I’d like to begin this series by discussing the performance of music. That is what I do as cellist of the Ciompi Quartet, and it’s what I teach at Duke. Not surprisingly, I have a high regard for the activity.
Classical music is a form of magic. Without words, without pictures, it takes us to new worlds. It reveals aspects of life that cannot be reached in any other way. Take a chance sometime: Listen to a string quartet by Schubert or a piano concerto by Mozart!
To perform music well requires three quite distinct qualities: technique, style and individuality.
Technique refers to accuracy—of rhythm, of intonation, of sound. (Speed is part of technique as well. Audiences love it when a musician or a group of musicians play at top speed. But speed is not the defining feature of technique. In fact, playing fast allows a musician to get away with flaws in other areas.) A big technical issue on the cello is intonation, playing the right pitch. We don’t have frets, so our fingers have to be extremely accurate when they land on a note. Playing in tune requires constant vigilance. Rhythms must be played accurately, of course. But accuracy in rhythm means little: We have to go beyond correctness and bend the rhythm according to what the music demands at any given moment. Quality of sound on the cello has to do mainly with our bows, and here again there are an infinite number of possibilities. The variables include how hard the bow presses on the string, how fast it moves across the string and where on the string it is placed vis a vis the bridge. (This leaves out the question of the instrument itself. Cellos cost between $200 and $6,000,000. The difference in prices has to do with tone quality and antique value.) Well, so much for technique.
The issue of style begins to get at the heart of the matter. Good style on the cello starts with a deep understanding of the composers whose music we play and continues with knowing how to translate that understanding into sound. Bach requires one style, Beethoven another and Brahms a third—and these are merely three of the great composers. Examples of what constitutes style include phrasing—how to shape a group of measures; dynamics—how loud, how soft, how sudden; accentuation, lengths of notes, changes in tempos and emotional intensity. Every composer has a different language, and we have to know all of them.
The third quality that makes up good playing is personality, individuality. It’s not sufficient to play accurately and to play stylistically. Performance is a collaboration between composer and player. Composers provide a text, a map, and the player must bring it to life. We have to project the music to our audience, which means that we have to project ourselves into the music. This can be the hardest lesson of all to learn. And it is something that must continue to grow, to deepen throughout our lives.
All this constitutes playing music. It is what I do and what I try to teach. Duke gives academic credit to this pursuit. An hour per week in cello performance gets a student one-half the credit of a normal academic course. I, of course, think that this undervalues the subject. What is worse, though, is that students must pay an extra fee for taking the course, and this deters some students from applying. The current cost for an hour lesson is $650 per semester, and the administration is looking to raise the cost next year.
Performing is different from knowing or understanding. We can know and understand a novel or an equation. But when we play music we are part of it, actively, physically. I suppose it’s closer to doing a lab experiment. Musicians, along with actors and dancers, are sometimes referred to as re-creative artists, to distinguish us from the composer, author or choreographer. I happily accept that distinction. But I insist, for myself and for my students, that we are an essential part of the creative process, and I think we deserve full credit for it.
Fred Raimi is a professor of the practice of music and a member of the Ciompi Quartet. His column is the first installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.