Studying music performance can teach us many valuable things that are applicable to our daily life. I no longer play the piano and the violin due to injuries, but there are three precious things that I have learned over the years which help me to reflect on my day-to-day communication process.
To Feel Sympathetically
A musician must first be sympathetic in the sense that he or she can feel what ought to be felt — that is, what the composer wants the audience to feel through the music. Only in this way can one proceed to “stir up” or “touch” the listeners. As C.P.E. Bach writes,
A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for the revealing of his own humor will stimulate a like humor in the listener. In languishing, sad passages, the performer must languish and grow sad. Thus will the expression of the piece be more clearly perceived by the audience.
Behind this task, however, lies the need of cultivating a soft heart that is sensitive towards our surroundings (perhaps nature in particular), towards arts, and towards others’ feelings. This kind of cultivation, of course, is not only foundational to any creative work but also in our conversations with others, for we converse out of the desire to care and not consume.
To Listen Attentively
A musician should also train his or her ears to listen. The beloved violinist Itzak Perlman emphasizes the importance of listening:
“One of the most important elements in teaching, conducting, and performing, all three, is listening…the most important thing to do is really listen.”
We must “really” listen since most of the time, what we think we are playing in our head is not always what our playing sounds like “in reality.” You may think you are playing the passage with smoothness and delicacy while others complain about its lack of elegance and sensitivity.
Not listening is also a mistake we make often in our conversations with others. It goes both ways: on one hand, we may not be really hearing what we are saying. We can use all kinds of superfluous words and yet still not make any sense.
On the other hand, we may be quick and even good at talking, but we remain deaf to what others are actually saying. Of course, there are many contributing factors behind: we may not have developed mature listening skills; the speakers may not be the best at expressing themselves.
But one universal problem we are all prone to is to listen with the intention to find faults and criticize. Stephen R. Covey captures this problem well: “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
The legendary pianist Alfred Brendel reminds us, “the word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” Performers or not, we must practice quieting down our hearts and minds to learn the art of listening. Such is a posture of humility that keeps ourselves teachable and opens door for us to improve in our deliverance.
To Execute Responsibly
When I was still a performance student, I was often told by professors that I have a lot of feelings but lack the proper “vehicles” to execute an effective performance. (In fact, a major cause of my injuries today are a result of my improper use of the body in relation to the instrument)
Let’s face the truth: having the ability to feel does not mean having the ability to express properly. Ever felt misunderstood or that others don’t “get you” even though you have “so many feelings” inside?
Communication goes both ways — sometimes others fail to understand us because they have not developed their sympathy or skills of listening. Sometimes, however, it may be just because we have not learned to express ourselves effectively.
This is why we often find it hard to teach things that we are so used to. We can understand an art theory, a theological concept, or a mathematical system so well yet still be unable to explain it to others.
A person who has deep sensibility does not necessarily know how to express — whether in art or in day-to-day behaviours — his or her innermost feelings. To express or execute well means knowing how to use our body, mind, and heart accordingly to transmit our sentiments into a “perceivable” thing — be it a speech, an instrumental performance, or a piece of writing. We must first learn the vocabularies, tones, and tools.
Perhaps this is also why some artists argue “techniques” — often defined as “correct systems” of playing — don’t really exist. The celebrated pianist and pedagogue Maria Joao Pires says,
Technique doesn’t exist, the technique is how to use your body to produce something you want to do and this is every moment changing. So because it’s always changing you can’t consider it a technique. It is an art of using the body, of course you can see dancers or musicians have a technique, but it’s our words to explain it because in the end it’s not a technique, if it’s technique it’s not good anymore, so I think we approach music and we see how we can be the instruments of that.
To feel sympathetically, to listen attentively, and to execute responsibly — these three things do not just apply to music performance. They are all keys to having fruitful, loving communications that seek to care for one another. We may not always excel in these things but learning how to develop them is a joy of maturing as relational beings.