The other day I was listening to a ballet dancer reminiscing on radio about the time when, as a girl, she took part in a ballet masterclass given by Dame Margot Fonteyn. Dame Margot, it seems, was more terrifying in person than the students had expected. ‘She hardly smiled at all during the class’. But clearly the experience left an impact: ‘She taught me that every step has meaning’, the dancer said reverently.
It struck me that the same idea permeated the performance masterclasses I took as a student. The idea that every note or phrase has meaning was inspiring. Music didn’t just sound lovely. It wasn’t just a relaxing chance for the audience to let its mind wander. It wasn’t just an opportunity for the performer to show off their dexterity. Music had the potential to be more than that: in performance, it could build something in front of you, leading from one note or phrase to the next with the irresistible logic and momentum of your favourite story or poem.
If you let your mind wander when playing, you might find that muscle memory would carry you through to the end, but your performance would be superficial – and strangely unsatisfying. If you paid attention, however, listening to every note and what it was trying to say, you would find ways of linking the phrases which passed beyond pleasant melody into the realm of making sense, to you and to your listeners too. This was hard to achieve, but wonderful when you managed it.
Today, we live in an atmosphere of instant-reaction, disposable culture. We’re all swept up in the latest sensation to explode on social media. Celebrity doesn’t need to be earned. Mega-selling pop groups are put together by marketing experts who select for looks, attitudes, back stories. Visual appeal can be more important than content. Skill is not enough – sometimes not even a minimum requirement.
However, if you are in it for the long haul, you need something that will make your work feel satisfying when you’re on your own, practising your instrument day after day, year after year. For me, a big part of that motivation is the feeling that there is a tale to be told by the music, an argument to be constructed, a journey to be depicted. Step by step, travelling towards meaning.