Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Gazumping

Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Gazumping

Article excerpt

Why do people spend their lives doing something which makes them nervous, even to the point of making them sick?

I have watched musicians go on stage so frightened that it has been obvious to everyone present that they could not possibly be about to perform as well as they could. They look pale, they may be physically shaking, they are swallowing hard. What lies ahead of them seems like sheer hell. How can they bear to put themselves through this every time they want to ply their trade?

They remind me of sportsmen. In fact at one level the two ways of life are quite closely linked by gesture and terminology.

When we go on stage people often wish us luck, as if luck will cause our fingers or our larynxes to function just that fraction of a second more fluently than otherwise, and so win us a prize. We are told that a concert has been a great success, that an interpretation has been the best ever; we see people making thumbs-up signs and waving clenched fists in victory, the after-concert scene bathed in euphoria and a sense of physical achievement. This kind of reaction creates an atmosphere of competition which vaunts technique over subtlety, fast over slow, youth over age. It comes from the sporting world, as does the buzz of one artist receiving more publicity than another:

awards for discs, appearances on television, hip magazine spots (much more likely when young and wearing designer clothing). The audience listening to so lauded a musician will surely feel comforted to know that their choice was also the choice of the media.

Everyone involved will feel good about the superiority of the performance they have just been present at, including the player.

But this connection between sportsmen who spend countless hours training their bodies to tolerate very high loads of stress while doing something faster than normal people can -- like running from A to B -- and musicians acquiring the ability to play difficult passages in music which sometimes go fast and sometimes slow, but which need intellectual maturity to understand at all, is clearly spurious. It also spawns the unhealthiest atmosphere imaginable in which to give a concert. Quick tempi in music are an expressive device, requiring technique, but in the hands of a master need not be any more moving than passages so slow that a child could sight-read them. Which sportsmen -- spin bowlers, fast batsmen and golfers apart -- have anything to offer if they do not have muscles and speed? And there is no such thing in sport as not intending to win. …

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