Playing Who We Are

Sept 20, 2007

My friends know I am fond of saying that we classical musicians “play who we are.” In other words, the same qualities that make us who we are as human beings surface readily in our on stage personae and even in our interpretations of the music we play. This may seem obvious to those in the industry, but it sometimes comes as a surprise to nonmusicians. I have noticed this trend in myself, in my teachers, my colleagues and my students. It certainly helps to explain the phenomenon of stage fright – one of the reasons we care so much about how well we perform is that we have great love and respect for classical music and for the pieces that we play. But another big part of it is that in performing for an audience, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable. Performance equals revealing.

“Playing who we are” might also explain why musicians tend to be so self-absorbed: we spend hours every day – in practice, rehearsal, and performance – confronting not just the technical and musical challenges presented by specific pieces, but also confronting ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses that surface, it seems, at every turn. (Incidentally, another thing I am fond of saying is that our greatest strength and our greatest weakness are often one and the same!)

It can also explain (partially) why the relationship between a teacher and a student is often such an intense one. Intensity results naturally when a student places himself in the hands of a teacher, going to that person for guidance and mentoring in a field which is of supreme importance to the student. But discussion of musical or technical difficulty in a certain movement or passage can often illuminate issues the student struggles with personally… and so art, in this case, imitates life instead of the other way around.

All artists are motivated to express themselves. But in the field of classical music, it can often seem more indirect than in other art forms. Performers are, in a sense, one step removed from the creative process – most of us do not write the pieces we perform. Rather we take pieces written by others and interpret them – yet who we are as people always shines through those interpretive choices. For better or worse!

Lura Johnson