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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Less Facts, More Stories

Andrew Hitz

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”― Ken Kesey

 

It is natural for classical musicians to get wrapped up in getting the facts right. We obsess from an early age about playing the right notes and the right rhythms.

This is of course critically important, but can not come at the expense of having storytelling as our primary focus.

I have encountered so many musicians who feel they are owed a living from playing their instrument once they are able to operate it at a certain level. Or once they have worked X hours a week for Y years in a row.

(Note: This is almost never said aloud but some variation of this feeling of entitlement is frequently just below the surface.)

But this is a false premise.

Literally no one pays money to see artists execute the technical aspects of their art at a high level of proficiency. At least not for that reason alone.

That's not how art works.

Let's take a filmmaker as an example. Who cares if you are a master of many aspects of filmmaking. Lighting. Camera angles. You name it. If your film doesn't take the audience on a journey, it won't make any money and it certainly won't be talked about in 100 years. Hell, it won't be talked about in 100 weeks.

We need stories, not great lighting!

To be clear, great lighting and creative camera angles are integral parts to telling a great story with your film. But to only focus on mastering the lighting leaves you one step shy of the promised land and it's really the only step that matters.

Once you have spent the 10,000 hours mastering the tools, what do you do with them?

In this blog post from 2014, my teacher and mentor, Rex Martin, blew my mind just like he did for four straight years at Northwestern. He took many years to master the ability to play softly in all registers.

But who gives a crap? The question is what has he done with that tool once it was in his musical toolbox.

A number of years ago I flew out to Chicago to see him perform the Vaughn-Williams Concerto for Tuba. I've seen that piece played a 1,000 times and wasn't particularly excited to see it specifically. I flew there to see him. I flew there to hear his story.

The end of the 2nd movement has a four-note ascending line in the tuba that is quite pretty when played well. Mr. Martin played that line with a gorgeous diminuendo and hit the final held note with no vibrato at all. While then barely diminuendoing further he added just the slightest bit of vibrato at the very end of that note, all while continuing to get softer. He then ended the movement with a perfectly tapered release.

It made me hold my breath.

A piece I wouldn't be sad if I never heard again for the rest of my life took my breath away. That's the power of music.

Or rather, that's the power of storytelling.

I would never purchase a plane ticket to see someone operate a tuba at a really high level. But to see someone tell a musical version of anything as powerful as those four notes? I'll fly or drive anywhere for that (which is exactly why I have driven through 44 states plus Ontario to see Phish.)

You will be compensated if enough people find the musical story you are telling remarkable. Remarkable meaning worth remarking over. As in I felt I had to tell some of my friends about the end of Mr. Martin's 2nd Movement of the Vaughn-Williams.

("Enough people" is quite possibly a much smaller number than you think. I did a TEM episode on it that's less than 25 minutes long.)

So don't only focus on the facts. The question is what you do with those facts. Ken Kesey is right. While facts are quite important, what we really need is a good story.