Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Musician’s Musical Experience

Musicians don’t always have the same listening experience as non-musicians. Unfortunately, the music we love the most and are most connected to (music for our instrument), while it can be very moving to perform, is often ineffective at providing us with a significant musical experience when listening. Sure, we’re impressed by an amazing performance, but the emotional power of this performance might actually touch a non-musician more profoundly.

When we listen to others (or ourselves) play our instrument, it is difficult to avoid listening on a technical level.  We can hear the tone on that middle C#, we know that playing the fast altissimo stuff is hard, we’re waiting to hear “the tough lick” in the piece, etc.  We are saddled with too much baggage to really be engaged in a rich musical experience.  This is not to say that there may not be moments that do touch us, but so much is lost on us due to our familiarity with the instrument.

If we listen to another closely related instrument (i.e. a saxophone player listening to a clarinet), we are probably still too close to the act of performing for the music to have a profound effect on us. There are still issues here.  Is the breath steady?    Is the reed too hard?

When listening to instruments that are very unlike our own (i.e. wind players listening to string instruments) the music has a better chance of reaching us since we are further from the technique of the instrument.  But we do have the professional-musician mindset that may still cloud our listening experience.  Is the tone even?  What about the pitch on that low note?  Man, this is a hard piece!!

In order to actually experience music more in the way non-musicians do, it might be better to listen to music that, as a solo instrumentalist, we cannot perform.  Large ensemble works are great for this.  The repertoire for orchestra, wind ensemble, and chorus provides a wealth of very powerful music that can provide us with significant aesthetic experiences.  Chamber music, electronic music, jazz, bluegrass, and other styles of music are also good options for the musician’s listening list.

Different styles of music can speak to us in unique ways.  One of my most memorable musical experiences took place after an artist conference in North Carolina.  A number of guitar and banjo players (maybe a harmonica player too) got together to jam, to sing, and to share some Appalachian mountain music.  I sat and listened.  The picking and strumming went on for hours. I was transfixed and deeply impressed by how this music--born of tremendous suffering, sorrow, joy and tenderness—was able to touch me on a very personal level.

Food for thought.  I'd be interested in your comments/experiences (click the comment link at the end of this post).