Musical Creativity and Performance as Relational Practices:
Mandy Burvill in Conversation with Monia Brizzi
As part of the research underpinning Challenging Performance: The Book I’ve held a series of private interviews with professional musicians so as to explore their attitudes to and experiences of performance creativity and its suppression. Uniquely—and I’m extremely grateful to her for this—Mandy Burvill, a clarinettist with rich experience of both orchestral playing and more creative interactions outside the mainstream, agreed to speak publicly about these issues. The interview took place during a study day held at King’s College London in November 2019 for the Society of Existential Analysis and the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. Monia Brizzi, who is a psychologist for performing artists, explored with Mandy some of the difficulties that musicians face in reconciling beliefs that on the one hand musical performance should reflect something of themselves while on the other it should be faithful to what are believed to be the composer’s wishes.
What follows here, after some thoughts from Mandy and Monia, is a transcript, only lightly edited for style, of their conversation in which they explored some of Mandy’s experiences as a musician both within and outside standard orchestral life. A factor that emerges strongly is the vital role of relationships in making music: relationships between players obviously, especially between those with power (conductors, section leaders) and those without; but also the complex relationship between each musician and the music they are making. The music emerging from their body and instrument is experienced in important respects as another person with whom they negotiate an understanding. This other person seems to have needs of their own, to be understood and sounded in particular ways, ways one has learned through decades of study and practice. On a good day, when a performance seems unusually satisfying, it’s possible to feel that a deep mutual understanding has been achieved, closely akin to a feeling of love (see also Chapter 12.2, ‘Seeking Utopia’). And yet these apparent needs of the score are very strongly shaped by the musician’s beliefs learned from teachers, institutions, and the many gatekeepers (managers, critics, producers, etc) who are ever-present in a musician’s mind, warning them not to be too personal, but rather to reproduce a normative reading of the musical text. It’s not easy to have a loving relationship when it’s subject to such tightly controlled rules of behaviour. In this conversation we can sense at several points this tension in Mandy’s comparison of her love of music and the realities of professional life. Musical performance could offer powerful opportunities to encounter many different Others, negotiating varied relationships, developing aspects of self that currently must be rigorously suppressed if one wishes to continue to fit in and to get work as a classical musician. A healthy musical environment may require not just counselling but more radical, structural change.
My conversations with Monia gave me the opportunity to think more intensely about my experiences and ideals as a musician. In reading the transcript of our conversation, the most important point for me was the need for an environment in which a musician can feel safe enough to be authentic, thus enabling meaningful music-making for performer and audience alike. Where the arts become professions, the opportunities for these safe environments become rarer due to time and financial restrictions limiting opportunities for experimentation or re-thinking of the working culture. It is my intention through my teaching to create that safety for my students to explore themselves in tandem with the music, encouraging meaningful and authentic interpretations. Young musicians at the early stages are often heavily influenced by the perceived rules and norms of the orchestral world; students at tertiary level often, to me, seem overly concerned about technical brilliance, forgetting that technical facility should be a means to achieve musical ideals. The pressures of continual ‘perfection’, brought about partly by the prevalence of recordings, adds to the restrictions on musicians feeling enabled to take risks or even to do anything authentically creative which may risk being ‘different’.
Talking to an audience about these fundamental (but little discussed) issues was empowering, liberating and cathartic in itself. Sharing my deep feelings with others is why I became a musician after all! I was interested to be speaking with a room full of many non-musicians, which further emphasised the commonality of human-ness. Music for me is a conduit for human connection. Through music we can connect with each other (performing colleagues and/or listeners) in a way that surpasses language. The impact of an audience cannot be over-estimated, and it is always my aim to enable the listeners to feel part of a performance, and to join me on a “shared feeling voyage” (Stern, 2004). This sharing can enable a feeling of connection between listeners, which can be extremely positive, particularly in therapeutic settings. I believe the power of music to be immense when approached with care, generosity, honesty, and authenticity.
The dialogue with Mandy clearly highlights both the importance of opening up the conversation on the relational aspects that ground performance and also the urgent necessity for a broader conception of musical practice and intentionality. The dialogue foregrounds performance as an experiential totality continuous with everyday life, rather than separate from it. Despite consistent disproof on evidence-based grounds, conventional interpretations of flow in musical practice continue to rest on individualist and exceptionalist assumptions and the corollary binaries they produce: individual/group, producer/receiver, composition/performance, text/context and exceptional/everyday (Cook, 2018), where each half of the pair is considered as quite separate from the other. The implications are very serious and problematic as these splits hinder the creativity, agency and wellbeing of musicians (Leech-Wilkinson, 2019-20). The health and vitality of performance and of performers calls for a fluid co-ordination of individual and collective, i.e., a movement from dividedness and dichotomy to interaction and reciprocity in musicians’ relation to what grounds them, a systemic balancing of continuity and difference. Sustaining generative practice in the performing arts requires crossing the boundaries of old yet still-dominant myths, in order to situate music within a wider creativity-culture nourished by the creative and reflective practices of everyday life, rather than in narrow domains of exceptionality.
Creativity, in music like in everyday life, is not the product of the individual but of relationship (Gergen, 2009; Rink, Gaunt and Williamon, 2017; Clarke and Doffman, 2017; Cook, 2018). Working across barriers between roles and specialisms is key, for participation and collaboration augments the creative capabilities of groups (Sawyer, 2007). The future of musical performance depends on whether we can continue to extend dialogue beyond hierarchical or pyramidal structures to generate that type of genuinely polyphonic relational process that is foundational to the experience of shared meaning and to fully engaged musical collectives. This is what vitalises the potentials of co-action, what breathes life into musical creativity, and it begs the question of how we might best cultivate not only tolerance but the cherishing of ambiguity and complexity, as well as the trust, responsiveness, openness to the other and to difference that are so fundamental to the empathic listening and caring communication that constitute the basic animating elements of musical creativity. As social psychologist Kenneth Gergen puts it: ‘The practical challenge is to generate conditions in which participants are free to express a full range of views and values, even when contradictory’ (2009: 325). This directly connects to the guiding principles and wellbeing framework of the Healthy Conservatories Network and its commitment to facilitating multidisciplinary dialogue and advancing the health and ethical dimensions of musical practice.
Deep reflexivity and critical thinking through a variety of experiential, emotional and narrational approaches centred on embodiment, metaphor and image should feature in conservatoire curricula and in orchestras’ practice routine, in order to support interpretation, ownership, agency and artistic responsibility. It is here that the collaborative and explorative stance of phenomenological psychology, psychology’s complex systems approach (Spinelli, 1994), becomes particularly relevant to musical practice. Explicitly centred on embodied, felt experience and intersubjectivity, it is optimised for opening up the more difficult-to-access dimensions of the lived sense of practice and sound, making them available to awareness, description, reflection and to a more nuanced understanding, so that they can be considered relationally in the contexts of musicians’ life in both the music world and the wider world. The unfolding interaction with the music, with oneself and with others constitutes the present moment of emergence of experience and creativity – ambiguous and uncertain because they cannot be pre-given. If things are too set in advance, the interactive element of performance risks decaying into mere reproduction, intersubjectivity stultifies into self-enclosed individuality and emotional activation into disturbance and performance anxiety.
Daniel Leech-Wilkinson: We’re going to be witness to a conversation between Monia Brizzi and Mandy Burvill, who I’m very happy to introduce and welcome. Mandy is a professional classical clarinettist with a lot of experience as a professional orchestral musician and more recently working in all sorts of different kinds of environments which I think we may hear a little more about in a moment. So thank you Mandy, it’s quite brave of a musician to be interviewed like this in a public forum and I really, really appreciate your coming here.
Mandy Burvill: Thank you. It was strange to be packing to come away without my clarinet but sort of working!
Monia Brizzi: Mandy, can I ask you what has called you to music?
Mandy: I grew up in Norwich with non-musical parents, but I had a very, very, very lovely grandad who played an electronic organ, not very well but I really felt very close to him; and so I used the organ as a way of kind of connecting with him, I suppose, and I basically taught myself, with a bit of guidance from him, how to read music. Then I got the opportunity to learn an orchestral instrument – in the 1980s, when there was free instrumental tuition at primary level – so I took up the clarinet then, aged 8. And I wasn’t pushed in any way. My grandad took an interest, my parents took an interest and supported me but it was always my thing and from the very beginning; I used it as a sort of therapy for myself. When I was struggling with things at school, or things happened in my family and I felt angsty, my first thing to do would be to go up to my bedroom and pick up my clarinet and play some stuff, and it felt really sort of cathartic, I suppose, for me to use it in that way. I had teachers who were obviously good enough to get me to the level that I am, but I didn’t feel they were very pushy or demonstrative. It wasn’t really until I got to college that I experienced what Daniel was saying, about the unwritten rules about interpretation and what’s acceptable and that kind of thing, so I was quite kind of free in the way that I was using music right from the start, just through situation really. And in school, I experienced some opportunities to play some jazz and it was great. You know, on paper it doesn’t sound like a good musical education but I think it was in many ways for me because I think it set me up with quite a kind of liberated approach maybe, and not so restricted.
Monia: Mandy, you say on paper it doesn’t sound like it was a good musical education. How come?
Mandy: Well, I didn’t do National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, I didn’t go to a Saturday morning music school, you know, Junior College or whatever, I just sort of did my little thing in Norwich, and it wasn’t very high powered or anything, so I think in that way I felt a little bit kind of embarrassed, I suppose, by my background; but I think with hindsight, I can see that actually it enabled me to approach music differently to a lot of my colleagues, I think.
Monia: And you played in the orchestra for about ten years?
Mandy: I went to Trinity Music College, and then fairly soon after that I got a job in Liverpool, in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which was amazing and I was absolutely delighted, and I know that that’s what you’re supposed to want. I did want it and I did like it quite a lot for a while, and then I didn’t like it so much because I realised that, actually, I found the lack of opportunity for creativity restricting. People that I spoke to about what I did would say “Oh, it must be so lovely, I’d love to be creative like you” and I would think “Well, if only I could be more creative”. I was second clarinet so, compared to somebody in the back of the second violin section, I did have an opportunity for a voice of some description, but it was a very small opportunity and I felt quite strangled, I suppose. I wasn’t deeply unhappy but it wasn’t like I hoped it would be, and I found the working pattern difficult, particularly once I had a family and my girls started school. I felt like it wasn’t really working for me. I wasn’t loving it and I didn’t want to do music and not love doing music. It took me a while to come to the decision to leave but I did leave and once I’d made that decision it was great and I never, ever looked back. I’ve never regretted that, and that was ten years ago when I made that change.
Monia: What do you think were the main issues? What was getting in the way?
Mandy: I was frustrated that there wasn’t enough connection with audiences. It didn’t feel like I was communicating something about myself to other human beings. I think it’s partly the formality and the size of a symphony orchestra, you know. Many concerts would have eighty people on the stage. And it just felt like it was just too – it was kind of unreal really, it wasn’t sort of raw. It’s difficult to explain… it wasn’t kind of proper.
Monia: There was a sense of disconnect?
Mandy: Yes, I think so.
Monia: The way you described, when you enjoyed the playing and practising, there was a sense of, I think you used the word ‘connection’….
Mandy: Absolutely. Connection with myself and connection with other people. When I was at college, so going back a little bit, when I was nineteen, I started going to this amazing music camp which was mostly amateur musicians who get together and play music because that’s what they want to do, but because everybody loves and trusts and supports each other, wonderful, wonderful music happens. I’ve felt most proud of some of my performances there and certainly some of my most powerful listening experiences have been there, when somebody who seems very mousey and insecure will stand and just sing a folk song on their own in a big kind of barn, just standing there, just so real, so true, so authentic, so honest. Having experiences like that and then going back to the orchestra, I could just see the disparity and I found that really hard to kind of accept.
Monia: I think that really came through in our conversation on the phone when you mentioned how, in a way, when – let me know if I understood you with any degree of accuracy – when you play from the heart, when you’re really playing in that way you are enjoying it and it makes you feel at ease and liberated, there is a sense of connectedness but also of risk-taking, and there is also a fear there, there is also some form of something painful?
Mandy: Yes, I suppose. In this lovely music camp, the fear and the pain is about opening yourself up too much for yourself. So not about exposing myself to other people but about exposing myself to myself, getting too deep inside myself.
Mandy: In terms of the orchestra, I had the comfort of a permanent contract so I wasn’t worried about being booked again or anything like that but still, I felt very vulnerable in terms of relationships with colleagues, and expectations. I was 25 and really excited and I desperately wanted to fit in, so I did compromise myself to some extent probably, to try and be what they wanted me to be. I certainly wasn’t very conscious of this compromise at the time but I think it stems from the appointment procedure. With orchestras in this country, the appointment procedure is that you have an audition and then you’re invited to trial with the orchestra (my trial went on for about eighteen months, I think). And then the transition to having a job, I think, didn’t set me up well to genuinely be me, or to feel comfortable with that. And so I think that brings about with it a vulnerability if you then do try and be authentic.
Monia: So it’s a sense of the whole you being involved, of performance not being just a technical process or a professional enterprise that you leave behind but that involves your own self, and it affects your entire life, your sense of yourself, the sense of who you are and why you’re playing but also outside of it, that it isn’t clear-cut…
Mandy: No, it’s not separate, it shouldn’t be separate.
Monia: And maybe, are you saying that if it is separate that then it can become problematic or banal?
Mandy: Yes, it doesn’t feel – it feels like you’re missing something and I think audiences are missing something. I went to see Björk in concert and her kind of fragility and honesty was just so powerful, and I want to replicate that.
Monia: In your experience as a professional musician, what is needed to enable that, to enable that risk-taking, that vulnerability? I think you mentioned about the importance of feeling safe enough to experiment, to let go in this place that is wonderful and is simultaneously also difficult. What is needed?
Mandy: Orchestrally, I think it’s a really difficult one to shift, I think the shift needs to be a massive cultural shift because it’s partly to do with relationships within the orchestra and the environment as a whole, plus the management and how they interact with the musicians. I think what Daniel’s talking about – having more opportunities for exploring interpretation and for making it more about the actual people that are on stage rather than the kind of roles they’re fulfilling – I think could have a massive difference, and that might be enough in fact to alter the culture. It would be amazing. Obviously in Britain we have the big time constraints and financial constraints where we often have just one or two days of rehearsal for a concert programme, and that’s not enough to see what people want to do, you know – “Mandy, you’re second clarinet, how do you feel this should go?”. And there’s not time – the conductor’s just got to be there and dictate, and sometimes that’s wonderful and other times it’s really hard to kind of fit yourself into that box where you don’t really fit.
Monia: Did you mention authenticity?
Mandy: Yes, so I think being in the orchestra, I found it very hard to be authentic. When I left the orchestra, as I say, it was a difficult decision to come to, but I was really fortunate in that I became involved in some really lovely outreach work that RLPO do. It’s a partnership they’ve had with a mental health trust in Liverpool which they’re expanding, and I was able to go into mental health units with my clarinet. I was given free rein, which was terrifying to start with but actually became quite liberating because I could just be me. I could work intuitively and it felt so much more worthwhile, so much more creative. It feels a real privilege, actually – it’s just wonderful to do something meaningful that feels right to me on that day and hopefully to the people that I’m playing to on that day too, rather than playing a programme that’s been decided, you know, two years before for whoever’s got enough money to turn up to the concert hall and then clap politely.
Monia: Is this a way that you assisted your own students, by…
Mandy: By making it more, yes, more sort of person-centred. Yes, so I do teach now: I used to teach at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and I teach at Liverpool University and at home, but I try really hard to find out who it is that I’m teaching and nurture their musicianship rather than having a sort of stamp that I put on. I don’t have a method and sometimes I feel a bit bad about that, I feel that maybe I’m being a bit lazy not having a method but actually, I think it’s really about…
Monia: It is the opposite?
Mandy: I think, yeah, I really want to know who that person is and what they can bring to music.
Monia: Because once you have a method, it can be one-size-fits-all and so you can go about it unquestioningly, whereas if you approach the person with care…I think you mentioned also care, caring for them?
Mandy: Yes, definitely. In going back to the orchestra, sometimes the conductor’s asked by an orchestral member, “Are you going to be in two or four there?”: well, you know, why should we need to know? Why can’t it just be something that’s more authentic and organic?
Monia: You said the conductor doesn’t have time to ask Mandy about how she feels, should this be challenged?
Monia: I’m sure there are really good reasons that you know much better than I do, who am I to say, but what are the consequences of the conductor having no time, do you think?
Mandy: I recently finished a masters in music psychology and for my dissertation, I interviewed conductors to find out what they believe they do to enable orchestral players to play at their best, and I went through a bit of a journey on that one because I started off and I was feeling quite sort of angry about it all, and then, when I talked to them, they did have good hearts. They’re all good people but there is this notion, I suppose, that the conductor is the leader and needs to have this sort of power over the orchestra, and quite a few of them talked about the need to be believable but also to be authentic, to come across as authentic to the orchestra. There is that difficult balance, I think, between enabling and directing.
Monia: So they are themselves within this ideological position that constrains them?
Monia: Do you feel that this ideological position is addressed enough? We can become complicit within the ideology and the blame can get on performers not being resilient enough, instead of taking a more reflective and questioning stance. What is that all about?
Mandy: Yeah, I wonder, I don’t know if BAPAM can help. I don’t know if you’re ever represented at the ABO [Association of British Orchestra] conferences and you can talk to orchestras about this? I think it is a cultural thing but it’s also the way orchestras are set up and the constraints made on them, probably by Arts Council grants and stuff, that they have to do a certain number of concerts. Within these time constraints, I think it must be really difficult to find the opportunity to experiment or make changes.
Monia: I think this has been overlooked for a long time. Do you think things are changing?
Mandy: I don’t know because I’ve seen things differently since leaving the orchestra. I still go back in to Liverpool and freelance with the orchestra, and players come up to me now and say how they wish they could do what I’ve done and how it’s really challenging playing in an orchestra full time. I can’t really say whether it’s changing or not. It’s changed from my perspective, but I think that’s because people see me as somebody that they can come and talk to about their gripes within the orchestra and stuff.
Monia: Could I ask you at last – I don’t know if it makes any sense, I’m just wondering – what would you think would be a viable definition of ‘resilience’? Because resilience is a notion that is emphasised so much in the industry, about performers having to be resilient, and usually resilience is taken to be individualistic assertiveness. What is resilience?
Mandy: I think maybe it’s about trying to retain some ownership over what you do, and unfortunately, in order for me to do that, I felt I had to leave the orchestra. I’m sure there are ways of doing it within…
Mandy: Yeah. But going back to the conductor interviews, I was really heartened that one really great conductor said how important he feels it is for the musicians in his orchestra to go and do other stuff, and to do stuff where they actually can have a creative outlet, where they can make decisions and use music in a different, in a more meaningful way for them. Then they can bring back something to the orchestra, and I’ve got a hunch that if more players did more of this kind of outreach stuff, the concerts would benefit from this, from not being in this kind of crazy bubble that orchestras become part of. It’s very introspective.
Monia: Is there any space for training in creativity and in what creativity in art might be about in the training of musicians and in the training of the trainers and in the training of the other stakeholders? Lots of the things that you’ve talked about resonate so directly with what creativity and artistic processes are about…it seems that currently the system tries to enclose them within a type of mould that runs counter to what art and creativity are all about?
Mandy: Isn’t creativity about connecting with humanity? Connecting with yourself and connecting with other human beings, and so to explore that as a musician, I guess that’s one path.
Dan Hayhurst (BAPAM): It’s seems like many of the structures of the orchestra, for instance, are designed to alienate you precisely from that process, and I agree completely that that’s what creativity is for or could do.
Monia: I get it from clients that I work with all the time. They say “If only this, what we do here, could be done in the conservatoire – if only we could have this type of more experiential, more dialogical encounters, in a way to allow that, if that could happen instead of just waiting to have to go to therapy to do it”. The more human and relational aspect, which is so important to the arts, gets under-played and we need to put that much more forward. What do you think?
Dan Hayhurst: I think that current research is very interesting and useful but it’s taking place within a particular institutional structure that is not necessarily always going to do that: they still want to produce… the product they want at the end of it is an employable classical musician so, do you know what I mean?
Monia: This raises the question of how profitable it is to have a workforce you’re not taking care of, as managers, as employers?
Dan Hayhurst: My background in music is not classical, it’s from bands and club music but you still see – you feel exactly the same. It’s like, you’ve tried to look right, you’ve tried to wear the right clothes or whatever, just at the basic level like that, play the right things, know the right people, you know, and I think that these things get in the way of authentic communication.
Mandy: And audiences are so hungry to see any sort of aspect of human-ness.
Dan Hayhurst: Yes, even if you make a mistake, they actually do tend to love it, it’s like an instant connection?
Mandy: Yes, or a string breaks or something: and suddenly it’s a kind of leveller, isn’t it?
Dan Hayhurst: Yes.
Monia: Thank you so much to all.
Mandy Burvill studied at Trinity College of Music with Keith Puddy and Hale Hambleton, and subsequently spent 10 years as 2nd and E-ﬂat clarinet in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. She is currently pursuing a varied freelance career, working regularly as guest principal with orchestras including the RLPO, Manchester Camerata and Northern Ballet.
Since leaving the RLPO Mandy has been able to concentrate more on outreach work. She has been heavily involved in the RLPO and Mersey Care’s award-winning Musician in Residence programme, leading weekly sessions with adults and older people with mental health problems, dementia, learning disabilities and brain injury. In addition to teaching clarinet at the University of Liverpool and a busy private teaching practice, Mandy has recently completed a Masters in Psychology for Musicians. Mandy has made a number of concerto appearances with orchestras including Manchester Camerata and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and has performed chamber music with artists including the Fitzwilliam Quartet, the Liverpool String Quartet, James Clark and Anthony Marwood. She is also a member of the classical improvisation group w h i t e l i n e s. She lives on the Wirral with her husband, the composer Ian Stephens, and their two lovely daughters.
Monia Brizzi is a Counselling Psychologist Chartered with the British Psychological Society and Registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. She is an Assessing Clinician at the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine in London and has been the consulting psychologist on several large cross-disciplinary projects.
Clarke, Eric F., Doffman, Mark (Eds.) (2017). Distributed Creativity: Collaboration and Improvisation in Contemporary Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cook, Nicholas. 2018. Music as Creative Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gergen, Kenneth. 2009. Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2019-20. Challenging Performance: Classical Music Performance Norms and How To Escape Them. In progress at https://challengingperformance.com/the-book/
Rink, John, Gaunt, Helena, Williamon, Aaron. (Eds.) 2017. Musicians in the Making. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sawyer, Keith. 2007. Group genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. New York: Perseus.
Spinelli, Ernesto. 1994. On disclosure. Existential Analysis 6 (1), 2-19.
Stern, Daniel. 2004. The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: Norton.
Continue to Chapter 15: The legal constraints on performers