On Feeling it, or Not

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I’ve had a few conversations recently about the principle that a performer should feel the emotions that the music they perform will evoke in their listeners. It’s a widely-promulgated view; I came across it recently in Joszef Gat’s Technique of Piano Playing, and a friend shared a quote from CPE Bach which I suspect might be one of the earlier examples, articulating what was then the new aesthetic of sensibility. It was readily absorbed into the Romantic tradition in formulations such as ETA Hoffman’s idea of music ‘speaking directly from the heart to the heart’, and, like much of that tradition has become pretty much a truism in general conceptions of musical performance today.

The principle articulates an aesthetic of authenticity, or honesty, in performance, the idea that the performer means what they are saying. It conceives of the act of performance as one of communication, as a transmission of meaning from one consciousness to others, and assumes that meaning is of a type that is personally engaging and generates mutual sympathy. If you have been involved in making or listening to music in the west in the 20th or 21st centuries, this will all sound sensible and very much what performance is about.

What was interesting about the CPE Bach quote was that it was accompanied by a brief commentary that contrasted this principle with the ideas of Diderot, who contended that the actor should create the illusion of emotions without actually feeling them, which would prevent the actor being in full control of the performance. (Though a bit of googling suggests that CPE Bach’s comment was probably not a direct critique of Diderot, since the latter’s essay which develops these ideas was not published until after both their deaths. Still, one imagines that Diderot was not the only person to hold this view in the 18th century so Bach’s critique was probably of a widely-held position, most famously articulated by Diderot.)

But Diderot’s point is one of the reasons I have been thinking about this principle lately. I know a singer who had been struggling to sing the song ‘Dance With My Father’ with his chorus because it speaks to him so directly at a personal level he finds himself in tears by halfway through. He has found a way round this, but it involves consciously dissociating from the message of the song and replacing it with deliberately incongruous imagery in his head as he sings.

I have also been finding at the piano that whilst I can enter into the spirit of calm and meditative material and continue to play well, music that is angsty or surprising can have some quite disruptive effects on my technique. Angsty and surprising music often involves quite a lot of notes in quick succession over a considerable range of the keyboard and if I’m not in a state of physical and mental poise there’s really no chance I’m going to be able to play them without making a splashy mess of it all.

My self-talk for these kinds of passages increasingly includes instructions such as ‘Like you’re doing the hoovering, Liz’ (reference comes from this post from a classic blog), and ‘Remember, resting bitch face’, to remind me not to get emotionally caught up in the wildness of the narrative. If I keep mentally in control, I may then remember to get on with the self-talk that maintains physical calm, such as, ‘lengthen the back’, ‘release the legs,’ and ‘both buttocks down please’.

This makes it sound like my playing is a very mechanical affair, but in fact, as Diderot suggests, it’s in remaining at least somewhat detached that I can reliably realise my imaginative intentions with some clarity. It’s not that I am unaware of the emotional content of the music, or that I don’t care about it, it’s that the performance is not about me, it’s about the listener and their relationship with the music.

The metaphor that came to mind, before I followed up the Diderot reference and found myself with a more fully-developed aesthetic, was that of a therapist or counsellor. Obviously, someone whose job it is to support people in emotional difficulty needs to understand and sympathise with what their clients are going through. But they don’t need to experience it themselves; indeed, one of the things that led the development of the theory of emotional contagion was the problems therapists found themselves with when they did start sharing the emotional states of their patients.

So my current thinking is that we don’t necessarily need to feel the emotion of the music in real time to produce a valid and effective performance. But we do need to understand the music, to have some insight into what it is like to feel like that, to care about the musical narrative we are sharing with our listeners.

Thank you, Liz, for this fine analysis.

I love your metaphor of the analysts and their patients. They are mediators for their patients' emotions, and so are performers for the composers' emotions.

Speaking of metaphors, Horowitz used to say: "be the eye of the hurricane, don't be the hurricane". Acting schools such as Stanislawski's and Brecht's also advocate some distance between the actor and the character. How much of this distance is, I guess, the whole question, and how to keep the primary emotion alive through and in spite of the performance necessities.

I would assume that actors would know more about this than musicians.

I really enjoyed your article.

Keep on shedding your wonderful light for us along your way.


Kind wishes,


Glad you enjoyed it David, and lovely to hear from you!

I love your Horowitz quote, one to remember and live by.

I often mention your use of Bernstein and Boulez as exemplars of different visions of the conductor's role, by the way - it captures so much in one holistic concept.

Well, Liz, it's my turn to thank you for mentioning my work.

You may be interested to know that it had been done under the supervision of three terrific supervisors (one of them is called Liz Garnett, you may know her...) and I'm grateful to this day for the quality of your work with me. It helped so many times when it came to combine rigor and scope in musicology.

It was a true school of thought. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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