Performance as an Avenue to Educational Realities in Music

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Performance as Humanistic Study

The discussion of this controversial subject was sparked by regulations found in the Constitution and By-Laws of Phi Beta Kappa:

  1. Grades earned in applied or professional work shall not be counted in computing the cumulative average for purposes of eligibility. Applied and professional work shall be understood to include all training intended to develop skill or vocational techniques in such fields as business administration, education, engineering, home economics, journalism, library science, military and air science, physical education, radio, secretarial science, and applied art, dramatic art, and music.
  2. Weight shall be given to the breadth of the course programs of all students under consideration. The department major should normally consist of not more than 30 credit hours beyond the introductory course. In no case should the student's required work within a single department, or in closely related departments exceed 42 credit hours.

In this article, John Kirkpatrick provides a philosophic basis for performance in humanistic study. Also in this discussion, Luise Vosgerchian describes the Basic Piano Program at Harvard where performance is required without credit toward the degree, and William Newman and Putnam Aldrich, both scholars and performers, enter a plea for credit for "applied music." All four articles appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 4. Letters arguing the matter pro or con will be welcomed for future issues of SYMPOSIUM.


When I was asked to talk about the educational value of performance, I had misgivings,—because the true reasons why musical performance can be so educational are things you can't very well talk about. Before you know it, you're dealing in what are called "imponderables." You get drawn toward the psychic, and if you don't watch out, you get mired in it. So you try to jump beyond the psychic, but then, if you're lucky, you're beyond words too. But it's worth trying.

* * *

Music is human, and is like, and behaves like, a human being. In the heyday of materialism, most people probably thought of a man primarily as a body, the mind and feelings and impulses being by-products of neural and glandular action, the soul an antique superstition. But now that materialism has reduced itself to absurdity in materialistic totalitarianism, more and more people would think of a man the other way around:—that a man is a soul, and has a body. However, we have been concerned primarily with the physical for so many generations that we are, so to speak, a race devoid of intuition, or what is now called ESP (extra-sensory perception). So most of us derive all our information about a man's soul from the data his body provides. We've gotten to be pretty good at it, and the old saying, "The eyes are the windows of the soul," shows that most people know where to look. Our approach to music has been by the same route. If we want to find out what makes a piece tick, we analyse:—melody,—rhythm,—harmony,—structure,—and their interaction gives us an idea of the character of the impulse that motivated them. The educational value of this analytical study is, of course, no special province of performance. But performance makes all the data come alive. In this way, it is just as essential to the study of music as laboratory work is to a course in chemistry. And it often provides helpful deadlines.

Let us look at this "body" that music has:—You all know how the melodic analysis of a piece is basically a study of the growth of an idea. In study or listening, one's perceptions need be no more than intellectual concepts. But performance involves an act of communication. At its best it retraces the act of composition itself. In this case, there must be a deep self-identifying of the performer with the idea, and the melodic continuity must become an eloquent discourse. Only under these conditions is the true nature of the idea revealed. Analytical critics think they have found it, because the words they use are so beguiling. But performers know better, only they can't explain because words won't say it. You all know how the rhythmic analysis of a piece is basically a study of the character of an idea as revealed in its movement. And I don't mean metrical analysis. Metre is merely a system of notation in terms of periodic expectancies. But rhythm often reveals its character by acting against the expectancies it sets up, rather than in conformity to them. And that isn't just syncopations and offbeat accents. It's rather that rhythm is alive and unpredictable. It spirals rather than turns back on itself. It thumbs its nose at our mathematical assumption that one can equal one, just as the Parthenon thumbs its nose at the straight line. Only in the stress of communication do these subtleties find their true proportions. And it doesn't matter if the performer finds, or doesn't find, what the proportions are, as long as they find themselves, because each time they will be different. What does matter is that one must grow into the habit of making rhythmic freedom make sense, and into the faith that it always can.

You all know the harmonic analysis of a piece is basically a study of logic,—but a logic of stresses and resolutions, stabilities and question marks, that all operate in relation to a natural system of euphony. And even if the sound of a piece avoids euphony, it still recognizes it by the circuitous detours of avoidance. So the study of harmony is also the study of an inherited ideal of beauty. Beauty is, of course, a very suspect idea nowadays. A typical 20th-century definition says it is a "quality of functional adjustment." What most of our ancestors regarded as beautiful, would be dismissed by many of us now as being merely pretty. And this view points to one of the inherent temptations in euphonious harmony—the sensuous impulse to let it sound unnecessarily sweet. But this happens only when the melodic interest has gone to sleep in the bath of pure sound. Because, when the voices of a texture are each singing what they have to sing, as freely as their harmonious coöperation permits, they all sound different, and the momentary chord is not just what you see on paper in black and white. Only the organ can make a chord so antiseptic. But any ensemble group, or ten singing fingers on a piano, will always make the same chord sound different in different contexts. This mobile subtlety of coloring can be known only by experience. But it is part and parcel of the old ideal of beauty, just as much in Beethoven and Chopin as in Josquin and Victoria.

You all know how the structural analysis of a piece is basically a study of unity within diversity, diversity within unity,—but all in action, with balances and counterbalances and significantly proportioned emphases. Normally it reveals the growth of a whole set of ideas from a common central source. These may shape up into one of the traditional forms, or they may not,—but in great music the strength of cohesion is just as tight and organic as in a human body. The integration, in performance, of any first-rate piece is one of the most profoundly educational challenges that the arts have to offer. Here the insights gained in practice, analysis, and performance must complement each other. Only in performance can one experience the feel of how everything that happens influences everything else that happens. But while it is happening, all one's perceptions are active and immediate. Afterwards a detached, reflective study can put these findings in a perspective which in turn opens the vision to deeper findings the next time.

And, all this while, the piece is making an embodiment for itself in one's own neural system, so that, literally, it grows in us as we grow in it. To grow into great music in this way is a high privilege, and the performance of it unites all our faculties in a present moment at the service of a concept far above our habitual thoughts. We reverently trace the outlines of greatness, and they help shape our lives.

There is also the discipline of strengthening one's control by a kind of athletic training. Then the problem is to keep the musical image in the mind firm and fresh, because it will get stale and stiff if too much of the work is on the music and not enough on the abstract routines or on details. Few of us really enjoy scales and arpeggi, but we must bring them as an offering to the music, so that we won't be using the music for what it's not for.

Musical performance can also be a whole training in courtesy. If the texture be tune and accompaniment, the accompaniment must serve humbly, sounding its own notes but thinking the tune. On the other hand, the tune must be considerate and keep its freedoms within the bounds of what can be fittingly served by that particular accompaniment. When the voices are more equal in importance, the courtesy is both more subtle and more varied. In a fugue, for instance, the subject must dominate but it must never browbeat either counter-subjects or episodes. This is just as true of keyboard playing as of conducting or playing a part. The purpose of the keyboard instruments was to permit one player to give the effect of a group, but in order to do so, the voices must maintain just as sensitive a mutual courtesy as if each one were being individually bowed or blown. In tempo rubato, the extra time is usually needed for what the main notes have to say, and is stolen from the less important ones, especially when groups of shorter notes form connectives. But here, too, there must be a perfect courtesy among them:—self-assertive short notes keep the rhythm stiff, self-assertive main notes make it exaggerated and affected-sounding. There is no aspect of performance in which this principle of courteous coöperation is not absolutely essential. It is one of the most deeply moral things about the whole art of music.

Now in all these thoughts, so far, we have been considering music, and its potential for education, by an approach to it through its body,—its body being the audible sound, just as the human body is the tangible flesh and blood. But we don't have to know a man long before we realize that his body isn't really him. We get to know instead an elaborate paradox of desires, impulses, and convictions that we can't see, but which make something like a perfectly recognizable shape. This is often called the personality. We get to know this shape very well. He may get to know it only dimly, or he may know it all too well. But there are moments that inspire a man to transcend this shape of capacities and limitations. We may then be confronted with a kind of hidden, compelling power, so sure and serene we can't believe it's him,—or a sudden bursting of the heart into boundless compassion, as if all the best in him were consolidated or freed by some mysterious integrating principle. This higher self is often called the soul, and the integrating principle the spirit. In our lives, these transcendent moments are so rare, or else never happen at all, that it seems incredible that the same spirit animates both the soul and the personality, both the divine potential and the plodding, stumbling life. Yet it is only by virtue of the spirit that we exist at all. Even in the most regrettable actions, it is the spirit that gives the force to be perverted. And when we come to sympathize with each other's weaknesses, we dimly sense that there is something that is the same in all of us, that binds us all together. Emerson called it: "that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other."

This is exactly the way music is and the way music behaves. Composers are just as different as personalities, pieces are just as different as thoughts. But all are animated by one spirit, no matter how vast the distance between the greatest fulfillment and the weakest perversion. And just as certain moments in life are inspired, so that the personality is more like the soul, we have all sensed that music can often transcend the composer as an individual. In fact, we take this for granted, and require of music that it be what we call "inspired." In the music of the past, we don't bother with anything else, unless we need a new subject for a thesis. We never play Salieri. Why should we? We play Mozart, and our hearts glow and our minds open. In the music of the present, it is also this witness of the indwelling of the spirit in ordinary folks which we consciously or unconsciously seek and prize. This has nothing to do with any distinction between religious music and secular music. It sings more clearly in Schumann than in César Franck. It has still less to do with mastery. It is stronger in some folksongs than in Palestrina's motets. It is the glory of the melody, the lilt of the rhythm, the wonder of the harmony, the embrace of the structure. This is not to belittle the composer's own achievement. Almost always he had consciously put into the piece more than any one performer will find out. But practically all the composers I've known will cheerfully admit that there's still more that they hadn't known about. Or it may be the kind of inspiration that Beethoven called a "raptus," or what Handel meant when he said, "I did think I did see all heaven before me."

This is why music can speak so directly from heart to heart. This is why, when the piece grows in as we grow in it, the bond of identity is like a great spark, making our whole being incandescent, and exploding our capacities for emotion and understanding to a new height and breadth.

This experience can be deeply educational in another unexpected way, because there is inherent in it a tremendous temptation to pride. The performer can all too easily take things for granted, mistaking inspiration for his own towering genius, and the depth of another's vision for his own rare insight, especially if his childhood and adolescence have been on the pedestal of family adulation. It is hard to help a youngster with this problem. He can recognize it more readily in anybody else than in himself. But I am sure that, if a teacher bears in mind that all the good ideas come ultimately from an in-spiriting, which may or may not be conveniently at hand, and that the constant duty is to consolidate the inspired horizon by hard work,—then somehow the right thing to say will be found at the right moment. One can't say much. And one can perhaps accomplish more by establishing a climate of awareness than by direct advice. But if one can accomplish anything in the direction of humility or self-knowledge, it could help in the youngster's whole life.

Another unexpected result of this indwelling of the spirit in music is that many of our fashionable distinctions, as between good or bad music,—distinguished or cheap,—strong or maudlin,—lose much of their importance in the face of another kind of distinction, which I would like to characterize by the terms, real or imitation. We all know what imitation things are: nylon instead of silk,—celluloid white keys instead of ivory,—plastic black keys instead of ebony,—if we read the ingredients of what we drink, the tiny print may end with "artificial flavor added." We are surrounded with the imitation, with the makeshift, with things that are made to wear out quickly in order to have to be replaced. We are bombarded with imitation music almost any moment we turn on the radio. What is the difference? I can tell you that, for my ear, a certain well known sacred solo is imitation music, and "The St. Louis Blues" is completely real. You may have equally strong convictions about other pieces. We may disagree. How can we talk about them? What use would words be?—except to offer what logical minds like to call "subjective reactions." I suppose one might say something like this:—that in real music there is some kind of a trying to do one's best, some kind of a putting one's whole being, consciously or unconsciously, at the service of an idea or an impulse,—and that this is enough like prayer to call forth as much coöperation of soul and spirit as the situation permits. It is real because it is meant. Most commercial music-making involves a definite effort not to do one's best. One may be told that the public mind is twelve years old; nothing aimed higher will be accepted. This is true also in performance. Big name artists are often not allowed to play the program they want to. The direct statement from heart to heart is discouraged in favor of the surface-personality-manner, which is easier to glamourize and sell. Imitation music is at its best in the exercise—either in harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, or in performance. These assignments in writing or in technical facility make no pretense to strong conviction or inspired communication. Yet, when they are honest attempts to do one's best by the problem at hand, they have a perfectly valid reality. Even some of Czerny has a freshness that is fading from Wagner. No matter how humble or tawdry the music may be, any kind of devoted trying or giving, or any kind of love in the heart seems to invite the soul and spirit, so that what the music sings has in it something of what the spirit breathed into the life or the idea or the impulse. This is the mystery about "Don Giovanni,"—how that libretto, in which da Ponte gloats in sin and laughs at purity, could become, in Mozart's music, an exalted hymn to the divine force in life itself. Any real music has this kind of solid core, in contrast to which imitation music may be either an empty contraption, or a bloated self-flattery-machine, or a guilty falsification. How do we tell? Only inwardly. But getting to be able to tell is a whole education in a firmer reality within oneself. One time a girl wanted so badly to learn the "Warsaw Concerto." "All right, but only if you'll bring to it the same care you'd bring to a Mozart sonata." She stayed with it three weeks, and couldn't stand it any longer. She had come out the other side into a void, and there was nothing there. After that she appreciated Mozart. One time a boy wanted so badly to learn the Sibelius Romance in D flat, which I had looked down my nose at, thinking it was mostly plaster. It bloomed with care, completely real, and was a whole education in how a piano can sing. There was something there that you could play, as we say, with spirit.

I am convinced that the true educational reality in music is the constant listening for and searching for what the inner spirit in the music sings to the inner spirit in us and in others,—and the constant growth in singing that, and giving that, so that we demand that of music, and are satisfied with nothing less. That is the true motivation behind all the educational values in all that has to do with the outer body of music, its audible sound,—behind all the discipline and all the art,—and behind all the marvelous advantages of actual performance. We can talk about the audible things all we want to. We can't talk much about the spirit. But if we keep the right kind of awareness, the right words will come at the right time.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 14/11/2018

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