Prof. Lee Bartel
Tuesday October 30th, 2012
On Virtuosic Performance
One of the greatest joys in the life of a musician is a rewarding performance. Whether it’s based on a receptive audience, or a more personal out of body experience, pulling off a show that you can be particularly proud of is highly satisfying. By drawing on recent studies and literature, as well as my own personal experience, this paper will look at the science behind a great performance and what it takes for your brain to reach that level. How does a virtuoso become virtuosic?
Can one person be born better equipped for the needs of a musician than another? As Robert Jourdain explains in his book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, an extraordinary musician, whom he refers to as a virtuoso, is often thought to possess better bones, muscles, nerves, and brains than those musicians who never quite reach the same level (Jourdain, 223). I believe it has a lot more to do with nurture, and less so with nature. During my undergraduate degree at Toronto’s Humber College I had a classmate who was often described as a prodigy. While I had started studying the saxophone seriously at the age of 17, he had already been in a structured 8 hour a day practice routine for ten years. His early exposure and dedication is what gave him his unmatched facility and musicianship. Studies show that the brain’s corpus callosum, which facilitates interhemispheric communication, is significantly larger in musicians with early and intensive training (Schlaug, 2001). A 15% increase in size and number of fibers is an enormous difference in the amount of information being transferred. As far as nature vs. nurture is concerned there is evidence that both play important roles in virtuosity.
There is one phrase that has undoubtedly echoed in the ears of every musician since they first began their education: practice makes perfect. It is very rare to meet a musician with excellent technique and facility on their instrument that hasn’t reached that level without years of practice. Although a musical performance relies heavily on physicality – motion, breath, dexterity, endurance – all things that are perfected through continual practice, so much more has to do with mental hierarchies. While describing how the limits of an average musician’s motor system can sometimes expand, Jourdain writes:
“Such experiences suggest that the better part of virtuosity may have little to do with gross neurological advantage. Instead, virtuosity may depend on how the musician’s mind is organized during performance – how the body is comported, how attention is focused, and above all, how imagery is brought to bear. In this view, virtuosity is mostly a matter of abstract planning, not raw muscular control.” (Jourdain, 225)
The deep, flexible and well trained mental hierarchies of a professional musician allows their mind to be freed from the more specific and intricate details involved in tasks like sight-reading music and performing in an orchestra. Jourdain describes an amateur musician’s experience with this world as exhilarating and he is correct in saying so. I can recall sitting in my parent’s living room listening to a new jazz album my father had recently recorded; I was probably 15 or 16 years old at the time. We were listening to an improvised piano solo and I began humming the melody as soon as it came back in. My mother asked me how I knew that the solo was going to end and I realized that I had just “felt” it. At this point I wasn’t necessarily following the harmony or the relationships between the chords, but I wasn’t counting bars anymore either. I knew on an unconscious level that the form was ending on the last chorus of that particular solo, and I knew that due to my previous observations and experiences in similar situations. Jourdain maintains that in “miraculous” instances in performance when an amateur plays something considered above their skill level, the physical capability has probably long been there, it’s just the pathway that hasn’t been formed yet.
In a 1993 study titled Cognition in Jazz Improvisation: An Exploratory Study, Mendonça and Wallace investigated the thinking processes of jazz improvisers in performance, with a particular focus on the cognitive processes related to perception and reasoning of time and to creativity. This study showed that a deep level of knowledge and comfort with the genre is integral for the musician to step back, look at the larger musical structure, and have a “conversation” with his partner.
“The analysis of the “I Got Rhythm” protocols for Group One provides additional insight into how improvisers collaborate while simultaneously abiding by constraints of an evolving musical structure and generating, evaluating and executing new ideas.” (Mendonça and Wallace, 6)
Once you have the neural pathways and hierarchies in place to function automatically at a superficial level, the planning and anticipation skills necessary to perform music will be in place.
A virtuosic performance depends on many things, please note that this paper doesn’t even attempt to address psychological aspects. Jourdain raises the question of why some musicians will achieve greatness while other musicians, who practice just as hard and for as long, will never reach the highest standard of musicality. It seems to be an ideal mélange of multiple factors, including early exposure, reinforced mental hierarchies, and pure physical advantages that lead to an easier road for a lucky few.
Deutsch, Diana. The Psychology of Music. New York: Academic, 1982. Print.
Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. New York (NY): Quill, 1997. Print.
Mendonça, David, and William A. Wallace. "Cognition in jazz improvisation: An exploratory study." 26th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Chicago, IL. 2004.
Schlaug, Gottfried. "The Brain of Musicians." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930.1 (2001): 281-99. Print.