Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is Music a Democracy?

Frequently, while giving master classes, I will ask students to play a passage several different ways and then ask the class to vote on which they preferred. The results are always interesting and enlightening, but then I ask the class this question; ‘Is music a democracy’, and do their vote results necessarily indicate the best musical option? With that question, people are usually reluctant to show an opinion; that’s a good thing, I hope it means they’re thinking about it.

Symphony orchestras, for example, are probably among the last vestiges of a non-democracy we have and possibly could be called a “good dictatorship”! A successful musical performance needs a strong musical personality and strong musical personalities occur far more frequently in the individual than the collective. The conductor of a symphony orchestra holds a very powerful position, a position that almost requires he be a dictator; musical decisions need to be made singularly. Assuming the conductor is a powerful musical personality, and a wise, kind and sensitive person, everything should be okay! … Well, that’s a huge assumption! We all know that not all conductors are powerful musical personalities, kind, wise and sensitive. Still, music needs that individualism to project to a listener. How to deal with conductor incompetence and power abuse is a delicate matter to be addressed by orchestra committees and administrations, however, this article is about the need for individualism in musical performance.

I once played in a brass quintet made up of five men with five very strong and distinct personalities, musical and otherwise, each of who were qualified to make musical decisions and to present memorable performances. Sometimes, during nostalgic moments, when I listen to the old LPs we recorded (now safely stored in my computer), I hear very little of those strong personalities which should have been apparent and extraordinary; quite simply, the powerful musical personalities just weren’t there! Why? Was it that perhaps the personalities were too strong; perhaps it was just easier to compromise the individualism for the sake of peace in rehearsals; or perhaps those five strong personalities were simply incompatible? I may never know an accurate answer.

Since I moved to Europe it has been a pleasure to be invited as a judge for many brass ensembles, especially brass quintet competitions. In listening to hundreds of quintets, three things have become evident:
1. There could be no weak link in the ensemble, all the members had to be great players.
2. They had to project some kind of positivity while performing; this could be called “joy” for want of a better word.
3. And all the truly great groups, the winners, had a leader. It was abundantly clear that the winning groups had a musical leader that, with his or her strong personal musicality, influenced the other players. This became very apparent when the same quintet participated over the years and we, the judges, could hear the influence of that musical leader growing in the other players through time.

There were groups that played perfectly together and projected no musical personality whatsoever. These groups, absolutely amazed by not being advanced to further rounds, were invariably the ones who would approach the judges, demanding an explanation as to why. Trying to explain was not easy.

It’s interesting to vote in a master class situation and see what pleases most people, but just like testing mouthpieces for a group of colleagues, the final decision has to come from the individual.

Have the courage to be an individual, have the courage to be unique, it will serve you well and take you further.

Tokyo, September 6, 2005
Revised Tokyo, July 20, 2012