Challenging Performance: The Book. 12.3 Self-policing

12 Policing and self-policing

12.3 Self-policing

Looking back over the previous chapters, the incentives for WCM performers to police themselves are many and irresistible. Norms provide the context, and thoroughly characterise the performance environment; they determine even what is musical, and thus generate pervasive anxiety about whether and how one is. The ‘music itself’, the ‘actual music’ are essentially only the norm made mystical.

In training one limits oneself, if one wants to carry on learning with them, to implementing one’s teacher’s advice as exactly as possible. One carefully follows every mark in the (Urtext) score, resisting any residual temptation to place emphasis where it’s not notated. One limits oneself to enacting the composer’s supposed wishes. One limits oneself in all these ways in order to pass exams, to succeed in competitions, to get into conservatoire, to get work. And one forces this on oneself however painful and constricting it may feel, however brutal, even abusive a teacher or other gatekeeper may be. Rebellion is not an option, for it leads only to exclusion. One agonises over everything one brings to a performance, however tiny, lest someone with influence finds it excessive.

Only superlative obedience and competence succeed. And so the normative highest standard is the only target at which one dare aim. Whatever the pain and the sacrifices in time, health, or having a life, that need to ‘out-play [one’s] rivals in fluency, reliability, punctuality, collegiality, health, good looks, and musical affect’ (ch. 2) keeps one’s view focused on the most perfectly presented norm. One’s identity is gradually constructed, and substantially self-constructed, then, as a naturalised practice. One makes oneself the perfect advocate for normativity.

Worshiping the dead composer; performing music as a religious practice requiring self-control, self-abasement, obedience, and self-negation; disappearing as an individual; gradually one becomes remade and revalidated within a Utopian pretence in which all is well, whatever the inward cost.

All the while, the gatekeepers circle, looking for deviance, ready to pounce. The nearest one can get to safety and security comes from using norms to limit the terrifying field of uncertainty created by the underdetermined nature of the score. (‘[A]ll these rules and beliefs could be seen as strategies for limiting the vast range of possibilities for performance interpretation, whose variety I suspect musicians subconsciously recognise and, because of the extent and viciousness of performance policing, are terrified by’ (ch. 6)).

Foucault (1979) … argues that in modern society social control works less through direct show of force and more through self-regulation motivated by the threat of surveillance. Feeling that they are being watched, individuals anticipate the judgement of others and thus modify or censor their own behaviour accordingly. This is particularly evident in musicians’ anticipation of negative feedback. (Hill 2018, 13).[1]

…anxiety about making mistakes becomes yet another mechanism for social enforcement of conformity (109).

When concepts of correct music are strict and the punishment of musical wrongs is pervasive, influential parties probably are invested in enforcing the socially approved aesthetic boundaries of a given idiom (112).

One can see, then, why self-policing plays such a large role in the construction of our WCM Utopia. The State, by providing so many pressures and punishments, gets much of its work done for it, while the poor musician continues to believe that if only they can be more perfectly faithful they will, on the very best of good days, achieve perfect contentment.

Continue to Chapter 13 ‘Lack of agency’

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[1] See also Foucault, Michel. 1982. The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry 8/4, 777-95.


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