Various Art Forms:

Performance vs. Composition – January 13, 2019

Hands at piano keyboard

I have taken lessons in playing the keyboard for about three years now.1 I started in order to fill a huge gap in my music education. While I love music and have been listening to classical as well as contemporary music my whole life, it was a one-sided affair. I loved music as a listener, an observer on the outside, but not as a practitioner on the inside. And for all that interest, there was still much I could not explain. For example, when a work was titled So-and-So’s Symphony in D-major or in E-minor, what did those letters mean? And what was the difference between “major” and “minor”? I knew it had something to do with the key signature, but I could not tell, just from listening, what that difference might be. And, anyway, I really was not sure what the keys meant or how they worked.

Although I took trombone lessons starting in fourth grade and actually played first chair in the junior high school band,2 my knowledge of music theory was rudimentary at best. I could play the notes as written on the page, provided we stayed in the bass clef, and I had been told the convention—and tried to follow it in practice—of sharping or flatting each of the notes that had a sharp or flat written on that line at the beginning of the piece. I knew enough to figure out that if, say, F was marked as sharp on the second line of the staff, then all the Fs, and not just the ones on that particular line, were also sharp. It was like a code for how to play the Fs in the piece. But beyond that, I didn’t know why the code existed.

And since the trombone, like all brass instruments and most of the woodwinds, plays just one note at a time—meaning it can’t play chords by itself,3 in the way a piano or guitar can—the trombone wasn’t going to teach me anything about harmony and why certain notes sounded better together than others. I knew from listening to music that when some chords are played in sequence they have a stunning, almost heartbreaking, emotional quality. But why?

So, to resolve all these questions, and rather than taking a dry course in music theory, I decided to study an instrument that was natural to harmony and the comparative treatment of sounds. After three years on a keyboard, I am beginning to understand the different keys, the circle of fifths, and harmony. But all this is only an introduction to my main topic.

What I also learned is that I am a lousy musician. Playing an instrument is directed not so much at inquiry as at performance. You practice scales, chord progressions, and fingering not for their own sake but to limber up both the fingers and the mind for playing a song, melody and harmony together, in tempo, for an audience. If you accompany a singer or join a band, you also have to learn which of the notes on the page—the melody, the harmony, or the bass line as timekeeper—fall to your role. A piano player does not play the melody over a singer. In a group, the keyboard player does not take the timekeeping function away from the actual bass player, if present. But still, you are practicing a particular song and your role in it with a view to performing for an audience.

This all requires what my teacher calls “pounding” on the individual piece and making it your “swan song.” You go over and over the notes in order until you can play all of them correctly, in time, without stumbles or hesitations. Along the way, you might also learn to play with expression and feeling, and then ultimately you might also adapt your own interpretation of what sounds and feels right. But first, you are tasked with becoming a meat robot that plays the whole piece through, in time and without error.

This, I found, was hard for me. For one thing, signal repetition without significant variation is boring. My inner sense is: if I managed to do it right—or at least ninety percent right—that one time, I should not have to do it again. Or again and again. For another thing, keeping time is difficult. Sure, I understand tempo and rhythm. But every so often my brain does it little reset twitch—think of it as a “brain fart”—and I lose my place. I can tap my fingers along to someone else’s music and hold the beat. But holding the beat by myself, even with the aid of a metronome, is difficult. Sooner or later—usually twenty to forty beats from the beginning—my brain does its little reset and my fingering falls apart.

Yes, I have practiced pieces until I can play them well enough, beginning to end, with a minimum of stumbles. But that effort goes against my grain.

This is not unusual or inexplicable. In everything else I do—mostly in writing articles and stories, but in other arts as well—I am not asked to function as a meat robot. Perfect replication of a prescribed sequence is not what I have been about. Just once, and only briefly, I worked as an administrative assistant, where a typing speed of so many words per minute, and accurate replication of someone else’s words, whether spoken or written, counted for anything. Truth to tell, I am a lousy typist. Oh, I can use all eight fingers and my right thumb on the keyboard, and ninety-five percent of the time I hit the right keys in order. But I make lots of typing mistakes. That was embarrassing when I worked with a typewriter, because then I would have to cover the errors with whiteout, or backspace with the correction ribbon on my IBM Selectric, and retype the wrong word and the following half a line. Now, with a computer screen and word processor, I fix typos and misspellings automatically, on the fly, as I write. Accuracy is not a big deal unless the error goes uncaught.

The difference is that my mind, my reflexes, and my previous practice have all been aligned with composition rather than performance. In composition, especially in my writing, I seek to have the first draft be “mostly right.” The goal is ninety-five percent. Get the story down in one long rush, just making corrections on the fly as I catch them, and move on. Later I will read through and correct (on the word processor) or retype (if I were doing a formal, second draft on a typewriter) not only any spelling and grammatical errors and misplaced punctuation, but also garbled or awkward sentences, checkable errors of fact, unfavorable elements of plot and foreshadowing, and otherwise just things that might be made better. This will improve the story by another ninety-five percent. And the next read-through and correction will improve it by a further ninety-five percent. Sooner or later, with the original forging of the first draft, then the hammer blows of a first edit, then subsequent taps, and finally the polishing strokes of succeeding read-throughs, I can arrive at a fixed structure and presentation that I am ready to have live as the finished story.4

Composition like this can reach a state of perfection, but not in real time. That’s okay, though, because your reader can’t tell which sentence was produced in the white heat of a first draft and survived intact in every read-through, and which sentences had to be painfully hammered and polished into their present state of elegance and meaning.

Performance has to put in all that hammering, too, entered into during the same kind of not-real time. But the goal is not a fixed string of words that sit comfortably inside a word processor or on a typewritten page. Instead, the goal is to train your eyes, nerves, muscles, and fingertips to reproduce that state of perfection one time, in a recital hall or on stage, before an audience. And then do it again each time thereafter for a gig or on a concert tour.

I am constitutionally and spiritually able to commit the hammer time for a work that I can then publish for posterity and go on to something else. I am less able to commit to an ephemeral event, a single performance or even a whole string of them. And when I know that I will never perform the music on stage anyway, all that effort seems—in my father’s favorite phrase, born of the Great Depression—“too much like work.”

1. I first thought of taking music lessons at my age because of a story I had heard at the biotech company, about a reporter interviewing a woman on her one-hundredth birthday. The reporter asked the old woman if she had any regrets, hoping to hear about missed chances and lost loves. The woman replied that she wished she had started taking violin lessons when she was sixty, because by now she would have been playing for forty years. This is a reminder that we are all living longer these days, and retirement is not a time for shutting down and wrapping up but for trying new things and making ourselves a new story.

2. Mostly because I was taller than the other trombone players, and on that side of the band the first chairs sat on the inside end, toward the back of the stage. Since we also played for parent appreciation, this gave some visibility to all the other chairs in the trombone section. If I had been where I belonged—third chair, at least—all the other trombonists would have been hidden from sight.

3. If a composer wants the trombones to play a chord, he assigns a different note to each chair in the section. But if you’re sitting in one of those chairs, and you don’t understand music to begin with, you know that the player next to you is sounding a different note, but you don’t know why.

4. But if that first draft—the “forge work”—is significantly off track, I can’t correct and polish it into shape. If I am not ready to write, if the story is not shaping comfortably in my mind, then I don’t bother to sit down to write at all. This is not “writer’s block” or some kind of laziness. I know it is a waste of my time to write something that is simply wrong, just for the sake of doing some writing.
       Think of this first draft as the beginning of a road trip: if you are going to drive from San Francisco to Portland, say, you can make the choice of following Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and north through Marin County and the Coastal Range, or you can take Interstate 80 over the Bay Bridge and Carquinez Strait to join Interstate 5 and go up the Central Valley. Either route will get you to Portland, but with different scenery. If, however, you find yourself going south through San Jose and the Salinas Valley, you need to stop right now and turn around because no amount of course correction can get you to Portland. A wrong turn in conceiving and executing a plot or the thread of an article can be like that trip through San Jose.