In a previous post, I have written about how I understand musical performance as the process of shaping audiences' experiences through time. This description avoids associating a value judgement with performance, but instead focuses on the malleability of personal experience. As a musician, however, I cannot help but feel the desire to not only mould experiences for my audiences, but to create experiences that are engaging and meaningful. Simply providing sensory stimuli is not enough; that stimuli must move something within my listeners.
How, then, can musicians create such performances? I think this process boils down to three necessary elements: commitment to the performance, attention to detail, and empathy for your audience.
Commitment to the performance
Within this context, commitment is akin to determination and focus. This is not simply a matter of attention span, but of dedication. It is the follow-through of each decision in performance, ensuring that they are considered and acted upon with care. In a sense, this continuous commitment is the single-mindedness which allows the performer to immerse themselves in the process of artistic creation.
Attention to detail (the details that matter)
Following on from the first element is both an attention to detail and an understanding of how those details work with each other to create the larger performance. The absence of either may result in a performance which is lacking on some level or another. Upon witnessing many a classical musician and composer obsess over minuscule variations in pitch or rhythm, I have questioned whether – in the grand scheme of things – these alterations have a significant impact on the audience's experience of the piece. Likewise, I have watched performances which may be thematically cohesive but are ineffective because they are sloppy. Striking the right balance between these two extremes is challenging, but will ultimately allow for effective practice and preparation.
Empathy for your audience
The first two elements I have described centre around the performer and the work being created. However, the presentational element of Western performance (recalling Thomas Turino's Music as Social Life) presupposes that there is, or will be, an audience. Thus, it is important that musicians within this context acknowledge and care about their listeners' experiences and perspective. This does not mean that we need to cater to our audiences or become overly populist, but that we recognise that performances are not all about the performer. Each performance given by a musician builds a relationship between them and their listeners, a relationship which is built on mutual trust and empathy. There is an underlying respect for not only the music being created, but also the musicians and listeners who are partaking in the rite of performance.
Merely combining these three elements is not enough, however. Consistently achieving a high level of performance is not a case of simply knowing that these elements should be done, but considering them as moral imperatives. In his description of different modes of learning, John West-Burnham distinguishes between three kinds of motivation: shallow, deep, and profound. The difference between shallow and deep motivation lies in the extrinsic or intrinsic nature of the motivational source. Profound motivation, however, implies a moral obligation to doing something. Applying this distinction to artistic creation, a musician's desire to create a performance which incorporates the elements mentioned above is neither rooted in some external element nor within themselves. Instead, there is some ideological imperative which provides musicians with the deep-seated values which help determine what makes a 'good' (effective/engaging/meaningful/authentic/etc.) performance. My impression is that, for many artists, the decision to put on a 'damn good show' is almost a non-decision. If you are able to connect with your audiences and craft special experiences for them, why do anything else?