Suitability to Performer

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Years ago I was watching one of the piano classes at the Colchester Festival, in which I had a piano student performing. One of the other entrants played the first of Debussy’s Arabesques. He was accurate, but ploddy, showing little of the sense of sweep and flow the music calls for. My first thought was: ‘What on earth is his teacher doing letting him loose on this?’ My second thought, following hard on the heels of this was: ‘I know exactly why his teacher wanted him to learn this.’

This experience highlighted the contradictory nature of two standard imperatives in the development of musical performers. On the one hand, people are encouraged to perform music that ‘suits’ them; on the other, people are encouraged to engage with a variety of styles and expressive worlds in order to develop breadth and flexibility of communication.

This dilemma plays out somewhat differently in instrumentalists and singers, and between school-age and adult learners. Take the young pianist in my opening anecdote: he was growing up in a world where it is expected that you learn a range of repertoires, and that specialisation, if it comes at all, comes later. (And even then, engagement with a variety of styles is normal: Peter Katin may have been most famous for his Chopin, but he could still bowl me over with Scarlatti.) Whilst learning, it is accepted that you might handle some styles better than others, but the goal is to get the hang of music that comes less easily, rather than drop it in favour of the stuff you do well.

The same is true of the student-age singer to a signficant extent. Flexibility of style and language are seen as fundamental to the craft, though this is inflected by ideas of voice ‘type’. This reaches its most methodical and rigid state in the Germa Fach system – which is driven by the pragmatics of repertory theatres as much as anything. But in less systematic contexts, there is still a sense that certain pieces are more suited to a voice than others – and this judgement will include not just gender and vocal range, but also timbre and personality. Decisions about voice type and repertoire thus become a complex and subtle negotiation between the natural (the physical vocal apparatus) and the learned.

Adult learners may often be perceived (and perceive themselves) as more ‘finished products’ than younger musicians. They may still be developing technical and musicianship skills, but personality, emotional habits and musical preferences are generally seen as more settled. This then tends to get folded back into repertoire decisions – there is a stronger imperative for adult amateurs to perform music that suits who they are already than to attempt pieces that will force them to experiment with musical personas that feel more alien.

This is in some ways sensible. Giving people the opportunity to be successful is valuable. But it also risks a premature narrowing of engagement that will in turn limit the technical and musical resources available to be developed. If you never stretch yourself out of your comfort zone, the comfort zone itself shrinks. Conversely, there is a particular light in the eye and vibrancy in the voice when someone tells you about music that their conductor or teacher made them learn that they didn’t like at first and/or found hard at first, but have since learned to love.

Choosing music on the basis of its ‘suitability’ of music to performer(s) is thus a double-edged sword. On the one hand it shows a sensitivity and respect for performers; it pays attention to their current identity as it is, not as someone else might want it to be; it meets them where they are. On the other, it risks ghettoizing them into a limited range of music’s on the basis of their past behaviour; it takes what they have been like to date and takes that as the sum of all they could ever be.

I guess the ideal is to find music that is suitable not to what the performers are currently like, but to suitable to what they could potentially be in a couple of months’ time.

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