13 Lack of agency


The best definition of agency[1] comes (again) from Juniper Hill: ‘having the ability to make one’s own decisions and having the authority to carry them out’.[2] Readers who’ve come this far will see how pertinent that is. Creative agency, Hill points out (Hill 2012), has to have some element of innovation; and an increased sense of agency transfers across domains. If I’m able to act for myself in one area, I’ll feel more able to do so in another unless there are specific checks in place there preventing me. In WCM, though, there always are.

As we’ve seen, many of these checks are disguised by fostering the illusion that agency is valued.

Because the aim in the music world is to create beauty and achieve the sublime, artistic individuality trumps everything else.[3]

the Western art music performance tradition … places originality and novelty extremely high on musicians’ creative agenda (Alessandri, 2014; Alessandri, Eiholzer, et al., 2014; Alessandri, Williamson, et al., 2015; Alessandri, Williamson, Eiholzer, & Williamon, 2016; Clarke, 2005; Williamon, Thompson, Lisboa, & Wiffen, 2006)[4]

As Lehmann, Sloboda and Woody … have noted, ‘it can become a matter of huge personal significance, even financial survival, that one way of playing a well-known repertoire piece is unique and recognisable as quite different from another way of playing it’.[5]

That this illusion reaches into the scientific literature on performance only emphasises how unquestioned it is. Georgina Born has emphasised the great extent to which musical performance engages individuals in much larger networks,[6] so that one could argue that agency is co- (indeed multiply-)constructed. But that does little to enable the performer to feel a sense of personal agency in everyday practice. What it does is to draw comfort from the extent to which a sense of belonging to a community defined by shared practices can compensate for a lack of individual agency.[7] To know that one’s performance aligns with the expectations and values of the group to which one belongs (or seeks to belong) goes some way to mitigate the frustrations of not being able to be as individual as the ideology claims it is glad for one to be.

To be seen to belong brings social privileges[8]—being allowed to work, being celebrated for contributing normatively but persuasively—privileges which taking agency for oneself would immediately remove. For many this leads to perpetual self-questioning:

musicians did not typically seek to resolve their incompatible identities or to tackle their psychological stress. Behaviour instead tended towards Nic Beech et al.’s [2016] concept of perpetuated self-questioning identity work, in which such tensions form a career-long and arguably fundamental aspect of the musician’s identity.[9]

We’ve seen how WCM training discourages a sense of having the authority to carry out one’s own decisions. This comes over clearly and repeatedly in the testimony of musicians asked, in a questionnaire for this book, to comment on occasions when they were prevented from being creative.

I felt unmotivated and uninspired when approaching the material (and subconsciously other material) again as I felt I had no availability to show personality through my performance. The end effects were me feeling incapable of my own ability, something I still worry about when performing my own realizations of canonical works. (Pianist, M, 18–21)

in my first rehearsal with the choir director … he stopped me and said “you aren’t qualified to sing ornamentation – you didn’t attend the Oberlin Baroque Institute … and you aren’t to sing ANY of these ornaments. No ornaments at all.” (Singer, F, 40–49)

Most of my career I’ve experienced being told that particular composers can be played in only one particular way and there is no room for individuality in performance[,] that this is selfish and egotistical. (Violist, M, 30–39)

During a masterclass … the teacher … stopped me and said in an aggressive, critical, and somewhat bewildered way, “you can’t do that, you have to sing right through, you can’t hover over the note. … Whereabouts are you from, anyway?” (Singer, F, 50–59)

Many [of my] efforts to be musically ‘original’ or creative in accompanying monophonic songs were often reproved. … The process of learning what we know about performance practice was often linked to a certain sort of discouragement. (Medieval fiddler, M, 30–39)

I was never strongly criticised for being original, even when I wanted to change what the composer wrote (eg dynamics) until I started working as a trainee répétiteur and came into contact with teachers who only wanted me to play “how the music is always played” … The effect of the criticism was to replace my urge to find new ways of interpreting with a fear of breaking norms. (Conductor, M, 60+)

“you should get as close as you can to the way of playing of Ferenc Rados, because his playing represents the wishes of the Composer”. (By the way, this teacher criticised the recordings of composers playing their own music.) (Fortepianist, F, 22–29)

I am a female singer and … I have programmed many ‘male’ song cycles in recitals… I have received dozens of complaints after these concerts – over 80% from male members of the audience. (Singer, F, 40–49)

I think most teachers I have had in any instance (lesson or masterclass or coaching) have in the end been about trying to get me to play their ideas, rather than trying to teach me to play my ideas better. (Violinist, F, 30–39)

I had my own feelings about that particular passage but she insisted that I must do the exact musical idea that she heard in her own mind.  This happens a lot in chamber music coachings and masterclasses. ([a different] Violinist, F, 30–39)

[In Prokofiev] I attempted to just show the opening gestures with bow pressure[,] and as the sonata is written in a very clear neo-classical style it seemed appropriate given my other education to vary … vibrato. Instead, my teacher strictly enforced … the normal high speed vibrato typical for Prokofiev. Now – this was an interesting and unique issue – on one hand neo-classical style – on the other the composer was Prokofiev. But somehow it felt my teacher forgot the third part of the equation – my own personal ability to experiment and freely engage with the musical material in whatever way I felt would be most authentic to my sense of expression. (Violinist, M, 30–39)

As Izabela Wagner commented, ‘The young soloist is enclosed in a sort of cell, built by the parents and the teacher’ (Wagner 2015, 72). That lack of agency persists indefinitely. ‘Even decades after finishing their lessons, many soloists seek the advice of their former teachers before important events’ (143).

The difficulty of exercising agency is, in view of the patriarchal nature of WCM, particularly acute for women. As McCormick noted of the press treatment of Olga Kern when she competed in the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition:

her social performance must conform to standards of femininity, but her musical performance must display the desired level of masculinity. (McCormick 2015, 106) … This poses a unique problem for female performers, who must juggle contradictory cultural expectations regarding musical virtuosity and conventional femininity (120-1). … Even in the twenty-first century performers still approach pianism as an object lesson in a particularly masculine form of agency, and it is assumed that the composer’s (male) body is inscribed in his compositions (107). … Kern was still remembered as much for her concert attire as for her aggressive athleticism (108).

How much choice does one have in how one plays under these conditions?

But this is, of course, only one specific instance of something we’ve seen again and again throughout Part 2 of this book. In every space, agency is restricted by policing of one sort or another.

It has become something of a cliché, in the search for musical performance as a model of democratic invention, to look at string quartet rehearsing and playing. Here, it is argued, four musicians have substantial and equal rights to argue for their own visions of how a piece might be realised. Surely here musicians feel a greater sense of agency than in most other situations. Chris Terepin examines this issue in his PhD thesis (forthcoming) and finds that, on the contrary, collective assumptions about what is proper to quartet playing are inflexible, indeed unbreakable if one wants to be a member. That a group of academics of management consultancy have studied quartet practice as a model for the creation of ‘measurable products’ by ‘self-managed teams’ says more than it realises about WCM ideology too.[10]

The universal assumption that composers allow performers a certain degree of freedom emphasises how little anyone expects:

Several composers of the second half of the twentieth century allowed performers to improvise again… (Warren 2014, 91)

It is also important for composers to allow performers some degree of freedom in their interpretation… (ed. Gary McPherson, Musical Prodigies, ch 15, Quinto et al., 369)

I’m sure we’re all grateful.

The danger that’s felt in relation to exercising agency is very clearly reflected in Volioti & Williamon’s 2017 study of the ways in which musicians use recordings when preparing a performance. [11] One of the most common uses was to learn or practise ‘general expression (e.g. emotional character, musical communication, etc.)’ (Table 3, 506, 521), in other words, to ask ‘how is this piece supposed to go?’ Unsurprisingly students use recordings more than their teachers ‘early during practising’ (511).

As a 19-year-old female undergraduate commented…: ‘Another example is listening to a recording whilst learning repertoire from a genre I am unfamiliar with or uncertain how it is meant to be performed.’ (511) [my emphasis]

As a 27-year-old female postgraduate student commented…: ‘Listening to recordings significantly increases my confidence when performing the piece and gives me ideas of what is stylistically appropriate’ (513) [my emphasis]

As a 19-year-old female undergraduate wrote: ‘Now I spend more time researching and looking for a recording I know will help me the most; one which differs from what I’m being taught to see where variation can be achieved.’ (515)

That last is more creative, of course, but see how they rely on the differences documented (and thus authorised) by recordings to see where and how much it’s safe to make choices of one’s own. Even this relatively creative student feels little authority.

Emily Payne’s interviews with performers, which led to her article seeing performance as craft, debated in Chapter 6.16 above, noted: ‘A theme that emerged from my interviews was performers’ disavowal of innovation in their practice.’[12] And yet in other WCM performance environments (specifically in Finland, rather than the UK) we find something rather different: a clearer realisation of where the problems lie and a range of responses, from distress at what cannot be to a determination not to be constrained.

I was not putting my whole personality or whole soul, or heart into it, because I was trying to play perfectly …All the time I was putting this kind of big mute on myself … You’re so afraid of missing something that you miss the music. (Hill 2018, 108)

I try to keep myself open and not have too criticizing an attitude toward myself. That’s hard because that criticizing attitude is something that I learned from a very young age and it’s destructive, it does not help me play well at all. (Piainist Kristiina Junttu quoted in Hill 2017, 226)

I don’t see any point in doing a gig to do something correctly. I don’t feel good afterwards, I feel like a prostitute, that I’m selling something that is not the real thing, that I’m cheating the audience. They believe that we are doing art. (Singer Päivi Järviö quoted in Hill 2017, 228)

Many, though, are fully socialised to accept the status quo. One of Hill’s participants speaks at length about her sense that she can and must divine the emotions a composer intended her to express: ‘I do not think, ever, that I create’ (Hill 2018, 161). While my own questionnaire produced this, from a leading orchestral violist who, asked for an example of an occasion on which they’d been prevented from being creative answered, ‘never’. They added:

Bowings are dictated by the leader of the orchestra and phrasing is dictated by the conductor. Your only freedom is in fingerings which actually allow you to express yourself in a surprisingly wide way.

One takes one’s creative opportunities where they’re to be found.

Pertinent here is Emlyn Stam’s quoting Slavoj Žižek on forced choice:

In the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs, there is always such a paradoxical point of choix forcé—at this point, the community is saying to the subject: you have freedom to choose, but on the condition that you choose the right thing.[13]

Indeed. Of course it’s very possible that performers who happily conform feel a greater sense of agency than performers who don’t. If you accept that you can only change things within a narrow range you feel ownership of that range; if you resent its narrowness you feel stifled by it, perhaps even that it owns you. Mary Hunter, in an exceptionally perceptive reading of The Art of Quartet Playing: The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation with David Blum,[14] notices

that the players gladly claim agency over the minutiae of music-making (minutiae that make all the difference to the effect of a performance) but that this powerful sense of agency is deployed in the service of something — namely some combination of the work and a never-articulated sense of acceptable performance practice — over which they have little control, and which, indeed, imposes powerful obligations on them.[15]

But she also notices a strategy that counteracts this:

This is closely related to the obligation-discourse phenomenon where performers express the duty to bring about an “inherent” musical effect that they themselves have in fact posited [my emphasis], having elided their desire for that effect into a sense of the composer’s own intentions. (“The character is mournful and melancholy, and needs a[n] … ethereal timbre”.) [her emphases]

In other words, they turn their musical taste into an obligation to the dead and thereby give themselves the agency they can’t allow themselves knowingly to take. This is very characteristic of the sorts of beliefs that we examined as delusions in Chapter 6. It shows how far one has to muddy one’s view of what one does in order to make any space at all to contribute anything of oneself in performance. A strange kind of agency, but about as much as can be found under existing conditions.


Continue to Chapter 14 ‘The damage to musicians’ health’

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[1] I do not mean lack of an agent. We might look at that under ‘Managers’ in Chapter 16.

[2] Paper at the conference ‘El Sistema and the Alternatives: Social Action through Music in Critical Perspective’, London 24-25 April 2015.

[3] McCormick, Lisa. 2015. Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music (Cambridge University Press), 5–6.

[4] This whole quote including the references comes from Volioti, Georgia, and Aaron Williamon. 2017. Recordings as Learning and Practising Resources for Performance: Exploring Attitudes and Behaviours of Music Students and Professionals. Musicae Scientiae 21/4: 499–523 at 500.

[5] James, Mirjam, Wise, Karen, & Rink, John. (in press). Exploring creativity in musical performance through lesson observation with video-recall interviews. Scientia Paedagogica Experimentalis.

[6] Born, Georgina. 2010. For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/2, 205–43.

[7] On the survival value of conformism see de Waal, Frans. 2016. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (London: Granta), esp. 255, 258, 295.

[8] McCormick 2015, 27.

[9] Bennett, Dawn and Hennekam, Sophie. 2018. Lifespan Perspective Theory and (Classical) Musicians’ Careers. In: Dromey, Chris and Haferkorn, Julia (eds.), The Classical Music Industry (London: Routledge), 122. Beech, Nic, Charlotte Gilmore, Paul Hibbert, and Sierk Ybema. 2016. Identity-in-the-Work and Musicians’ Struggles: The Production of Self-Questioning Identity Work. Work, Employment and Society 30(3), 506–522.

[10] Tal‐Shmotkin, Malka, and Gilboa, Avi. 2013. Do Behaviors of String Quartet Ensembles Represent Self-Managed Teams? Team Performance Management: An International Journal 19, 57-71. With thanks to Chris Terepin for this reference and for his discussion of it in his forthcoming thesis.

[11] Volioti, Georgia, and Aaron Williamon.  2017. Recordings as Learning and Practising Resources for Performance: Exploring Attitudes and Behaviours of Music Students and Professionals. Musicae Scientiae 21/4, 499–523.

[12] Payne, Emily. 2016. Creativity Beyond Innovation: Musical Performance and Craft. Musicae Scientiae 20(3), 325–344, at 340.

[13] Stam, Emlyn. 2019. In Search of a Lost Language: Performing in Early-Recorded Style in Viola and String Quartet Repertoires. PhD thesis, University of Leiden, 24–5. Žižek, Slavoj. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ontology (New York: Verso Books), 185–6.

[14] Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

[15] Hunter, Mary. Forthcoming. Classical Performer-Talk:  Obligation, Affordance and Strategic Vagueness. Many thanks to Professor Hunter for sharing her typescript and allowing me to quote it here.

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