Challenging Performance: The Book. 6.19 Why these delusions?

6 Further WCM delusions

6.19 Conclusion: Why do we maintain these delusions?

There are a great many forces bearing down on performers—intensive teaching from childhood combining indoctrination with models to follow, and the acquisition of technical control, exams, competitions, belief and conformity as qualifications for work, criticism, selection by agents, planners, record companies—all of which seem lighter if one accepts these folk beliefs about what one is doing. And so, in effect, these beliefs function as heuristics. Helen Prior and I defined these, in an article on ‘Heuristics for Expressive Performance’, as ‘short cuts based on experience that solve problems too complex to resolve quickly enough using analytical thought’.[1] There we were talking mainly about concepts and metaphors that facilitate expressivity: ideas to do with shape, direction, style, gesture, speech, singing, and so on, all of which helpfully substitute for the minutely detailed, conscious calculation of sound.

The delusions we’ve been looking at here are also heuristics, but their role is not to assist expressivity but rather to narrow the field of possible choices as to what could be musical in performance. By ruling out non-structural playing, styles that are neither current nor documented in historical texts, significantly varied performance, the bypassing of indications in the score, the unexpected; and by asserting that what’s left is natural, inevitable, in line with the composer’s quasi-sacred and well-understood intentions, definitive of a work, encoded in the notation, currently stylish and therefore correct; this set of heuristic delusions simplifies the performer’s decision-making by narrowing choice to the point where they almost have none. To some extent this makes life easier for the performer: they have much less to decide and less experimentation and practice to do. To a greater extent it makes it cheaper for the employer, who minimises the time performers have to be paid while deciding how to play most effectively together: almost all that is obviated by their knowing, before they meet, most of what they will do with a score.

We can thus think of both performance style and the ideology that helps to constrain it as a heuristic-complex which defines normative solutions within what would otherwise be a huge field of open possibilities. The practicality of the ideology is thus another powerful factor—alongside its claims to sacred status through safeguarding the composer as a figure worthy of worship and obedience—that leads musicians to value and rely upon it. It makes the job doable in real time while giving it a value beyond time. These are effective reasons to overlook its delusional aspects, despite their obviousness when one stands back just a little and looks at them in turn. Avoiding these questions enables performers to perform convincingly to themselves, which is a helpful ingredient in being able to persuade others; not essential, perhaps (a performer can easily simulate and frequently does), but helpful. Convincingly expressive performance within a given style, however thoroughly embodied the style through decades of training and repetition, might be difficult without the conviction that one was performing (expressively) correctly.

Equally, realising that these limits are ideological, and period-bound, opens up new approaches through challenging the delusions that contribute to it. Some will enjoy that and some will not. One has to be careful not to underestimate the difficulty of managing without these tightly-drawn limitations on freedom of choice; and be wary also of seeking to impose on performers an obligation in the other direction to range widely within the potentially unlimited space that surrounds current norms. Genuine freedom of musical expression involves being free to work within as well as without any number of constraints, so long as they are recognised and accepted willingly (see also Chapter 19.2). But for that proviso to be genuine we have to recognise what constrains us, what constitutes normativity in beliefs and practices, and also that they could be different.

We also must recognise that change will happen anyway over time, whether we like it or not. And so we should perhaps have more respect for it and be more intrigued by the possibilities it offers. Change is the engine of musical expressivity. Change is expressive locally, through often tiny adjustments of timing, loudness, pitch, or timbre. It’s those that signal feeling and specify meaning when we speak and gesture. Only through change is musical (and indeed all other human) expressivity possible. Change brings a sense of meaning from moment to moment, but also on much larger scales over decades and generations as musicians (and indeed all humans communicating) adjust general parameters in order to enhance the significance of the sounds and movements they make. Any performance style needs change to enable expressivity. But when change is built-in and essential to the working of the system it inevitably is going to bring with it changeability on a much larger scale over time. Style change is a function of the mechanism of performance expressivity, vital for meaning-making. Yet precisely because of this, musical expressivity functions also as a meme-complex, spreading from one communicator to another. In addition, in another crucial factor, musical performance style and musical practices need to be related to other changing cultural practices in order to generate musical meaning that is recognised while being more subtle than the gross happy/sad, calm/excited differences whose musical and general cultural representations remain relatively stable, thanks to their being selected for by evolution. More subtle feeling states are mutable, responding to culture, enabling musicianship to remain relevant. And so again the practice and thus the ideology cannot help but mutate. Given all this, should we fear change, or the unexpected, in musical communication? Or might we learn to admire and celebrate it?


We’ve seen, then, that performers benefit from maintaining a network of delusory beliefs concerning composers, their intentions, their products, our understanding of them and obligations to them. We shall see in later chapters how, at the same time, performers are disadvantaged, oppressed and made unwell by these same delusions and especially by the ways in which they are enforced. And that in turn will draw attention to those who enforce. For those who benefit most and most consistently are not the performers but the employers and also the gatekeepers who, knowingly or (often) unknowingly, work on their behalf. We shall be looking at them next, in Part 2.

Continue to Part 2, The Policing of Performance

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[1] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel and Helen M. Prior. 2014. Heuristics for expressive performance. In Dorottya Fabian, Emery Schubert and Renee Timmers (eds), Expressiveness in Music Performance: Empirical approaches across styles and cultures (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 34-57 at 36.

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