This quote by English conductor Mark Wigglesworth, from a recent British newspaper article, has resonances with the philosophical statement “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Of course what Wigglesworth is referring to specifically is the lack of audiences for music this year, due to concert halls being closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In his article, he accepts that there has been plenty of excellent online music-making and performances, not to mention broadcasts of archive performances (for example, from the BBC Proms archive), but he makes the very important point that audiences contribute to the special atmosphere of concerts (something I have covered in a previous article), and provide “an intensity of concentration for both performer and listener”.

But does music really not “exist” if no one is listening to it being played? Of course not – and in fact, musicians are very used to playing without an audience: most of the time this is what they do when they are practicing.

Music is an act of communication whether playing to a live audience, recording equipment in the studio, or to oneself in the practice room or the comfort of one’s home. Wherever we play music –  to a full house at Carnegie Hall or at home alone – we bring to life the dots and squiggles on the page, communicating the composer’s ideas.

Never underestimate the power of just playing music alone, of being able to explore a score by oneself. For virtually every musician, professional or amateur, this kind of playing is how we get to know the music intimately and through which we make the most interesting and intriguing musical discoveries. When we play alone, we play for and to ourselves, but this is still an act of communication. The player is also a listener – and if one is undertaking serious work on a piece of music, the act of communicating to oneself and feeding back on what one has heard is a crucial part of the process of practicing and refining.

There is, of course, another important aspect to playing alone and that is the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from playing without practicing – playing for the sheer pleasure of it, nothing more. At times like this, we revel in the sounds, the feel of the notes under the fingers, the physical and emotional responses the music provokes. Many of us have favourite pieces which we turn to for this kind of playing. This kind of playing is relaxing and therapeutic – a way to unwind after a busy day, or to de-stress; it is also precious, deeply intimate and personal. And for professional musicians, whose diaries are, sadly, still mostly empty, a curious benefit of the coronavirus lockdown is that many are rediscovering the joy of this kind of music-making, free from the pressures of the profession.

There is nothing more wonderful than hunkering down with a piano in splendid isolation, especially at night! – Howard, amateur pianist

Music exists the moment it emerges from the instrument, and never ceases to exist thereafter –  and someone is always communicating and listening, even if it is just the person who is playing…..

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

The key is trying to limit yourself to perform only the pieces that will be best for you and the audience. Otherwise, you’re doing everyone—yourself, the composer, and the audience, a huge disservice.

Richard Goode, concert pianist

I’m sure most performers would agree with Richard Goode’s statement, yet many, especially younger artists, are under tremendous pressure to “play to order” and to offer programmes which will satisfy promoters or venue managers.

It’s a physical and mental impossibility to play everything well (though there are a number of musicians out there who do seem to have mastered this, but they are rarities!), and the best performers understand their limitations. This is not to say that they offer limited repertoire, rather that the music they choose to play truly demonstrates their artistry. During their training, however, musicians are discouraged from specialising and instead tend towards a broad repertoire. Obviously, this has its advantages, as it introduces the student musician to a wider variety of music and will give them an appreciation of the breadth of their instrument’s repertoire.

The advantages of performing what you know you play best seem obvious, yet it’s common to attend a concert and feel that the performer is playing music with which they are not entirely comfortable. For young artists, teachers and mentors may encourage them to select certain works to impress potential agents or promoters, while other artists play music which they think their audiences want to hear. And in the desire to offer as wide a repertoire as possible, some performers run the risk of dilution or of not studying the music deeply enough because of the pressure to learn so much.

As they mature, certain performers may develop an affinity with specific composers or genre and may choose to focus on that. Andras Schiff is one such example with his predilection for J S Bach and the Viennese masters; Piotr Anderszewski and Richard Goode are other examples. All these pianists offer their audiences impeccable and insightful performances of the music they know they play well, because when musicians know what they play well, they play to their strengths while also revealing something of themselves to their audiences. This in itself gives audiences a more meaningful concert experience, a contrast to a performance which may be reliable but just doesn’t reveal enough of the person behind the instrument and the notes. And when we play what we know we play well, we play with confidence, flair and enjoyment – all facets which audiences appreciate.

Knowing one’s limitations requires a level of humility which can be quite hard won and take time to achieve, for both professional and amateur musicians. The training of young musicians today is such that they are taught to believe they can play anything – and many have the technical and artistic facility to play some of the most challenging works in the repertoire from a relatively young age – but appreciating one’s limitations and working within them is a mark of self-insight and musical maturity.

….we’re not machines, so part of being successful at this is understanding your own limits—your taste, your approach, and only performing things that work for you.

– Richard Goode