Challenging Performance: The Book. 6.5 Performing natural musicianship

6 Further WCM delusions

6.5 Learning to perform is learning natural musicianship

All this is sold as natural musicianship. That’s what is meant by calling someone ‘musical’. We’ve looked at this belief already in Chapter 5, and I return to it here only in order to emphasise how conveniently it works for the previous belief in disallowing any possible doubt that the State might be otherwise than as it is. Believing this may be the only way of making bearable the pain involved in learning to be a good cheerleader for the State. Why else would one put oneself through so many years of relentless practice and obedience, striving to achieve exactly the effects one’s teacher requires however physically awkward? We have to believe that this is the only way music can possibly be.

But in that case, why is it so hard? Would we have to discipline our bodies so strictly if it were indeed natural to be musical in just this way and no other? Wouldn’t it come more… naturally? Although ‘musical’ in Chapter 5’s sense was really about musicianship that feels aesthetically natural, I’ve begun here by speaking about the physically natural because it’s so deliberately overlooked, as if the unnaturalness of playing had nothing to do with the naturalness of musicality. The point, of course, is that the musicality is no more natural than the technique, less in fact: they are both forcing the body (including the brain) into patterns of behaviour and response that could be different. But there are many other ways of being musical (sounding notes persuasively) and only some other ways of playing scales at speed. There might be much to gain, though, from exploring kinds of musicality that were less physically contortionate. Attempts have been made. Dorothy Taubmann, for example, offered a much less damaging way of playing the piano, leading to less pain and injury, yet her work is widely condemned by piano pedagogues. Katharine Liley has written a fascinating study of this issue, showing just how much of conventional piano pedagogy rests on beliefs about strength that are simply not consistent with the anatomical facts. And she’s shown how values such as finger strength, and the ways in which they are valorised by language, in turn call on gender prejudice and a particularly Protestant ethic in which pain is necessary for gain.[1] We can see in this example how much what is sold as natural depends on particular cultural assumptions, including assumptions that we are trying hard to remove from other aspects of our lives. In classical music they live on unchallenged, in fact are enforced.

Later (Chapter 10) we’ll look in greater depth at the notion of normativity and how it calls on gender prejudices, including misogyny and homophobia, as it forces musicians to be conventional and obedient. That mapping of norm to nature, as normativity becomes naturalisation, is one of the most insidious processes involved in coercing musicians into musicking as they are told. That it is also engaging powerful prejudices tells us much about the sickness of the WCM world.

Continue to 6.6 ‘Performers and performances today are very unalike’

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[1] Liley, Katharine. 2019. The Feeble Fingers of Every Unregenerate Son of Adam: Cultural Values in Pianists’ Health and Skill-Development’ (PhD thesis, Royal College of Music, London).


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