Conversation Repair, Musicking Repair

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You know when an acquaintance makes a comment that gets you thinking on and off for some months? I had one of those moments back in December and have been seeing new things in my music-making ever since. Her comment was about how she had always felt musical performance to be a high-pressure activity, as there was the imperative to keep going at all costs. She contrasted this with activities such as conversation in which people are constantly making mistakes and fixing them; conversation repair is part of the collaborative endeavour of interaction.

Now, I certainly recognised that sense of pressure she identified as something that probably also contribution to my own struggles with performance anxiety through youth and early adulthood. But I also recognised her description of conversation repair as something musicians do all the time in rehearsal (and, indeed, in performance).

It is something most clearly apparent in chamber-music scenarios, where all the musicians have access to each other as partners in the interaction. (In non-verbal communications studies terms: where they are all part of the same F-formation.) You don’t get music to work just by everyone playing or singing their part at the same time; simultaneity is not the same as ensemble. You have to work together to make notes line up into harmonies and string together into melodies.

You have to work together to maintain the sense of the music, that is. This may involve the kind of repairing that manages individual errors in order to keep the music flowing - when one musician stumbles, the others work to help them back in. It may also involve responding to things that may not be actual mistakes, but were unanticipated. One musician makes an accent with rather more vigour than usual, so the others reply with similarly energised articulation, just as when one person laughs a bit too loudly, others will raise their voices slightly too so they don’t stand out awkwardly. (And then - in both cases - everyone may go a bit quieter than usual just afterwards to balance everything up again).

In director-led ensembles, it is less intensely central to the music-making, since here the primary relationship is between each musician and the conductor. There tends to be less direct access to the other performers, and such access is likely to be limited to those immediately around you. Thus, musical repair becomes more specifically the responsibility of the director as the only person with interactional control over all aspects of the musical texture.

But it is still a collaborative endeavour, as anyone will know who has been part of one of those heroic recoveries in performance that loom huge as the major event for the performers but pass largely unnoticed by the audience.

And two thoughts have followed since identifying this kind of ensemble activity as akin to conversation repair. The first is that it is part of a musician’s deep learning. It is an inherent component in developing the kind of musicianship that moves beyond going through the correct technical motions into the substance of the musical flow. It is what happens when you move beyond performing your part to taking responsibility for the music. It marks the transition from being obedient, the composer’s puppet, to becoming an active signifier.

The second is that combination of largely solitary musical instruction with the stern imperative to keep going that made my acquaintance so anxious could actually inhibit people from developing this musicianship. Music psychologist John Sloboda writes of the way that our system of musical education in the UK produces a lot what he calls ‘the musical walking wounded’, and inculcating the grim determination to keep playing at all costs feels like one of the characteristic forms of musical injury. Yes, musical flow matters. But it matters because it helps communicate musical sense to an interested listener, not because you’ll lose marks in an exam if you break it.

This is something so much better learned in groups, where, if you stumble, the music carries on and you climb back on as soon as you can. In an ensemble, you can’t go back and fix errors because everyone else is still maintaining the flow of the music. This feels like a much more humane and pleasant scenario in which to learn how to let your errors drop into the past than internalising rules to impose upon yourself when practising in isolation.

Indeed, when you are practising by yourself is arguably exactly when you should stop and fix things. The research into effective practise strategies reported by Daniel Coyle suggests that it is precisely the process of making and correcting small errors that builds advanced skill. Learning how to keep going even through wrong notes is, conversely, an excellent grounding in how to play inaccurately, if my experience is anything to go by.

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