I envision myself as a teacher, not a performer. This mindset, consistent throughout 17 years with the violin, shapes the way I experience lessons, workshops, summer festivals, and academic classes. It was not a choice I made as I was handed my sixteenth size violin, nor was it the result of conditional parenting. When I think about violin, I think about the practice room, the lesson plans, the artful craftsmanship of the instrument, the history of our repertoire, the breadth of style and genre, and the legacy of those who have toiled to master its nuances. Seldom do I consider delivering a glorious performance, standing on a stage, looking at an audience, facing an audition panel, or executing music perfectly in order to garner recognition. I envision myself as a teacher, not a performer — but that has little to do with whether I should perform. As a musician I must perform. Performance defines our area of study, provides us with transferrable skills, and deserves to be described in a context beyond the concert hall.
Music exists as a shared phenomenon. Just as sports are played together, bread is broken together, and stories recounted together, music is experienced together. Our profession, like many others, exists as an avenue for communication. John Trimble in Writing with Style, points out that the novice writer’s natural tendency is to think primarily of herself. Novice writers misunderstand that “the writer, for all practical purposes, does not exist without the assent of his readers, who have the power to shut him off at whim.” Similarly, novice musicians might believe the music they play is designed for them to master, and not to be ultimately communicated with a listener. These novice musicians might find themselves in a practice room repeating tasks over and over again, forgetting that eventually another human being will try to make sense of what they are doing. Listeners give music meaning, and the awareness of listeners gives musicians the means to work toward a clear, communicable message. Performances are the opportunity to communicate, and also a tool used to refine, even demand, something worth communicating.
Furthermore, an ability to present a refined, communicable message with confidence is transferrable to many other arenas of our lives. Performing is not easy. As discussed in From the Stage to the Studio, overcoming the foreign physical and mental manifestations of anxiety, maintaining focus, and recovering from mistakes in real time requires practice. If a teacher has candid discussions with students about what performance feels like, cultivates performance rituals that exude confident stage presence, and sets up ample opportunities to perform her students will be well prepared to handle the potentially crippling challenges of performing. The process of preparing to perform Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for an audience is the same as preparing to raise one’s hand to offer an answer in class, present a presentation to the school board, speak out against bullying at the playground, and shoot a game winning free throw. A triumphant performance in any discipline can start with the preparation for triumphant musical performances.
Perhaps the reason that students, parents, and teachers shy away from performance is the notion that a concert might not be triumphant. The fear that audience members judge performers as incapable communicators is not unfounded, but limiting our idea of performance to a person on stage jumping through impossible hoops to satisfy an audience is dangerous. Overcoming anxiety, focus, and mistakes can occur in trials far beyond concert halls and cumberbunds. Leading a group class, playing fiddle at a bar, sharing a favorite piece with a new friend, and visiting an elementary school to discuss and demonstrate violin playing are all forms of performance. My favorite performance to date is my string quartet’s presentation of Haydn’s “Quinten” quartet at the Trinity Center in downtown Austin. For a group of men and women experiencing homelessness we provided an opportunity to hear something fresh, new and invigorating. The enthusiasm we expressed for the music was superseded by the energy the audience exuded, which made for an electrifying performance. Not every note was in tune, not every entrance was clean, and our dynamics weren’t executed as planned, but performer and audience melded together in the joyous sharing of music. By moving beyond the conceptualization of performance necessitating a stage, an audience in red seats, uncomfortable silences, and belabored clapping, musicians realize the true joy in music making.
Even though I consider myself a teacher and not a performer, I understand the value of performance. Music does not exist in a vacuum and necessitates communication for meaning. The very act of preparing music to be communicated is a process students will use to confidently present themselves in many spheres. And finally, by seeking out untraditional performance opportunities musicians can transcend the fear that often discourages performance in the first place. By sharing our music publicly, musicians acknowledge the value, the power, and the joy of making music.