Monday, September 29, 2008

Know Your Brand

I am a hopeless political junkie, and especially in this election season, I manage to waste astonishingly large amounts of time reading a huge array of political blogs and websites. I pore over polls, read analyses and insider reports, and watch video clips of candidates and pundits. (What can I say? I guess living in DC gets to you after awhile.) Beyond just following the latest news and horse race data, I'm always trying to understand how the "average" voter, if there is such a thing anymore, thinks about politics and elections. I have already figured out that I am an atypical voter - very interested in politics, and generally much more informed about the issues and candidates than most. Because of this, I often feel like I can't understand why the parties and candidates make the choices they make. "Why is Bush saying that? Hasn't everyone seen that clip from the last Judiciary Committee session?", I think. The answer, of course, is that he's not speaking to me and the other 25 nerds who were checking C-SPAN last week. He's speaking to the folks out there who spend very little time following politics, and whose political views are often heavily influenced by the brief soundbites they catch on the TV news.

One thing that political strategists often discuss is brands and branding. In our consumerist society, every candidate and political party is a product, sold in the same way that cars and computers are. A political brand is a gut sense of the basic characteristics and style of a candidate or party, and is a stronger indication of how a voter will behave than are the actual views of the voter on the issues of the day. People have political brand loyalty: A young person who votes Democratic in two elections in a row is very likely to remain loyal to the Democratic "brand" for most of their life. Brand identity can change over time, but only very gradually as events conspire to create a new narrative associated with that brand: some pollsters argue that more and more voters today associate Democrats with fiscal responsibility, certainly a change of brand for the "tax-and-spend" party of old.

There is an analogy here to our playing (you knew there had to be one, right? Why else would I post this?). We each have a "brand" to our playing - a basic set of sound and style characteristics that hold true through everything we play. That brand is created from our core technique elements, the influence of our most important teachers and mentors, and our most basic musical preferences. I make the type of sound that I do on the bass because at some level I like it - it feels right to me, for reasons that I honestly can't even define exactly. It developed through my early years of study and my student days. Even as I have developed a more diverse palette of tone colors and styles in my playing, I still keep one foot (or at least a toe) in this core sound concept that I bring to my musical work.

Most successful politicians are able to connect to voters because they are true to their branding and they believe in and like it. John Kerry was not trusted by many voters because they didn't believe that the brand he was being sold as (tough-guy war hero) was the brand they were hearing when he spoke to them (nerdy policy wonk). Likewise, when we try to play in a way that is too far from our brand - too different from the core sound we like and believe in - we can come across as not "solid" or "consistent" in our performance.

Our brand can change over time. When we hear a performance that deeply affects us, we may incorporate elements of it into our own playing, and as we become more comfortable with those changes, we gradually "own" them, incorporating them into our brand of sound. When I first heard cellist Anner Bylsma, I was transfixed by his musicality and sound concept in his performances of the Bach suites. I feel that my "brand" of Bach playing has changed as a result, although I still don't play Bach exactly like him - that would have been more rebranding than I was comfortable with. But there has definitely been an effect.

Our brand can change over time, and if you are a student player just starting out, you may not even fully know or understand your brand of playing yet. You may not yet have the technique to fully realize the sound that you want. You may still be experimenting with your sound and style. But over time, each of us has to accept and learn to "sell" what truly moves us as musicians.

This is NOT to say that we should adjust our sound and style to the music that we are playing, or that we should play everything the same way! Successful politicians have to sell all sorts of ideas to all sorts of people, and they switch up their style to suit. But in the end, they always come back to their core brand. Likewise, we have to make musical choices that are informed by the history and style of the music we are playing, and by the style and temperament of those whom we are playing with. But if we are always trying to play in a way that we don't really believe in, it will be hard for us to "sell" our performance to the listener.

When talented students who are preparing for orchestral auditions come to me, I often end up addressing this topic. These players usually have great technique, and have studied the excerpts carefully. They know just what is involved in the preparation of every part of the audition. They may have already made it to the finals of many auditions. They are looking for the final ingredient to push themselves to the top and win an orchestra job. In many cases, that ingredient is making sure their playing doesn't veer too far away from their core style and sound. Sometimes players will hear that a particular orchestra likes a certain sound - that they are a "ballsy" orchestra, or a "chamber-music-ey" bass section. They will then try so hard to change their playing to match that concept of sound that they end up losing their brand - the very thing that makes their playing distinctive and enjoyable. I encourage these players to dial back these changes and instead focus on authentically selling what they are about as musicians. In the end, I feel that an audition committee will always be more sold on a sincere presentation of one's core brand than they will by someone trying to sell a playing style that isn't coming naturally from them.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

PBDB Book Review Dept.: Sound in Motion

Sound in Motion: A Performer's Guide to Greater Musical Expression. By David McGill. Indiana University Press.

Having introduced everybody to the influential and important American pedagogue and oboist Marcel Tabuteau in my last book review, I thought I should review a couple of the books that focus on his teaching and playing methods. Certainly one of the most informative and entertaining of these is “Sound in Motion,” by Chicago Symphony principal bassoonist David McGill. While not a student of Tabuteau himself, he is a Curtis grad who was exposed to Tabuteau’s methods through his own teacher, Tabuteau student John de Lancie, and through his general influence in the Curtis and Philadelphia communities. The book is a well-written and opinionated treatise on almost every aspect of the art of musicianship, taking as its basis the methods of Tabuteau, but moving well beyond into discussions of auditioning, intonation, and an extended section on the Baroque performance movement.

His discussion of the Tabuteau system takes up the first half of the book, and is definitely the most approachable of any I’ve read. He organizes the chapters of this section around core musical concepts - rhythm, harmony, motive, and musical function - showing how Tabuteau’s concepts can help organize and structure each facet of musical analysis. His frequent and clearly organized musical examples are especially effective in showing the many ways that Tabuteau’s system and clarify the musical structure of any line. He shows both idealized examples that work perfectly in the Tabuteau system and real-world excerpts that show that no perfect, all-encompassing “rules” can ever completely define how to approach musicality.

In the second half of the book, he moves gradually away from Tabuteau and into his own views on a vast array of musical topics. A section on specific issues of woodwind playing then moves into a long section headed, appropriately, “Controversy.” In this section he lays out his views on vibrato, tone, intonation, ornamentation, and engages in a long discussion on Baroque performance practice. Without going too extensively into his views on any one of these topics, I would characterize his overall musical worldview as conservative in character and evolutionary in outlook. He idolizes the style of the early- and mid-20th Century Romantic master performers such as Fritz Kreisler and Maria Callas, and has a dim view of most, if not all, of the Baroque performance movement. He makes many valid points about some of the more dogmatic and thoughtless exponents of Baroque style, but in my opinion goes way too far in his criticism, often getting more than a little strident and polemical as he goes after even the very idea that performing on original instruments can be musically equivalent to performance on modern instruments, much less superior:

The baroque performance practice movement of the late twentieth century resurrected many of the original instruments used centuries ago. It is interesting to hear what these extinct instruments sound like with modern players... It can also show us quite clearly why these instruments were improved.

Note the use of the words “extinct” and “improved.”

McGill’s is not an unusual view among many musicians, and few can deny that the rich tradition of performers like Callas and Kreisler are priceless resources for us all to draw from as performers. McGill seems reluctant to consider that the alternate styles that come from Baroque instruments - that indeed come from the very nature of these instruments - can be as enriching and profound in their way as more Romantic styles can be in theirs. He is clearly an intelligent person and a strong advocate for his position, but I come away from the second half of his book with the feeling that he views the evolution of ideas of phrasing and musical expression that differ with the late-Romantic styles of Tabuteau and Callas as distasteful, unnecessary and even dangerous to music. From the section on his recommended listening:

When I tell people about the recordings of the musical artists whom I most admire, I am often met with the question: “Yes, but who do you like who’s alive?” It is disconcerting to hear this question because I believe that, through their recordings, the great performers of the past are as alive today as they ever were.... Their greatness is not related to fad or fashion. It is timeless....

McGill sees an evolution of musical ideas through history (peaking with artists of the early and mid- twentieth century) that, in an almost Darwinian way, led to “better and better” musicality. However, this approach neglects the role of culture and society in musical style, and can turn changes or developments in style - which are real and important - into “improvements” that mean that what came before is by definition inferior.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It has been some time since I have seen any book on musical style and phrasing this good. While I encourage readers to seek out a variety of views on the topics he lists in his “Controversy” section, none of them should be a reason to turn down the opportunity to learn from Mr. McGill. Thought-provoking, well-organized, and well-written, his book is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to seriously apply themselves to learning greater musicality. Indeed, McGill’s most important point throughout the book is that, by studying the structural elements of music, and by analyzing the core principles that guide great performers like Tabuteau, we can apply basic principles to our own phrasing that can dramatically improve our musicality. Interpretation is not primarily about “feeling” or “talent,” he writes, but about study, logic, and hard work:

Musical expression is not just the posession of the chosen few. By virtue of our innate intelligence and human capacity to express and feel our emotions, we are all born with the potential to be musically expressive... The real talent that leads to musical expression is intelligence. The development of expression is the development of the intellect.

This smart and inspiring book is one that any serious music student or performer should seek out and read.