Jourdain, Robert. “... to Performance.” In Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, 198-235. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.
In this chapter of Robert Jourdain’s book, which I’m sure most of the bloggers here have already read, Jourdain goes over the physiological and psychological aspects of the performance of music. A large part of the chapter is devoted to discussing how it is that muscles, especially those in the hands, move, and which parts of the brain are responsible (or thought to be responsible) for this movement. Jourdain also discusses aspects of musical performance such as eye movements in relation to reading music, and sight-reading music. As well, there is some discussion of such issues as “muscle memory” in performing music, and the imagery involved in performing music, especially kinaesthetic imagery and kinaesthetic memory. Finally, there is some information on what constitutes musical “talent,” and the types of people and personalities that possess such a thing.
I wanted to read this chapter of the book critically, and reflect upon it, because I am a Music Performance student. Personally, I often have trouble in performances, and I was hoping that this chapter would address some of those. For example, when I get nervous, I often shake. Some people sweat, or get cold hands, but I find that my arms physically shake. This is often a problem, as it can throw my technique off balance. From a very brief section of Jourdain’s chapter I learned, or at least was encouraged to recall, that during performance, when a musician is under stress, he or she often has to deal with the “fight or flight” response, whereupon, as Jourdain puts it, “Primitive parts of the brain gorge the bloodstream with chemical messengers that prepare the body for action. As heartbeat and respiration rise, muscles tense and automatic reflexes quicken, unsettling the delicate balance between action and perception.” (p. 203) In short, when any musician performs, he or she must overcome the age-old “animal” impulses that were once key to survival.
My question, though, is how does a performer do this? Jourdain states that the brain “must fight its own elemental impulses” (p. 203) during a musical performance. But how? How can I train myself to do this more effectively? Is it even possible? Or would it be more productive to work with the “fight or flight” responses, in such a way that I can use all of that excess adrenaline to make my performance more exciting? And, if I were to explore this, how and where would I start? Nerves are such a key part of a musical performance. I’m surprised that Jourdain did not pay a little more attention to this issue in his chapter.
Jourdain’s article also raised some other questions, albeit ones that are specific to me and my own performance issues. As I stated in my summary, much of Jourdain’s chapter was devoted to describing how the brain is able to make our muscles and body parts move in a musical performance, and which parts of the brain are active during this. I have problems with extraneous movements, though. I often tap my foot, or raise my shoulder, unconsciously, often in time with a beat, but more often than not in no specific meter or time at all. So which part of my brain is responsible for this unconscious movement? Is it inhibitive to the success of my musical performance, i.e. would I be better off without all of this extra movement, and would it help my performance? Is it “distracting” to my unconscious mind, in a way? What I mean is, is the extra motion detracting from the energy I should be spending on useful movements?
Finally, Jourdain’s chapter raised some questions in my mind about my conscious awareness during a performance. I have heard some people say that, in a truly effective and beautiful musical performance, the performer hardly “thinks” about the music he or she is playing at all, and the inner commentary that usually accompanies a musician’s playing just disappears. So, how does one achieve this? And what is the significance of our conscious thoughts during performance? I know that often I can undermine myself when playing for an audience, berating myself as I play. I also know that my conscious thoughts can cause unconscious reactions and anticipations, such as when I see a difficult passage coming up in the music. I will cringe internally, and then end up tensing my shoulders and my arms. So, how can I avoid this? I know that, often, positive thoughts help me, and sometimes positive imagery. For example, I love the colour yellow, so if I think of yellow during a difficult piece, sometimes I can induce positive feelings and emotions, even while I’m nervous or scared. Is there a more effective way to overcome these anxieties, though? And is there a way to “shut off” my internal monologue when I play?
These are the questions that I ask myself as a performer, and unfortunately Jourdain’s chapter, “... to Performance,” simply raised more questions in my mind. I appreciate knowing how the brain works in its feedback loops, and the biological make-up of my musculature and what this means to performance, but I would have liked more of a discussion of the psychological aspects of playing, and how our conscious minds can either aid or undermine our musical efforts.
If anyone has some literature suggestions for me, so that I may answer my questions, please respond to my post! I would love to read up more on these aspects of performance.