In my column for February, I depart from my typical type of message to address an aspect of music that is often controversial and, no matter how unrelated it might seem, in my opinion has a direct relationship to making music at any level. "Scholarship," when not identifying a financial reward, is usually defined as academic study or achievement, or learning of a high level. "Scholarly activity" is both the act of this study or achievement or the product of that activity. Further complicating the situation is that scholarship, at least in the professional world, receives credibility through "review" or critical appraisal of that product. That means there must be a venue to present the product that will allow others to see it and comment on it. So, scholarship requires a product, a venue for presentation, and a response. This allows information to be created, presented, and evaluated. Hopefully, the process yields something relevant, and the world is a better place for it.
The field of music offers traditional and non-traditional opportunities for scholarly activity. Areas of music history, music theory, and music education generally emphasize traditional research methods, resulting in printed "products" in a variety of venues. Musical composition is usually lumped with this type of scholarship, partly because it involves creative activity, and it usually results in a printed product. The phrase "creative activity" is also the entry point for much technological innovation because it usually offers tangible results in instruments, devices, systems, etc., rendered in physical or printed form.
So, what about performance? The act of making music does not receive the same stamp of scholarly approval as a book, article, or composition. Part of the problem is that a music performance has a physical presence but no physical substance — you can attend and witness it, but you cannot pick it up and hold in your hand what someone has just performed and then carry it home with you to experience it again later. Many ask, "what about recordings?" To me, recordings represent musical experiences in the same way photographs or home movies represent life — first and foremost, they provide experiences (e.g., memories, feelings) that are detached from the reality of the moment in which it was performed. Second, in general, they represent a fabricated archive. Most of us know that the vast majority of commercial recordings are not "genuine" performances ("live" recordings are the exception). Don't get me wrong — recorded performances deserve the critical attention paid to the technique and artistry demonstrated, but they generally represent a type of scholarship or creative activity that is different from live performance. Performers, engineers, and producers work together on creating, refining, and producing a recording much like authors, editors, and publishers do for a printed monograph. This obviously makes review by one's peers more plausible, particularly because one can carry home a CD and listen to it over and over. The problem, however, is that while commercial recordings represent artistic accomplishment and service, they do not accurately represent reality.
So, where does this leave live performance? Can "scholarship" be presented and evaluated in live settings? Admittedly, the subjective factors in this make it a little dicey. During a performance, audience members may or may not be engaged for many reasons, and they come to performances with different priorities. In academic environments, there is also considerable pressure from students, colleagues, and supervisors for evaluation in every single performance. In the professional world of performance, there are also deep-rooted prejudices and commercial forces at work that influence all aspects of performance, including choices of repertoire and soloists/solo instruments. Further, success (whether critical or simple enjoyment) is evaluated in a subjective, temporal experience — much like famous sporting events, great musical performances cannot be duplicated or revisited in their original form. Thus, live performers depend on evaluations that happen in the act, in the moment, which is a somewhat tenuous reality, especially if we don't have a clear or consistent framework for evaluation.
So, when discussing live musical performance as a scholarly activity, we have no tangible, physical product, and a means of evaluation that is dependent on subjective reception, experienced temporally, of a product that cannot be replicated or reviewed in its original context. Can it still be "scholarly"? To consider this, let's look at what factors participate in preparing and performing. We learn about the composer, the style, the traditions in performance. We make decisions about intended and available technology to use in performance. We consider the performance venue — the audience and the acoustics. Do we have the skills and the time to get the performance ready? Which edition should be used, and what are the implications of using it? How much of what we need is found by conducting research with other sources (books, lessons, and recordings), and how do we convert this information to a balanced interpretation (i.e., technical, personal, and aesthetic)?
So, after all that preparation, I am ready to perform. Experience tells me that no matter how well I prepare, there is still a risk — why? Because music has a temporal existence and the act of making music depends on sequences of actions, any one of which is subject to human imperfection. Many factors, from the food I eat to my state of mind, influence my preparation and performance, and I need to account for them. Then, all of this finally comes together in a performance, where I am given one chance (usually) to get this to come out of the horn at the moment I want it to…
So, what then is my point? I believe the type of research that goes on in a practice room or rehearsal room is analogous to time spent doing research in a laboratory or library — the sorting of details, the understanding of symbols and vocabulary, the use of techniques to test hypotheses of what will work and what won't, and the steady, dedicated work that depends not only on intuition but also on the pursuit of information and knowledge to inform that intuition, leading to a product. While the product in making music is invisible, without physical substance, and is experienced temporally, it is undeniable that there is a result to the stimuli we call music, and that is the feelings associated with the performance. The majority of responsibility still falls to the performer to convey these stimuli in the act of performing, but all who participate in a performance, including audience, concert hall staff, concert promoters, and anyone else connected with it, have a role in creating the venue for that temporal experience. And finally, any credible evaluation of the scholarly substance of a performance, whether from audiences, students, colleagues, or critics, must depend on an understanding of the context and forces at work in preparation and performance, as well as the substance of the creative act itself.
A product, a venue, and a response — this sounds to me like scholarship in any field.
See you in Macomb, this year's venue for scholarly activity!
Wishing you good chops,
President, International Horn Society