20: Why and How?

20.1 Why?


Why is it so important now to start to perform classical scores differently? In sum:

Because (Part 1 above) to believe that there is broadly one correct way to perform a classical score is mistaken ethically, historically, and factually.

Because (Part 2 above) the policing of conformity by gatekeepers that is required to enforce this mistake—to prevent it being noticed, exposed and challenged—denies performers full credit for their arguably equal contribution (with composers) and a just financial reward for their contribution; and denies them the right and ability to be innovative or even significantly creative.

Because as a result of that policing

– many musicians are made ill, psychologically and/or physically, through stress, anxiety, uncertainty, tension, strain, and other symptoms of abuse
– many young musicians give up music in frustration in their teens or early 20s and are disappointed for life by the narrowness forced on them by teachers and exams
– those who knuckle under and continue to obey experience a career in music increasingly frustrated by performing the same scores in the same ways year after year
– audiences consist largely of those who enjoy the security of knowing what they like and liking what they know, reducing classical music to comfort for the already comfortable
– the economic and the social potential of classical music are limited to the barely viable and the irrelevant
– and because classical music could be so much more than this if all this superfluous, damaging and indefensible policing were removed

Because, therefore, we owe it to musicians and potential musicians, and to audiences and potential audiences, to expose the mistaken beliefs that underlie classical music practices; to open up new options for musicians and audiences; and to begin to offer models of how one might re-read classical scores in a more creative and innovative and more rewarding and fulfilling artistic, economic and social environment.


20.2 How?


How are we to begin to get these scores to work differently and variously?

Stop asking permission

The main requirement is to ditch the composer- and work-centred belief system (chapters 1–6), which means not looking to them for permission, and instead to teach creativity and improvisation (chapter 7). While this still creates hostility amongst gatekeepers (inside and beyond the conservatory) we need to provide safe spaces for students to experiment (on this see Hill 2018, 177–82), not just soundproof rooms in conservatoire corners, but safe spaces where musicians can come together from far and wide, spaces such as summer schools and festivals for alternative performances, where ideas can be exchanged and developed enjoyably with encouragement, leading to a chance to share the results. There are enough young professionals and advanced students keen to develop new approaches for such events to be popular and productive, now, I think. (It would be good to hear from people who’d like to do this.)

Think theatre

On the broader stage we need to start to treat concert-going like theatre-going, and treat performing somewhat more like acting in the sense that a performance of a canonical score begins to involve asking what else its notes might do,[1] and what we can learn from them that’s pertinent to current concerns. Performing WCM needs to involve discovery: going to concerts one needs to risk being surprised, perhaps even to go in the hope of being surprised; at any rate, changed.

What does this mean for performers? How are performers to generate new meaning from apparently well-known scores? (For a historical example see Daniel Barolsky’s Chapter 20a.)

Performance indications

The first task is simply to experiment, to take risks, to sing and play in ways one ‘knows’ are ‘wrong’. As a first exercise it can be revealing to do just the opposite of performance indications in score. We did that here with the Moonlight/Erlking pair already discussed in Chapter 5, exchanging their usual characters. As the sound examples show, we discovered parallel universes for those scores. Perhaps the greatest benefit (though I think the expressive musical results in each case are pretty interesting) was to enable us to appreciate the extent of the interpretative space that is available if only one has the courage to step into it. If performances as different as these are possible, what else might be?

Technique and posture

Along the same lines it may be productive to do just the opposite of what one is supposed to do technically or with one’s body. For some musicians ‘correct’ technique or correct posture are not those in which they feel most relaxed and able to focus on being musical with a score. Training may prevent one from ever discovering that; which is why a deliberate attempt to work differently, exploring other ways of making sound with one’s body and one’s instrument, can sometimes be revelatory, the more so because they ‘shouldn’t’ be.

Performance style

Although the speeds changed in our Moonlight and ‘Erlkönig’, and many other details changed with them in order to make sense of them, the performance style remained unaltered. But there is much to learn from past performance styles as documented on the oldest recordings. There, as well as differences of tempo and character, the rules of musicianship—what is ensemble, what is tempo, what is phrasing, what is line?—are very unlike our own, sometimes almost opposite. Again, we can see a huge space around what’s been done in the past century, a space that must have room for many other performance styles, many other views of how to sound the basic constituents of a score musically. If these underlying styles can be so unalike in just a century, how many more may be possible that have never yet been made, and how much different musicianship must already have been practised in the past that is now lost to us? These models should be inspiring. It can be highly productive to copy past recordings; not mindless, as one might imagine, but revelatory in teaching one’s body to be differently musical.[2]


We can learn from acting, too, by working more with character and mood, choosing a character for a passage in a score and playing or singing it as specifically as possible. There’s nothing novel about this as an approach to expressive performance: it’s simply a matter of trying more characters, not seeking ‘the’ one that’s ‘correct’. We need to tell new stories with scores. When there are texts to be sung it’s relatively straightforward to use the voice to suggest quite new meanings (listen to some of Diana Gilchrist’s ten ‘Ave Maria’s). For instrumental music, bringing a cultural or political commentary to a performance simply through sound is a lot more challenging. But it’s always an option to explain to an audience what a performance is aiming to suggest. We need more interaction between stage and hall in any case, involving audiences in finding meanings together. It’s often easier, and for an audience fascinating, to suggest stories via associations with other kinds of sounds. There’s a lovely example of this in Daniel Barolsky’s Chapter 20a where Chopin’s Berceuse, with the great Josef Hofmann in 1937, gains a tolling bell.


We can also question orthodoxies about the character of different forms and periods of composition. Why must a ‘Baroque’ piece have one dominant Affekt? Bach is a wonderful example here, music in which there is so much subtle change from moment to moment, even though a figure may look unchanged melodically and rhythmically. Why not respond to that much more fluidly? Or ‘Romantic’ music, for which the choices at present seem to lie between clean/straight and clean/straight with rather more vibrato and loudness. What happened to the salon? How about a little vulgarity in the mix? Must the movements of a piece always come in the same order? What happens if you change not only the character but also the sequence of sections? Omit some or insert some? Improvise (see David Dolan’s and Bobby Mitchell’s work)?

Beware categories that sanitise

Although there’s no reason in principle not to—in principle there can be no limits other than avoiding serious harm to the living—I’m not for now suggesting drawing on other musical genres such as jazz. This is only because of the danger of one’s work being labelled ‘crossover’ and thereby being put into a safe-box where it’s felt no longer to threaten mainstream practice. That’s the danger of any position that has a readymade category to slot into. Anything that can be put into it no longer challenges the norm. My whole intent here is to demote the norm so that it becomes simply one further option, equal with any other: that’s to say, it’s no longer ‘the’ norm. That’s what we should be aiming to achieve for current performance styles and habits. So for the same reason as avoiding crossover, because it can be filed away and leave the norm untouched, it’s sensible for now to avoid work that can be labelled ‘arrangement’, or at any rate to resist the label vigorously. That too makes a variant version safe. For now, let’s try not to be safe. Similarly, a performance that reworks a classical score through the lens of modernism can too easily be labelled ‘New Music’, which again takes it safely out of the mainstream as far as mainstream performers are concerned: they needn’t think about it again. We mustn’t let them get off so easily!

Behaving badly

And so, if I may: a key piece of advice. Don’t be afraid of causing outrage; as long as it’s outrage among conventionally constrained gatekeepers, audiences and normative performers. Well-justified fresh approaches are perfectly entitled to outrage people. Serious harm is something else, and one should always try to avoid that, but a bit of outrage in the right place can be highly productive.


Finally (for now), safe spaces are all very well for rehearsal, but there have to be public performances and published recordings. It’s the public practice and understanding of WCM that we need to change. That means getting up on stage and doing it. It only takes a few strikingly successful performances by obviously excellent musicians (and anyone coming out of conservatoire these days qualifies as that) to change everyone’s ideas about what might be possible and desirable.


Continue to Chapter 20a: Going beyond the text, by Daniel Barolsky.

Continue to Chapter 21: Historical examples on record

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[1] ‘Performance is not about revealing what a piece of music is expressively, but about what it could be.’ Doğantan-Dack, Mine. (forthcoming 2021). Aesthetics meets the performing body: Re-thinking Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. In ed. Garrett Michaelsen and Chris Stover, Making Music Together: Analytical Perspectives on Musical Interaction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2] For three remarkable examples see: Slåttebrekk, Sigurd and Tony Harrison. 2010. Chasing the Butterfly: Recreating Grieg’s 1903 Recordings and Beyond… http://www.chasingthebutterfly.no/. Scott, Anna. 2014. Romanticizing Brahms: Early Recordings and the Reconstruction of Brahmsian Identity (PhD thesis, University of Leiden). 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).

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    Mar 14, 2021

    I think it might be worth considering that a crossover is a good thing and further emphasises the idea of genre and performance styles that vary, but the mindset of a crossover existing should be changed. Just as we need to change WCM performance norms, the idea of crossovers should be phased out and music should just be music.