Reb Deb posted a challenge to me in the comments to my post about “kaddishim promised and phoned in“:
Erin, when you were in college you informed me quite firmly that you did not emote while you were playing; you worked out the emotions ahead of time and then portrayed them, as planned and practiced. I was dubious that it had to be that way — after all, I was already involved in presenting/performing liturgy, and I felt myself capable of experiencing and expressing emotions but not in a way that destroyed performance control — but accepted this as being either your way or the classical music way.
Debora, forgive me, but I knew you would raise this. It’s not that I am any steps ahead, though; far from it, it’s that I practically baited you in writing my description of playing the piece. Which was unwise, really, because I’m not sure how to answer your charges! I suppose that unconsciously I’ve known that it’s time to make another attempt at untangling this conundrum, and knowing that you have the historical perspective on my approach made you a useful interlocutor.
I ain’t budging
I stand by my college-era claim that performing while emoting does not work out well. This summer I got into a lengthy conversation about that with my classical violinist friend Carla, who adamantly agreed. Many listeners have emotional reactions to music, or at least they describe their reactions in emotional terms (I think this is a distinction with a difference, to reverse candidate Obama’s awful construction), and to some extent we do plan how our performance will elicit which emotional response—but it’s just that: a plan. We’ll contemplate the piece in our off hours, while running or not sleeping or gardening or whatever, where we’ll consider the emotional content of the piece, if any. Whatever we come up with, we then plan gestures, phrase-shapings, tonal approaches, and so on to evoke those moods or elicit those reactions in the audience. We might go so far as to emote privately in the practice room while experimenting with the technical means of realizing our plans, but it’s more likely that we’ll set about achieving that in a fairly dispassionate fashion.
About that “if any…” To a performer, though, lot of music isn’t that emotional. We tend to view music in musicological terms: Italianate lyricism or Teutonic bombast or Russian pathos, for example. We also know the received way of interpreting the canon, and after years of soaking this stuff in through our pores, most performance parameters, frankly, are only so flexible to us. We’ll tend to protect the customary performance practices whether we can explain them or not. It’s to the point that a conductor wanting to depart from the style heard in the best-known recordings will need to announce overtly their intentions to do so. A favorite conductor of mine, Michael Morgan, once opened an Oakland/East Bay Symphony rehearsal by saying, “This is not going to be your grandfather’s Brahms Symphony!” He went on to list the typical practices that would not be showing up on the concert if he could help it—slow tempi, heavy vibrato, etc.; I wish I could remember the list. We all chuckled and I think most of us were excited about breathing new life into the piece, but sure enough, Michael needed to repeat himself several times during the week that he did not want to mimic Szell/Cleveland or Walter/Columbia and would we please stop trying to sound like the LP from half a century ago.
So, first, emotionality isn’t necessarily all that relevant to the successful execution of our artistry.
Second, whatever emotionality might be relevant to the content of a piece still doesn’t belong on stage. If I’m actively experiencing grief or joy or what have you, my body is going to react to that, and the change in my breathing and heartrate is going to mess with my phrasing. Any quivering of my lips is going to sound like an awful vibrato. Any extra sweating or shaking or weakness in the knees is only going to cause sonic disaster.
About that, Carla and I both felt clear.
Except that I am
And yet I wrote about playing the “as promised” Kaddish in emotional terms. I even went so far as to say “embodying those emotions directly,” and I went on to describe how the emotional content of my thinking led me to make different technical choices as I proceeded. And I was writing the truth.
I had been filled with conflicting emotions since I’d first received Mira’s description of the situation. I shared her emotions, generally, and I had my own sympathetic emotional response as well. I’d spent the entire day going over the conflicts in my mind.
In my mind.
Emotions have always lain somewhere far beneath the surface for me. I primarily experience the world through my thoughts, and I express myself in those terms. For those who speak Myers-Brigg, I am a textbook case of INTJ. My emotional landscape is verbal and mostly intellectual. If you ask me how I feel about something, I will reflexively respond with how I think about it. I don’t see any point denying that I have an emotional response as well, but I am not being deceptive when I describe that in thinking terms—that is truly how I experience my emotions. Now, it’s also true that I don’t always understand my emotions, and the rational face I put on them is sometimes absurd.
To someone like my ENFP wife, this reads as ridiculous posturing and denial. She probably has a more accurate read on my emotions in emotional terms than I do most of the time—of course she does! She processes the world in emotional terms! Even ideas that are purely logical (“do we turn right or left to get to the museum from here?”) will be fraught with emotional content for her (associations with living nearby and who she knew then and how she felt about them, etc.). For me it’s a simple question of east or west, looking at a map, and trying to remember the answer. For her, it’s about the joy of remembering going to the Japanese Tea Garden with my parents on an earlier visit and remembering seeing the museum under construction over yonder and looking forward to going to its opening, etc.
I picked an example that would favor my perspective, of course, but here’s one that favors hers. When we got married, I couldn’t hold myself together. I spent the entire day falling apart. It got to be comical—at one point, my Man of Honor actually pulled a flask of whisky out of his pocket and handed it to me. I took a grateful drag, got myself together, gave it back to him, hugged him, and proceeded to fall apart once more on his shoulder. But my wife the emotive one was a rock! She was smiling and beaming all day long, perfectly composed, never once smearing her makeup, while I got blotchier and blotchier and went through half a box of Kleenex.
Well, I know I’m a sap, but what was up with that?!
It wasn’t until I talked with my brilliant ENFP Myers-Brigg coach about it that I began to understand. As Carol explained it to me, V goes through every day processing everything first through feeling and only later, incidentally, through thinking. For her, the deep emotional content of the day was familar, comfortable territory, so of course she was composed and at ease. But I go through every day processing my life first through thinking and only later, incidentally, if absolutely necessary, through feeling. For me, the deep and undeniably emotional content of the day was unfamiliar and overwhelming, and I had no practice whatsoever at processing all that emotional stuff on my feet.
Give me a political issue and I could have debated the pros and cons with you, but give me the beautiful woman of my dreams saying yes to me and a hundred or so of my closest family and friends all standing around beaming their support at us, and I was a total wreck.
So when I said I was focusing on my emotional response to the situation while I played, I was only sort of telling the truth.
What I was really doing was thinking about the emotions. I was visualizing the situations and how I would feel in those situations. How I imagined Mira would feel. How I did feel about Mira sharing the situation with me.
Visualizing. Thinking. Brainstorming. Debating with myself. Debating with an imaginary Mira.
Not emoting—well, not much, anyway. I was a little shaky inside. My eyes were a bit teary. My breathing caught a few times. I think you can probably hear those things in the recording. But in my head while I was playing, I was doing a lot of thinking.
Something was indeed different from my normal performance practice, though. While I was thinking about all that emotion-rich content, I wasn’t thinking about counting or consciously monitoring my pitch and rhythms. I wasn’t making conscious decisions about tempo or phrasing. I was only thinking about the situation, visualizing the people, wrestling with spoken unspeakables and the thought unthinkables, and letting the music take care of itself—to what effect, I’m not entirely sure.
I remember thinking when I was done that it had been a successful performance, and I remember thinking it breathed well and was effective when I listened to the playback while bouncing the recording to disk, but even then I was not listening as an analytical technician—I was listening as someone who is seeking comfort while wandering lost in a difficult situation, and it seemed to work for me. What I hope I don’t have to hear, someday when I have the nerve to listen again but critically, as a musician, is how my counting went all to hell, how my phrasing was uneven, how my pacing wasn’t patient enough. I hope that my decades of living with this piece and my recent weeks of relearning the piece carried the day, that I have internalized it so deeply that I can now perform it accurately without dwelling on those technical matters.