A great deal must then be learned through experience or the help of friends already in the business. Some of this knowledge could be facilitated through presentation in schools, giving the performer an edge in the competitive world.

Dealing with the complexities of union rules and procedures is often difficult for a beginner. Unions want to help performers earn a living, but are so complex in their procedures that there is money and power to be gained from expert knowledge of these processes. The union leader or contractor performs duties that are essentially clerical, and the various union representatives have power based on knowledge of the by-laws and procedures. The young performer could benefit from having this knowledge before beginning his professional work.

Recording is a possible source of income for performers in many ways. When large ensembles such as symphonic orchestras record, the recording process is properly in the hands of the engineers, producer, and the music director. Recording smaller groups may involve the performers more directly, and knowledge of the technique may allow the performers to produce better results as well as simplify the procedure. Recording music for a film is unusually fascinating and involves a more complicated technique than recording an independent musical composition. Schools could both instruct performers and give some experience of making tape recordings, giving the by-product of some sure knowledge to the performers of how their own performance sounds. Recording, editing and mixing should be included, and coordinating the sound with a film as well. Most schools have the material and human resources already at hand.

The business side of performance can be of great importance, often unexpectedly, to a musician. The most apparently esoteric repertory may lead a performer to the need to deal with financial considerations. Where music can be sold to make money directly, the performer must keep his financial records or hire a bookkeeper; but many musical organizations must seek financial support from philanthropic sources, and in this field more complicated knowledge is necessary. Fund raising from private donors, foundations, or the government all present special opportunities, and a great deal of the technique can be mapped out in advance. Perhaps there should be a course in fund raising techniques given by the college development office? Booking concerts or concert tours is another specialty given to hired professionals. Those performers signed by professional management firms are rarely satisfied with the results, whether or not the opinion is just. Young performers are not usually in a position either to interest a firm or to pay for the service and must therefore book themselves if possible. Once again, it is possible to outline the procedures necessary and understand what to do through a knowledge of technique. If a young artist or group is successful in launching a career, the knowledge gained will be a means of evaluating the services of a professional management later.

Another suggestion for instruction is directly musical. Most students spend a great deal of time learning new pieces and rehearsing music never before encountered. Very often the hours of preparation culminate in a single performance, after which work on new music begins. A student usually learns and rehearses until a degree of perfection is achieved no matter how many hours or what an arduous process is involved. It is often a shock to face different priorities of time in professional engagements where, because of having to pay musicians to rehearse, a minimum of time is devoted to rehearsing and a maximum of performances are given on the basis of this preparation. A professional performer knows, or quickly learns, that his own technique and the part for which he is responsible must be learned before rehearsal. The rehearsal is a period devoted to making an ensemble and polishing the final artistic result.

A first performance, for professional and student alike, is an exciting moment. The tension, concentration, and exhilaration of it often produce very fine performances, with an equal possibility that there will be problems, sometimes disasters to cope with. The first performance is often the last for a student, but a professional ensemble now begins to play the concert in repertory, which for a touring company or recitalist may mean thirty or forty times. The problems of the first performance dwindle, but so does the excitement and tension. After a certain point the performer has to re-think and refresh his concept to avoid a staleness that may threaten his interest in still another repetition of the music. This is an invaluable experience, for if the dangers of staleness can be overcome a performer can learn profound insights and know a piece of music better by such repetition than by any other way. Perhaps some means can be devised to give students the benefit of such experience under the guidance of a teacher.

Musical journalism is an allied profession that has great power because of the large and diverse public for music and because support for music is largely dependent on what the public will pay to hear. The audience is large, and a number of people in it are not educated in their taste. Frequently journalists present the only opportunity members of this public have to receive any information about the music or performers they hear. Sometimes the blind lead the blind. Such power as critics have is not always used wisely, but to insure that it may be two things can be done: educate critics, and educate the public so that they may form their own judgment.

Most cities with any musical life have a critic who writes about music and perhaps art and drama as well. Such a writer may face a great variety of performers and occasions, from students to professionals, from home-grown to expensively imported, from live and kicking to recorded and preserved. The musical climate of a community may be profoundly affected by a journalist who can create the impression that concerts are exciting and that the art of music is a rewarding experience. Several large cities are served by critics whose repute is founded on vitriolic opinions amusingly stated. They are sometimes quoted for their acid wit; but their affect on the concert life of their communities is not as amusing, for an opinion becomes established that concerts are poor and shabby affairs where even celebrated artists are found to display shameful slackness.

Critics lack neither opinions nor the opportunity to state them in print, but often knowledge of the art and even keen perception of the sounds is wanting. The craft of journalism seems to be better taught than the ability to perceive music. I am aware of good results from the training of critics at a few schools, but I believe that a great opportunity exists to educate more and better musical journalists. Perhaps a guided apprenticeship program may be the best educational method. It would be refreshing for the apprentice critic to receive comments from performers, including the very musicians he writes about, at least from time to time, to enable him to see whether he is aware of what the participants in a concert know. Performers are usually quite self-critical, but often not of aspects of a concert that an observer from outside may be aware of. Performers can learn much from a critic (not always willingly), but critics rarely have the chance to learn from performers' comments. An apprentice critic should be judged by a wider range of opinion than either a group of academic advisors or the publisher of a newspaper before he is given license to practice on the musical public.

American education is based on a non-elitist philosophy; we believe in opening the opportunity of an education to everyone. Educating the general public for musical listening is certainly possible in our society with our basic philosophy. Critics will themselves be appraised when the audience gains its own knowledge of music and becomes more sure of its own taste. "Education" in this sense may be college courses in "introduction to music," community lectures, children's concerts, television shows such as Leonard Bernstein produces from time to time, or listening to records and reading intelligent jacket notes.

A skilled performer must be given an elite education and cannot be produced by a short-term process, not even one as comparatively long as the four years of a college or conservatory degree. Some of the surplus musicians in our society unable to earn a living have been led to believe that a musical education could be obtained during such a short period. The requirements for success as a performer are high, and aspirants should be well aware of them before devoting years of effort which may turn out in vain. Standards of admission to professional education should be higher than at present, and the educational process more rigorous for the potential performer.

College or conservatory training is a stage in an educational process that must begin long before and must continue long afterwards. Any consideration of what should be accomplished in the years of undergraduate and graduate education must be seen in a longer perspective. The first music lessons (almost always in performance) that a musician remembers as his starting point are preceded by a great deal of hearing music, singing, talking about music, and, living in an atmosphere where music is taken as one of the graces of living. With an appropriate prelude, a young person will seek to learn and be eager to take advantage of whatever instruction is available. The early years of instruction, usually in adolescence or preadolescence, shape the physical responses of the body, and music is an art that involves every part of the body.

Good teaching and a perceptive response to a student's efforts are important to the development of ability. Exceptional people may overcome the absence of good teaching, as well as other lacks in early preparation, but the advantage of a good foundation should be clear. As a young musician becomes more able, it is vital to have the experience of playing in an ensemble with others, preferably with good players. It is far easier to learn by fitting your part in with capable players than by having everyone in the ensemble learning simultaneously. Performers who learn only the piano or the guitar frequently miss ensemble experience at an early age and are delayed in acquiring the flexible response that is important in a good performer. Chamber music playing is important in building this flexibility, perhaps more so than experience in large ensembles, although both are needed to learn how to respond to a conductor.

It is certainly important for every musician to sing, but training in singing usually does not take place in the years of adolescence. Where boys are well trained in choir singing, excellent musicians often develop as singers much earlier than is usual when training is delayed until after puberty. It is tempting to believe that if good singing training were begun earlier with many young people there would be better singers in much greater abundance. The best training in singing develops a sense of intonation, as does playing an instrument without fixed pitch or with fixed but variable pitch. On the other hand, training on the piano or guitar teaches a sense of chords and harmonic relationships. The influence of the piano is so strong that it is almost universally considered the instrument best to study in the first music lessons. It has a rich repertory of such difficulty that early study is required if a musician is to master it sufficiently to consider making a career playing it.

In the course of studying an instrument or singing, a student begins to hear the repertory of music. The ability truly to hear and absorb music is often stimulated by making music, although talented music listeners exist who never have made music themselves. A student's knowledge of music repertory will certainly be strongly anchored on the music he has performed himself, and all the better if, for example, that includes a Beethoven symphony or two, a Stravinsky ballet score, and a mass by Josquin. Listening to concerts and collecting records complete the ways that repertory is usually absorbed.

When this young musician enters a college music department or a conservatory of music, he has a background that will enable him to learn enough to become an able performer in a reasonable amount of time.

Leaving aside what this education must be for the moment, the accredited young performer must expect to grow still more. Education should open the student's mind and provide a high level of technical competence, but above all it is a preparation for life-long growth. Teaching must aim at giving the method of learning, as well as showing what there is to learn, and stimulating an educated person to be open to further development. Once embarked on a professional career and taking on responsibilities, a performer may draw a circle about his abilities and knowledge and not seek new challenges. Perhaps an educational institution can find a way to offer fresh input to a young professional through advanced seminars or internship programs where the graduate can return and share his experience while renewing his learning with an able scholar.

In college and conservatory undergraduate training, we are accustomed to compartmentalizing music into processes and separating these in order to learn and speculate about the art. We hold performance apart from composition, and we hold both of these apart from speculation, which is itself divided into "theory" and "history," both studies of the musical past. Most of what is studied in history and theory courses is derived from the activity of composition, as distinguished from performance. Performance as it is studied by most students is a highly pragmatic matter, not much burdened with speculation. The aim is to acquire a sufficient technique to do whatever seems to provide a chance at making a living. Performers are trained all too often along narrow lines and not given an adequate education which would enable them to think better about their art.

The students in music history receive much better training in thinking about the art. They are likely to learn about different systems of notation, for instance. This knowledge can open perspectives on musical structure, the grammar of music, that makes a performer far more flexible and expands his interpretative ability. The broadening of perspective does not apply only to music written in antique notation, but to familiar music, the grammar of which becomes clearer by comparison. Training in analytical thinking leading to the skill of making out the structure of a piece of music is another gift of speculation. Putnam Aldrich used to ask his students, "What is the fundamental idea of this piece?" The search for the answer could take his students through a rich and varied process of insights that could transform a mental image of the composition. Ultimately the performance of the piece could also be transformed by this process of thinking as well.

The good training in music history in American universities produces good historians and editors of music but rarely influences the performance technique of professionals because most performers are not similarly exposed to music history. On the other hand, historians are trained through their eyes more than through their ears, a fact that has occasionally caused performers and composers to hold the study of music history in disdain. Besides being able to hear music accurately, historians should be able to perform the music in a fashion befitting its artistic merits. All too often the music history class will stumble through a frottola with the professor helping out at the piano, and then retain that image of what it sounds like. Even that may be better than the totally passive record listening that is so much easier for everyone. The ability to do it, to perform with flair and understanding, is an incomparable means of showing the artistic merit of a composition. The ideal music history teacher may or may not be the author of a text, but he should be more of a practical musician than he usually is. By demanding such abilities in hiring faculty, schools will insure that future music history teachers receive such training, and then perhaps there will be a greater influence on performers as well.

Speculation as "theory," as distinct from "history," is often divorced from the ability to accomplish a concrete artistic goal. The era of figured bass practice was a golden age in the sense that theory training led to the ability to improvise a harmonic accompaniment with the by-product of giving insight that enabled a musician to compose. Present-day training presents harmony or counterpoint exercises to the student, usually based on some historical musical style, that neither teaches improvisation nor relates to present modes of composition. It is mainly analytic insight that most present-day theory courses teach, and it might be argued that this should be a by-product of a more concrete ability to do something. Virtuoso theorists in this country are likely to have studied with Nadia Boulanger or Paul Hindemith, both of whom place or placed great emphasis on integrating performance ability and theory.

This integration is often learned thoroughly by the apprentice jazz musician, who must recognize "changes" or chord progressions and respond with an improvisation. The freedom of technique that comes with quick aural response is a great asset. Jazz musicians are often bounded by their style, however, and need to be exposed to other styles and ways of improvisation.

To many students the goal of learning theory is not clear; certainly many performers don't learn it well and are crippled in professional life. For a performer it is essential to be able to perform in tune and to recognize subtle shades of pitch relationship, to be able to transpose readily to related degrees, to be able to improvise with some authority, and to recognize style and structure readily by eye and ear. Another goal that I almost hesitate to mention is that a musician should have great skill at reading notation. Student performers who are only interested in learning how to play the notes have a great deal to learn from theory but get little help from pedagogical systems that separate learning from doing.

The compartmentalization of our teaching system has denied the intellectual vigor to performance that it rightfully deserves. Performers should learn the history of their own techniques just as carefully as they should learn the history of composition. Performance and composition influence one another profoundly, yet we seem to lack the mixture that produced the performer-composer of the past. More performers should be producing idiomatic music for their own instruments through their unique grasp of performance technique allied with an ability to improvise and bring structural order. Training with this ability as its goal will help to illuminate how performance technique has been a part of composition in the past.

More should be expected of our teaching process in order to prepare musicians for the circumstances of the professional world. More can be expected only of better prepared students, more rigorously selected. Present day performers with such excellent abilities are rare, but they are in the best position to earn a living and incidentally to produce the best artistic results. If standards can be raised, every facet of music will benefit; the art will flourish anew.

2437 Last modified on November 13, 2018