Self Awareness and Music Performance

Posted: January 21, 2012 in Piano

Glenn GouldThis morning while I was sharpening chisels in the shop, reading the Tweeter feed and enjoying the cold morning with a cup of hot coffee, I read a tweet from @a_flat_miner with a link to Rosalyn Tureck’s recording of the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach.

As I listened to Tureck I was struck with the idea that her approach focused more on the music and less on the person playing the music. The style in the work was more delicate, as if each note were given its moment on the stage with no interference from the player. There is a difference in my mind between music that is being played and music which I am playing.

It often occurs while playing music that the player is unaware that any effort is being made. In the Tao we are advised to “do by not doing”. Those who play golf know that each part of the swing must first be, learned, memorized and committed to muscle memory. After these several steps are learned, one is then told not to think about one’s swing when hitting the ball. In the movie Caddie Shack, Chevy Chase, who plays the role as a resident gold pro, instructs an amateur golfer to “be the ball”. Through humor the point of the necessity for a detachment between object and ego is necessary in order to achieve the desired relationship between ego and object.

Ego and object are the respective expressions — I am playing and the music that is being played.

The part of the brain used to play the music is not self-aware. It is just a cog in a machine. The brain is aware that it is performing a task, but it is not aware of the how the performance of the task is being accomplished. I can do math but I cannot explain to you how I do math. I have no awareness of how my brain translates ideas into languages. I am aware however that I can translate ideas into languages. Therefore I am aware that I can play music, but I am not aware how I am able to play it.

These two functions, differing in the presence of self-awareness, differ in the degree of their necessity when performing a piece of music. It is not necessary to the performance that one be aware that one is playing the music. It is only necessary that the brain perform the tasks necessary to play the music. Of course, you must be aware of what you are playing while you are learning a piece of music, or a golf swing, but after the piece is mastered, it is no longer necessary to be aware that you are playing the music. You must forget that you are playing, turn off self-awareness, and just “be the ball.”

“Be the music.”  This is also expressed as “being one with the music.” It is an idea expressed in Zen; becoming one with self.

Within our minds is discord and cacophony. Who has played before a large crowd of listeners and not been aware that “I sit here on this stage before the audience.” We become self-conscience. It is possible to lose that awareness but it is not necessary. One could say, “I am on this stage before an audience playing music,” but the music does not depend on your awareness that you are on the stage, that an audience exists, that you stand before them, or that you are playing the music. All of those things depend on self-awareness, and self-awareness is not necessary to perform the music.

In fact, a performer is encouraged not to be distracted by the presence of the audience. “Forget that you are on the stage.” “Quiet your mind.” “Focus on the music.”

All of these encouragements (which come in many forms) direct the performer to detach one’s self from the music. It is not about the performer; it is only about the music.

Now I return to the comparison between Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck. I cannot know what either of these artists thought while they were playing, or if they were each detached from self.  Turek’s music elicits a thought within me that there is less ego present in her playing than is evident in Gould’s.  There is no part of the performance by either artist which elicits this thought. It is self-produced by this listener. I seek an understanding as to why the two styles are different; why I can detect a difference and what I might attribute to be the cause of that difference. My analysis reveals nothing about Gould or Tureck. It only reveals something about me. Tureck’s interpretation of Bach’s music inspired me. (It was not Tureck or Bach or the interpretation which inspired me – it was only the music which inspired.)

I am aware of this detachment which occurs when music is played. I am never aware that I am not aware I am playing until a period of detachment has occurred. It is like driving to work; arriving at your destination only to become aware that you have no memory of having made the trip. We are never aware that we are unaware. We ask, “Where did the time go?” when we become absorbed by a task and lose track of the time. The use of the word “absorbed” implies that we are drawn into the task; we become one with it.

When I am unaware, I do not know that I am not playing well (although too many mistakes made can jostle you from your detachment, and quite rudely!). When I am unaware, I am engulfed by the music. It flows. I am not relevant. There is no awareness that I am part of the transaction. What is left in this reduction of self is the purity of the music expressed.

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