I was sitting in orchestra rehearsal last week, looking around at all the different people, and thinking about what makes a great musician ‘great.’ Everyone in the orchestra tries hard to play well, to get the notes and entrances right, to satisfy the wishes and directions of the conductor, but probably no one in the group could really be considered to be ‘great.’ After all, we’re not playing at Carnegie Hall anytime soon!
To me, what makes a musician ‘great’ is how they use their bodies, minds, skills, and personalities to present music to others. While a sense of an individual’s own personality may be evident in the performance, it is not a selfish or self-serving display. It is all about the music, not the performer. I believe that it is the task of all performers to find the great things in a piece of music and illuminate them for the listener. A great performance seems to spontaneously flow out a performer, rather than be a quasi-recitation of musical ideas. A great performer demonstrates that he or she understands how the music is constructed and has specific ideas about how to lead the listener on a kind of aural tour through the piece. All secrets are revealed one note at a time.
I have recently discovered flutist Jasmine Choi, whom I consider to be a great flutist. At first I thought that she is primarily an orchestral flutist, but actually she plays many different styles of music, all of them with the same verve and skill. The performances she has posted on YouTube show a performer who is fully engaged with the music and uses every ounce of energy and personality she has to present the music to her audience.
What I appreciate most is a lack of self-consciousness in her performance, nothing gets in the way of the music. This is a quality that I admire in many of the musicians that I consider to be ‘great.’ I find this inspiring and it reminds me of what I want to achieve in my own performances. This is one of my own great weaknesses, my difficulty to be relatively unself-conscious in my playing. It is what often keeps my playing from sounding like I enjoy what I am doing and want the audience to share my enjoyment. I get too wrapped up in trying to get everything ‘right’ and end up suppressing the joy of playing the music. We earn the right to that joy with diligent practice and study, but it is easy to forget that enjoyment of performance could be the goal. I had forgotten this over the past year, having become distracted with too much work and too little meaningful practice, but I’ve been re-inspired and am trying to get back on the ‘joy of music’ bandwagon.
So listen to those that inspire you, let them give you that extra boost you may be needing to help you find your own greatness. Then perhaps you can provide wonderfully inspiring performances for your audiences!