Printer-friendly version

It's in the energy, baby.

April 28, 2012 at 7:21 AM

Just finished a concert series. It's tough; the commute in the evenings, the unwanted repertoire (sorry, Schumann's just not up my alley); 2nd violin's in Europe and he didn't bring his instrument so there's no doubt he's rusty, I need a new bow, the viola definitely needs a new instrument...

It makes me wonder. We spend so much more time and energy (and money) honing our skills, worrying over the phrases, and then Linkin Park gets far more people in than any classical concert. You don't see the O2 arena filled with classical goers. But Linkin Park? Lady Gaga? You bet.

Classical music is getting old. I admit that. People listen far more to Michael Jackson than Tchaikovsky. And it makes me wonder why. Classical music requires so much more discipline, so much more skill; you do get an oddity like Al diMeola and John Bonham sometimes but I won't say Marc Bolan is a super guitarist. So what's the difference? Is it because classical music is too cerebral? But what on earth is cerebral music anyway? And why is it that people who listen to all sorts of music tend to perform better?

Sometimes, you just have to switch the gears and listen to something else for it to dawn on you. So that was what I did. After coming out of a Schumann quartet performance which was not the best that I've given, I tapped my phone on, and for some reason Skrillex was blasting from my headphones. Imagine that; a young woman in concert attire (read: evening dress), a violin on her shoulder, heels in hands, listening to Skrillex so loudly it was audible from other people. People were giving me weird looks.

The difference between a classical concert and a rock concert isn't the volume. It's not the skill. It's the energy. That scream of emotion like a bubbling lava that you just control any more. You're no longer sure if you're doing it for yourself or for others. You feel like you're doing emotional regurgitation. All the frustration, anger, sadness, happiness gets mixed up, blended together... and because you can't slam the door hard enough, because you cry and cry and still your bitterness won't go away, you channel it all into music. At this point, you don't care if you hit that high G perfectly. There's a story you want to tell, a message you want to shout out. So that's what you do.

I've noticed that the performances in which I have done so, I got standing ovations from the audience. I played Sibelius a few years ago with an amateur orchestra (a very good one, but still an amateur) a month after forgetting my keys and getting stranded in knee-deep snow for three hours. The silence that surrounded me as if I was a tiny, small being amidst the vast silence - terrifying, oppressive, swallowing me up - was quite frankly a harrowing experience. I wanted to scream to break the silence, but it was too cold for me to open my mouth. All I could do was stand in the snow, lost. I felt as if I was going to die.

The memory was fresh when I played it, all the fear, the oppression... the sense that no one will hear you, and the snow will bury you, was burned fresh in my mind. I needed to let it out, so that I won't have to live with the experience just by myself.

The audience loved it. Quite a lot of ovations were from teenagers (why were they there? I have no idea), people in their twenties who looked as if the last time they listened to classical music was during music class in junior high (again, why were they there? Mystery of the ages). But they reacted just the same as if I was Aerosmith.

I think, in the end, that's what separates a musician from someone who just plays an instrument. Our cellist (who quit our quartet, moving onto organ) seems that he has no stories to tell; his sound shows it. There is no scream, no plea, no loving sighs. The violist, on the other hand (true blue rock boy, plays guitar and sings in a rock band in spare time) is a magnificent violist; his technique may not be perfect (it's good, but he does miss at times) but he definitely has a story to tell. His music is full of energy, full of voices.

But I figured you need harrowing experiences to be able to tell a story. It looks like the cellist lived happily through his life, two loving parents, did cello and was fairly good at it, got fairly good marks on exams, e.t.c. I, on the other hand, was basically trained Russian style; as soon as I said "I want to play the violi..." out came the whip. I remember crying every day, struggling because I could not play well, because I'd make mistakes. Later on as a teenager I was told I had Asperger's Syndrome after being isolated and ridiculed in school. I hated everyone. And unlike others, I couldn't tell anyone anything. The violist was bullied, taunted throughout his high school career. He didn't have any friends. And he was very frustrated.

I'm not saying that if you have a bad childhood, you'll become a good musician; but all the pent up emotions, frustrations, anger does help. But everyone gets bullied at some point in his/her life; it's the sensitivity that makes the difference. The cellist clearly shrugged it off. The violist could not.

So I've decided on something. When I go on stage, I will no longer aim for perfection; anyone can play anything perfectly, given enough time and training. I am not a monkey and a computer can be programmed to play Paganini perfectly with the right audio software. So what I will do is I will try to tell my story. The breeze I felt two days ago, having a fight with my best friend and feeling guilt sit in my stomach like a cat. I will tell that with my instrument. Because, at the end of the day, I might have picked up an electric guitar if I didn't have my violin. But I probably would still have told the same story.

From elise stanley
Posted on April 28, 2012 at 9:41 PM
Momoko - I hear you... and what you write resonates through my recent topics on performance anxiety and first video. Its our job to perform first and perfect second - or rather perform first and only. You aim for perfection in the studio and you aim for your heart on the stage. I'm going to take you up on this as a personal pledge.... And yes, I have a lot to tell.

If you ever come north to perform, do let me know...

From Francis DeAsis
Posted on April 29, 2012 at 2:15 AM
Very well written, with many points that I relate to and agree with. Reminds me of the following Hans Christian Anderson quote: "Where words fail, music speaks."
From Frank-Michael Fischer
Posted on April 29, 2012 at 5:24 AM
It's certainly an alternative to tell your "story" instead of the composer's one. And it's the better alternative especially when

1. the composer did not tell a story, really, or
2. you do not get the "story".

Then the English term "reading" for an actual performance becomes obsolete.

It's a bit like reusing the bronze of this Discus Thrower: and turning it into a bronze version of The Kiss: Just because you feel like "the kiss" right now. And this under the headline "Exhibition of the Discus Thrower".


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 29, 2012 at 12:04 PM
I agree very much about why classical concerts have a limited audience. I don't think most audiences (and I'd include myself here) care nearly as much about technical perfection as about energy and connection with the performer when they go to a concert. I guess the ideal is that you are technically perfect and then you can stop worrying about technique and start thinking about making music. I even remember being told, as a student, to get the notes in tune first and then worry about shaping a phrase.

But, certain people excepted, most of us never get there. I've had to acknowledge that if I wait until I'm technically good enough to be musical, I'll never be able to be musical. So I might as well start now. And I think teaching has gone that way too these days, asking students to integrate all the aspects of music-making from the very start.

From Michelle Jones
Posted on April 29, 2012 at 2:51 PM
Excellent post, and very well written. Bravo!
From Terry Hsu
Posted on April 30, 2012 at 5:04 AM
I totally agree Momoko. There's altogether too much focus on perfection in classical music and it's destroying musicality.

But I've heard of stories where they have section violin auditions, and they're down to three fiddles, all great. They basically ask them to keep playing, and the last one to make a mistake gets the job. With that kind of approach, it's no wonder that everyone is focused on perfection.

From Frazan kotwal
Posted on April 30, 2012 at 1:56 PM
amazing!! absolutely amazing!

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

The Wallis Presents

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine