Instrument and Character
Barry Green is a well-established professional double-bassist who is known internationally for bringing Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game principles to musicians. Given that this was a huge boon to performers at many different levels of development, it’s not surprising that he is much more famous for this rather than for his musical performances. But then again, double-bassists somehow don’t end up being the big-name performers anyway. How many can you name?
He has identified 10 different character traits that musicians need to cultivate to move beyond technical proficiency and into artistry, and discusses each through the lens of different instrumental disciplines. For example, confidence is represented by the trumpet, love by the cello, and courage by horns and percussion.
A lot of the material he presents is distilled from interviews with professional musicians (and indeed their multiple voices speaking through his text is one of the primary strengths of the book), and so this could just be a convenient way to organise their contributions. But his point is more purposeful than this: each attribute, he claims, is particularly clearly demonstrated by the musical specialism through which he presents it.
Viola players (to take an example which is well represented in my family) are, he suggests, more tolerant because they get caught in the middle. They are literally sandwiched between treble and bass in the musical texture, providing the glue that mediates between the different tessituras; likewise they find themselves mediating between all the big egos who play these parts. Their instrument is more physically awkward to play than the violin, so they need patience as in inherent part of their praxis, and they are the butt of all the jokes, so they need to be able to avoid taking things personally.
Now, this is an intriguing set of stereotypes, and one that has a degree of plausibility to it. There is an ambiguity that Green acknowledges as to whether people with a certain character trait are more drawn to a particular instrument, or whether that instrumental discipline shapes their personality over the years. (Or maybe, all kinds of people start learning the viola, but only those with a higher degree of tolerance are in a position to make it into the profession.)
But this very circularity gets me wondering whether trying to assign causality in either direction is more an attempt to rationalise stereotypes than explain inherent qualities. The qualities Green ascribes to each instrument are significantly over-determined – there are multiple ostensible causes for each overall effect. If you take one ‘cause’ away, the others remain to keep the stereotype in play until you think up the next. It all starts to sound like the nested excuses one hears for missing homework: the hamster ate it, and before you could induce vomiting in the hamster to get it back, the cat ate the hamster. Then your pen ran out and you couldn’t buy another because you had to take the cat to the vet with vicarious ink poisoning. The story doesn’t necessarily get more plausible with each addition.
And I’m a little cautious about the usefulness of this, just as I’m a little cautious about his overall thesis that at the higher levels of musicianship, it makes more difference who you are than what you do. I’m not knocking self-awareness and personal honesty: trying to kid yourself is always an obstacle to excellence. But this process of essentialising aspects of character sends a message that you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Sorry, I have no self-discipline or persistence, so I’m not going to make it as a woodwind player.
When I was fourteen years old, I read that, as an Aries, I was a natural leader. Now, I don’t believe the position of the stars when I was born had the slightest impact either on my character or on the fact that I grew up to spend a lot of time out in front of ensembles giving them direction. But I do tend to think that that particular horoscope gave me permission to think of myself in that way.
So stereotypes can offer permission as well as prevention; they build bridges as well as walls. And we all use stereotypes as reference points to make decisions about the kinds of people we are going to become. So I think Green’s approach provides a useful tool for reflection – arguably it’s no more stereotyped in its approach to personality than Meyers-Briggs tests, and it’s certainly more musical. But it would have been nice to have a few counter-stereotype examples to encourage the contrary amongst us. I don’t know, a down-to-earth and self-deprecating conductor, perhaps, or a lyric soprano extolling the value of practical jokes or something.
*If you’re wondering if you should read it: yes, but be prepared to be a bit irritated by it. It’s written very diffusely, and is rather uneven in the quality of its insights, but there are some really good bits in there too. Actually, that’s why it was irritating - there was too much gold for me to able to abandon it, so I had to continue to wade through all the bits that needed a firmer editorial hand.