By Nancy Buchan
There’s a generosity of spirit – a musical selflessness – that sets some musicians apart from their equally skilled fellow musicians. They have an uncanny ability to affect people emotionally through their playing or singing, and this is why we turn to music in the first place – to have an emotional experience. Sometimes they are described as a ‘real musician’, or maybe a ‘musician’s musician’. Or they are said to have that elusive thing called ‘charisma’ or ‘star power’. That kind of trivializes their abilities, and I’m not really talking about commercial success or pop stardom – I’m talking about the power to tap into our deep wells of emotion and make us feel sadness and hope and all those things in between.
Whether in the classical world where technique and precision rule, or in the bars of Bourbon Street where heart and soul and stamina are valued, professional musicians learn the protocol and rules that are important to their growth and credibility. Like any profession, musicians are expected to adhere to certain standards. Like being on time. Like having good equipment. Like dressing appropriately for a gig. Like being prepared musically for a gig. Like carrying your share of the equipment. Like showing up sober. For a female, like not dating the guys in the band. Like never jumping onstage without an invitation. Like trying to play your best always, no matter what the circumstance or setting or who is listening. Obviously professional musicians have invested lots of time and effort into learning their craft, but it eventually boils down to whether you’ve got ‘it’ or you don’t. Whatever ‘it’ is.
In the exalted circles of classical concert artists, Itzhak Perlman is the reigning virtuoso of the violin. He has had an incredible career and impact, always going out of his way to bring his music to unlikely or isolated places, whether it was Eastern bloc countries or children in rural Africa. He has played for royalty, toured with every major symphony on the planet, won Grammys, played at Obama’s inauguration, did a spot on Sesame Street, plays jazz and on movie scores (Schindler’s List stands out as one of his most emotionally charged recordings), and has endowed music schools so young musicians without a bunch of money could study from the best. All this from a guy who was born in Israel of Polish immigrants, and who walks with crutches and performs in a wheelchair as a result of a childhood bout of Polio. He changed the whole snotty attitude of classical music almost singlehandedly, by talking to the audience and making the music accessible to everyone. Obviously he is brilliant technically and plays with great precision, but more importantly, he has an enthusiasm for all types of music and an openness and desire to share. A generosity of musical spirit. I finally got to see him perform with the New Orleans symphony years ago, after hearing recordings of him and admiring him from afar for many years. The lights went down, he clumsily came to center stage, and within about 3 minutes I was completely overwhelmed with emotion and in tears. Didn’t see that one coming. That’s what ‘it’ is.
One opera director was asked what set the great singers apart from others with equally wonderful voices and training, and he said they always have a special fire in their eyes and seem to be able to influence the mood of their audience by sheer will. Confidence is part of it, but it is something that emanates from the performer – a level of intensity and honesty. He said musical charisma is like light – it tends to spread through a room and ignite everyone in its path. I don’t listen to much opera, but I (and lots of other folks) love listening to the Three Tenors. Individually they all have a compelling stage presence, and together the energy just soars off of them. They clearly love what they are doing and love singing with each other. Their one-up-manship is playful – not some self-centered need to be better than the next guy. I particularly love Placido Domingo as he obviously loves his audience and connects with them. He has no arrogance or pretentiousness. His preparation is total, so he has the freedom to completely inhabit the music with focus and vulnerability. Some critic might speak of an imperfection in his singing, but no one cares, because he also has ‘it’.
Folks talk about talent, but that’s another word that’s hard to define. There’s some weird need to believe that only a privileged few have the ability to make music, and that somehow it’s a mysterious blessing from on high. That’s just bull. Or a convenient excuse for the undisciplined and lazy to fall back on. Everyone has some music inside of them and maybe some people have an easier time relating to the math of music or they have a more discerning ear, but it’s the ones who practice that become fine musicians. A lot of scientist types have studied this, and they all conclude that practice – relentless repetition and study – is at the root of all musical progress and without it no amount of ‘talent’ will make you a good player. An old blues guy in the French Quarter told me never to dis-respect a musician who’s playing a crummy gig, ‘cause at least he ain’t working at Burger King. He is practicing his craft and acting professionally and trying to play better as an individual and as a band member, whether anyone is listening or not. Generosity of musical spirit. He also told me to try new stuff every night and throw out whatever the audience doesn’t relate to and move on. What’s the point of insisting on playing something that doesn’t affect people?
Most professional musicians have a decent work ethic, maybe because they had to work pretty hard to just get to that status. In modern music there are many singers who interpret the same songs, or players who play already established parts, and then there’s the musician who makes it real and meaningful to the listeners. Lots of guitar players can play the same notes as Eric Clapton, but his delivery comes from that deep well and it affects the listeners more than from someone else who merely has the same chops. Stevie Wonder had no formal training, but he also has ‘it’. He says that when he performs he tries to re-create inside himself the mood he was in when he wrote a song – an emotionally exhausting thing to do I would guess – but it brings another level of understanding to why he is so effective as a performer and writer. A generosity of musical spirit.
Well, no matter what ‘it’ is, when players play from their heart we feel ‘it’. As players, we grow and expand when we play with others who encourage us and show us their hearts without any competition or attempt to explain themselves. So get out and listen to live music – it will make you feel better and happier and more united with the rest of humankind!
“Opera is when a guy gets stabbed and instead of bleeding he sings.” Edward Gardner
“I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see.” Jimi Hendrix
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Bob Marley