Challenging Performance:
Classical Music Performance Norms and How to Escape Them

by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson

Summary

 

Here I provide a list of the main points of my argument, linked to the relevant chapters. Please try to resist the temptation to use only this summary to find out what I’m saying. The book is much more interesting than the list! Or, if this list is too long, try the brief (but combative) summary in 20.1.

 

– Current beliefs about western classical music maintain that:

– Composers create(d) works that exist thereafter [5, 6.3, 6.10, 6.17, 11.1, 19.2]

– They have/had clear intentions as to how these works should sound [6.9, 6.12, 6.13, 8]

– Composers’ scores encode the music that composers imagine(d) [5, 6.8, 6.9, 6.16, 7.5]

– This music (‘the music itself’) exists independently of any performance [5, 6.10, 12.3, 19.2]

– It must be sounded in any performance in such a way that it can be recognised and acknowledged as the music intended by the composer [3, 6.7, 6.13, 7.9, 11.2, 12.1, 15]

– Composers know best how their scores can sound [6.12, 19.2]

– Dead composers can be harmed by performances that do not sound their intentions [6.15, 11.1, 11.2, 11.3]

– Current listeners are harmed by performances that do not sound composers’ intentions [11.2, 11.3]

– The music is more important than the people making it [14, 19.2]

 

– Within the current belief system (or ideology [10]):

– Composers whose scores consistently give rise to powerful experiences (especially once dead) are considered godlike, their scores quasi-sacred texts [5, 6.1, 6.12, 6.16, 7.5, 7.9, 10, 11.1, 11.2, 12.3]

– Faithfulness to composers’ texts and wishes is a quasi-religious duty [6.1, 6.3, 6.12, 6.16, 7.3, 7.5, 7.9, 8, 9.2, 11.1, 12.3, 18.2]

– The greatest faithfulness is rewarded with the most transcendent experiences [6.1,, 6.16, 7.5, 12.3]

– Performers should be the composer’s faithful servants [6.1,, 6.9, 6.16, 7.8, 9.2, 10, 11.1, 12.3, 15]

– Performers should contribute only as much of their own creativity as the composer allows [6.9, 12.3, 13, 15, 18.1]

– As far as possible, performers should not be noticed, but should be transparent (inaudible) mediums for the composer’s intentions [4, 5, 6.14, 9.1, 9.2, 12.3]

– Performances should sound, as far as possible, as they sounded during the composer’s lifetime [6.7, 6.12, 6.13, 11.2]

– Except in the case of composers’ performances documented in recordings, which tend to be unacceptable today [6.7, 6.8, 21]

– To perform ideally it is necessary to know as much as possible about music history and music theory/analysis [2, 6.2, 6.9, 25]

– Knowing about music enhances one’s experience of performing and hearing it [1, 6.2, 25]

 

– Composers usually imagine performances and have expectations about performance [3, 6.13, 11.3]; that aside, all these beliefs are misguided [6 (all subsections), 11.1, 18.2]

– A consequence is insecurity among believers, which tends to lead to proliferation of articles of faith and their policing [6.1, 6.3, 6.9, 7.8, 7.9, 8]

 

– The performance of Western Classical Music (WCM) is heavily policed by gatekeepers to the profession: teachers, examiners, adjudicators, artist managers, venue managers, promoters, concert planners, fixers, A&R managers, producers, critics, bloggers, social media, etc., who cooperate in maintaining performance norms [7.1, 7.7, 7.8, 9.2, 12.1]

– Gatekeeping seeks to constrain difference and to promote the persuasive performance of norms [1, 2, 6.4, 7.1, 7.3, 7.5, 7.7, 7.8, 9.2, 12.1, 22.3]

– Gatekeeping constructs a WCM State whose ‘performance’ it ensures [6.4, 6.5, 6.17, 7.1, 9.2, 9.6, 12.1]

– Norms and their policing ensure that excellent performances are achieved with minimum paid rehearsal [6.7, 6.19, 12.1, 22.4]

– Norms simplify musical decision-making [6.19, 8, 19.2]

– In an intensely policed environment norms provide psychological reassurance [6.7, 6.19, 12.3, 13]

– Policing continues throughout a career, from first lessons to farewell recital [3, 7.7, 13]

– Policing empowers gatekeepers [6.11, 7.7, 8, 22.4]

– Policing ensures that performers adhere to current beliefs about proper performance, assuming that

– Gatekeepers know, as far as possible, how composers wanted their texts to sound [6.9, 7.7]

– Given excellent performers, current beliefs about the realisation of texts afford the best possible performances [3, 6.4, 7.7, 7.9, 12.2, 19.2]

– And the current WCM State is the best possible state [12.2]

– These assumptions are also mistaken [3, 6.13]

– WCM gatekeeping generally mistakes its ethical obligations to performers and listeners [19.2]

– Gatekeepers could still have useful roles in the classical music business without policing performance so narrowly [12.1]

– The composer’s currently-supposed intentions are current norms in disguise [9.2, 9.3, 12.1, 13]

– Composers are often more open to unexpected performances of their scores than are gatekeepers [6.12, 11.3]

– Musical training aims to produce technically impeccable performers who accept current beliefs and sound them as persuasively as possible [6.4, 6.19]

– Performers are expected to achieve this at the same time as being unalike in ways that specialists can discern [6.6, 7.4, 7.8, 13]

– Gatekeeping aims to ensure that these differences between performers and performances are not so great as to call into question the belief that performances are sounding the composer’s preferences [6.6, 6.9, 13, 22.3]

– These differences are usually very small [7.5, 7.7, 7.8, 9.2, 9.3]

– Despite the policing, performances are believed to be very unalike [6.6, 7.5, 13]

– Thus the concept of creativity is appropriated by normativity in order to constrain it [7.5, 13, 18.1]

– How different performances seem depends on your point of view, on your knowledge of past performances, and on your ability to imagine alternatives [6.6]

– WCM, through its current performance ideology, sounds the values of conservatism, promoting a status quo conceived of as tradition [9.2, 9.5, 10, 21]

 

– Norms of WCM performance are taught so consistently, from childhood on, as to seem natural to all performers accepted into the profession [5, 6.1, 6.5, 6.12, 6.14, 7.1, 7.6, 9.2, 10, 12.3]

– Obedience to teachers, to norms, and to the letter of the score becomes obedience to the composer [7.2, 7.5, 7.6, 7.9, 12.3, 13]

– Performers who accept these norms receive praise, affection and support [7.2, 7.5, 7.6]

– Performers who do not accept these constraints cannot succeed in training and cannot reach the profession [6.4, 6.11, 7.5, 7.6, 7.9, 12.3]

– Performers who reject them at any point in their careers will lose work [3, 6.7, 9.2, 10, 12.1]

– In teaching norms conservatoires aim to fit students for work in the profession [7.5]

– Teachers strive to function as representatives of the composer, transmitting composers’ wishes [7.1, 7.6, 7.9]

– Obeying teachers and sounding traditions is a demonstration of love, faith, and service [6.3, 7.2, 7.5, 7.6, 13, 14]

– For these reasons teachers often feel entitled to use forceful, even abusive behaviour, in order to instil their tradition [7.2, 7.3, 7.4, 7.6, 7.9, 10]

– WCM performance could and should be taught with respect for students, encouraging creativity [7.9, 12.1, 18.1, 19.1, 20.2]

– Competitions reward the performance of norms, with the most persuasive performance of norms leading to the best early-career promotion [7.8]

– Musicology assists in researching composers’ wishes set out in editions, histories and analyses, and presents them as requirements for performers [6.3, 8]

– Critics police performance by praising the most persuasive soundings of current beliefs and by criticising the unexpected [6.14, 9.2]

– Performance that contradicts normative beliefs generates anger caused by perceived challenges to identity and power [1, 7.7, 7.8, 7.9, 9.2, 9.6, 11.1, 13, 22.3]

– Yet at the same time critics sense the allure of the Other, which they fear [9.2]

– The imagery used by critics is characterised by binary thinking [9.1, 10]

– The imagery used by critics often draws on structural prejudice in order to discourage the unexpected [6.5, 6.14, 9.2]

– Notions of power and mastery in performance feed into misogynistic critique [7.8, 9.1, 9.2, 13]

– Notions of expressivity and non-normativity feed into homophobic and (in the case of non-Western performers) racist critique [9.1, 9.2, 10]

– The strength of WCM criticism feeds abuse of musical difference on social media [9.4]

– Given the excellence of professional performance there is little need for most professional assessment and evaluation [9.3, 22.5]

– Where assessment is required normativity should not be a major criterion [7.3, 12.1, 22.5]

 

– Written descriptions of performance are insufficient to allow the reconstruction of a performance style [6.8, 6.13]

– Recordings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including performances by composers, show that composers and performers used to have very different understandings of

– composers’ preferences [3, 6.9, 6.13]

– the extent to which a composer’s text should be followed [6.9, 6.10]

– musicality [1, 3, 5, 6.8]

– performance style [3, 5]

– the sounding of compositional or analytical structures [6.3]

– consistency of style among performers [4]

– consistency of interpretation among performers [1, 4]

– Audiences for these performances were just as sure that they were hearing great performances as current audiences are when they hear currently approved performances [3, 5, 6.4, 19.1, 21]

– With exposure modern listeners can experience early recorded performances as just as powerful as current performances, often more so [3, 6.2, 6.8, 21]

– Gatekeepers and audiences already willingly accept very different performance styles from ‘historically informed’ performers [1, 3, 6.7]

– Gatekeepers and audiences already willingly accept performance practices that contravene composers’ expectations when it benefits the music business [1, 6.7, 6.9, 15]

– Performance style changes slowly and, over long spans of time, to such an extent that beliefs about correct performance must be recognised as being substantially contingent upon period taste [1, 3, 4, 6.4, 6.6, 6.9, 11.1, 24.3]

– We cannot know composers’ expectations for performance before the age of sound recording [19.1]

– As performance style changes, the character and identity of compositions change, the way we perceive and think about their composers change, and what we believe about music changes [3, 4, 6.19]

– When they become aware of it gatekeepers find this change threatening [9.6]

– ‘The work’ and ‘the music itself’ can only be perceived and accessed through performance, real or imagined [4, 6.17, 6.18]

– But since they are by definition independent of any performance they cannot exist, only function as (impossible but coercive) concepts seeking to disempower performance [5, 6.11, 12.3]

– Performances are necessarily made and imagined using current performance styles [3, 4, 6.4, 6.12]

– Except when deliberately copying past performance styles, which may be revelatory [20.2, 21]

– As performance-style changes ‘the music itself’ and ‘the work’ must change [3, 4, 6.19]

– Performers are contributing more, and composers less than the belief system claims, to the character, identity and meaning perceived in pieces [3, 4, 5, 6.10, 6.12, 6.14, 15, 19.1]

– The extent of the potential for scores to sound different identities cannot yet be known [4, 6.6, 6.11]

– Beliefs about proper performance have differed, will differ, and therefore could differ now, and performances with them [3, 6.12, 6.19, 11.1, 11.2]

– There is no good reason not to vary approaches to performing texts now [3, 6.19, 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 20.1, 24.1]

– There is ethical value in performances that reflect the needs of their period context [11.3, 19.1, 25]

 

– Current performance standards are astonishingly high [2, 6.4, 6.6, 6.19, 9.3, 10, 12.2, Pt 3 intr]

– Nothing in the argument made here requires any performer to change their current performance practice [6.19, 11.1]

– But it may suggest that they change their beliefs and liberalise their teaching, and that gatekeepers liberalise their choices and critiques [6.4, 6.19, 7.9, 19.1]

 

– There is an obligation of courtesy (and also a legal obligation [15]) to living composers and to their immediate descendants to try to perform their music as they wish(ed) [6.14, 11.3]

– This obligation declines as time passes after their death, as the tastes of performers and listeners change [11.3]

– Those aside, our obligations are to the living, not the dead, and to performers and listeners as much as to composers [11.3, 19.1, 19.2]

– Musical experience arises from the interacting of scores, performers and listeners, as well as a great many other interrelated (f)actors, all context-dependent [6.9, 6.12, 19.1, 20.2]

– Attempting to keep performance unchanged and unresponsive to its context is counterproductive, leading canonical WCM in performance to become irrelevant to its host cultures, ultimately leading to its decline in public estimation [6.19, 25]

 

– The severity of WCM criticism, and of the penalties for non-compliance, cause musicians constantly to police their own musical behaviour and to experience high levels of anxiety lest any failure of self-policing is perceived [6.11, 7.3, 7.4, 7.5, 7.6, 12.1, 12.3, 13, 14]

– Musical Performance Anxiety is substantially caused by fear of censure [7.3, 7.5, 13, 14]

– Musicians’ ill-health has been found to be a greater problem in WCM than other musical genres [14]

– Anxiety about being completely accurate is intense among classical musicians [7.3, 7.4, 7.5, 7.6, 7.8, 7.9, 12.3, 13, 14, 24.3]

– Anxiety about being normative persuasively enough leads to physical and psychological problems [2, 7.3, 7.4, 7.5, 7.6] that may only be temporarily alleviated through treatment if sufferers have to reassume the same constraints when they return to work [14]

– The supply of excellent musicians is such that the business model is not threatened by performer illness [14]

– Classical musicians are permitted little agency and limited opportunities for self-expression or self-development through performance [7.4, 7.5, 12.1, 13, 14, 24.3]

– Classical musicians appear to be treated, in effect, as historians reproducing the past in sound [1, 3, 6.7]

– The ideology is confused as to whether WCM performance functions as an artistic (rather than a worship or reproduction) practice [6.12, 6.16, 13, 14]

– Musicians may wonder, in that case, whether the enormous amount of self-disciplined work involved in training and in keeping in training are worthwhile [1, 2, 6.5, 7.5, 7.6]

– Musicians are owed, in return for this labour, the right to express themselves through performance creativity and respect for doing so [7.4, 7.6, 7.9, 9.5, 19.1, 20.2]

– Performance creativity and innovation should be encouraged, enjoyed and celebrated [6.19, 7.4, 7.9, 11.2, 11.3, 12.1, 18.1, 19.1, 24.3]

– Safe spaces (physical and imaginative) should be available where musicians can experiment without fear of censure [20.2]

– A useful model for performers is provided by theatre practice, where classical texts are typically reinterpreted to find meaning related to current concerns [6.16, 18.2, 20.2, 24.1]

– Opera has drawn on theatre, but only for stage direction; it should also apply in musical direction and performance [18.2, 24.1, 24.4]

– The concept of production could usefully be applied on occasion in the preparation of WCM performances [18.2]

 

– Music is the experience of a performance [6.18]

– Music is made within networks of interacting individuals, traditions, practices and institutions [6.12, 6.17, 7.3, 13]

– Music engages many aspects of people’s life and being [6.2, 12.2, 22.2, 22.3]

– People value music, among other things for the ways it affords bonding and mutual understanding [6.1, 12.2]

– Music is experienced as having person-like qualities, perceived in terms of motion and emotion [11.2, 12.2, 19.1, 22.2]

– Performances can model, and allow performers and listeners safely to test and experience, idealised behaviours and responses to others [12.2, 19.1]

– Performers have rights [6.1, 7.6]

– Performers should be free to explore many different interactions with scores [6.3, 11.3, 19.1, 23.2]

– An ethics of WCM, in which the needs of people are not subservient to needs attributed to dead composers or texts, should guide the training of musicians, their employment, critique of their work, interwoven with a view of the empathy that performances of WCM model, foster and enhance, all considered together with options for persuasive performance [6.7, 6.11, 6.12, 7.3, 7.6, 7.9, 11.3, 12.2, 14, 19.1, 19.2, 22.4]

 

– The persuasiveness of a performance depends substantially on its (motional and emotional) dynamics [6.12, 12.2, 19.2, 22.1, 22.2]

– Nonetheless, beliefs about ‘proper’ performance can easily overrule responses to its dynamics [1, 6.3, 7.5, 9.1, 9.2, 12.2, 19.1, 22.1]

– Removing such beliefs, as far as possible, from musical response is a good [6.3, 6.11, 7.3, 12.1, 12.2]

– In addition to being dynamically well-shaped over time, persuasive performance involves such qualities as being engaging, moving, exciting, stimulating, thought-provoking, making the listener eager to hear what happens next [19.2, 22.5]

– Apart from being persuasive, in the sense of dynamically engaging and rewarding, the only requirement for good performance is that it should do no serious harm [1, 3, 6.7, 6.19, 19.2, 20.2, 22.4]

– Challenging listeners’ beliefs and causing them to question values is not seriously harmful to them [11.3, 19.2, 20.2] though it should be done with care for them [19.2]

– Equally, listeners are entitled to experience music in their own way [6.2, 22.5]

– And being dynamically engaging and rewarding is never all that music does [22.4]

– Musical practices, even in WCM, should not exclude or oppress [22.4]

 

– Notation is insufficient to encode performance style [6.9, 6.17]

– Notation is insufficient to encode musical character or emotional expression [6.9]

– Scores are only a starting-point for WCM performers to make music [5, 6.17, 19.2]

– Performers need not adhere to composers’ texts or (historically documented or currently claimed) intentions [3, 6.15, 6.17, 8, 11.1, 18.2, 19.2, 22.1]

– Performers should be able to seek to answer the question, ‘what else can these scores do?’ [3, 6.3, 11.2, 11.3, 19.2, 20.2, 22.5, 23.2, 24.1, 24.3]

– Performances that contradict composers’ texts and intentions (real or imagined) can be as musically persuasive as performances that do not [1, 3, 6.12, 6.15, 6.17, 7.7, 8, 11.1, 19.1, 22.1, 22.3, 24.3, 24.4]

– Such performances are already achieved through crossover [1] but there is great potential for more varied approaches without invoking other existing genres [20.2]

– Performers should be better recognised, admired and rewarded for the extent of their contribution to the making of music through performance [6.9, 9.5, Pt 3 intr]

– Performers would be happier in their work if they were allowed to be more personal, more creative, more inventive [6.9, 6.11, 7.6, 9.5, 11.3, 14, 24.3, 24.4]

– There is limited need for more instances of normative readings of scores [3, 21]

– While consideration needs to be given to how to present non-normative performances [6.11, 19.2, 20.2, 22.5],

– Audiences would be larger and more diverse, the business would be more profitable and performers better rewarded if performances were more diverse [2, 6.11, 7.9, 9.5, 11.3, 12.1, 18.2, 19.1, 24.4]

– People from more diverse backgrounds would choose to become classical performers if more creativity in performance were encouraged [7.2, 7.9]

– WCM currently sounds and affirms the values of the white, western, highly-educated middle class [7.5, 9.1, 9.2, 10, 15]

– The way WCM is policed conflicts with western society’s claims for freedom of expression [7.5, 7.9, 9.5, 10]

– White, western, middle-class culture has no special entitlement to WCM and classical music’s function should not be to sound its self-image [2, 7.3, 9.2, 19.1, 24.1]

– Allowing performers to be more creative may enable them to make performances that invoke, reference or comment on issues of current public interest across societies [11.3, 20.2, 24.1]

– To attend concert performances of well-known scores should often be to experience discovery and surprise [20.2, 24.4]

– Exploring ways of being creative with scores in performance should be encouraged, as should all kinds of experimentation [6.19, 7.5, 12.1, 20.2, 24.3, 24.4]

– Improvisation, creativity and innovation should play larger roles in classical music training and practice [7.2, 7.3, 7.4, 7.5, 7.6, 18.1, 20.2, 24.2, 24.3]

– Experimentation with technique and embodied musicality, though demanding, may also be fruitful [20.2]

– Public performance should welcome musical risk-taking [20.2, 24.2, 24.3] and the danger inherent in music’s modelling of feeling states [22.3] while seeking to use these to improve lives [22.4]

 

Go to Chapter 1: Introduction to read the book

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Acknowledgements

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