This past Saturday, I attended a day long workshop by Ida Beam guest professor, William Westney. He is a teacher and pianist with interesting ideas about music, teaching, and practicing. He is the author of a book entitled The Perfect Wrong Note - Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. During his visit, Westney gave three different sessions and each was interesting and valuable. The first event was a philosophical discussion about music, meaning, and the body in motion. During this lecture, Westney discussed the connection of music and the body. He explained how music is more than organized sound in that it has meaning; in addition, we often determine the music most meaningful to us by its effect on our body and feelings. He also discussed how our mood can be seen in the way we carry our bodies and how we move; thus, mood can affect how we make music. We ended this morning session with a preview of the afternoon session. We paired up and mirrored each other's movements in reaction to the music being played. Westney suggested that we move/dance to the music we are working on so we can actually feel where the tempo and dynamic changes should be.
In the afternoon, Westney gave his "un-masterclass." This was different than a masterclass where a professional musician listens to a student and then tells them what to do better. In the "un-masterclass," everyone participates. First, Westney's focus was on the relationship between music and movement. Everyone stood in a large circle. As music played, we had to move to the beat, style, and emotion of the piece. Westney explained how he had the music specifically composed for this presentation so we wouldn't know it. The movement was simple at first; we passed a little ball around the circle, handing it off only on a beat or cadence. Then, Westney stood in the middle of the circle and moved/danced to the music. We had to mirror his movements. Next, we each took a turn in the middle of the circle. Our movement didn't need to be spectacular, it just needed to reflect what we were hearing. Waltz-like music tended to inspire sweeping fluid movement and atonal computer music inspired jerky motions. This part of the session continued for about an hour. Not only was it fun to move to the music but it was interesting to see how other people moved to the same music. Everyone had a different interpretation and meaning for their movement.
The second part of the session included five performances by students. The audience was asked to tell what they got out of the performance; what message/meaning did they receive from the performer? Meaning and musicality were the focus rather than technical issues. Here are few ideas that were discussed which I found particularly helpful:
- Think about your audience and what you can communicate and give to them rather than how the performance benefits you individually or how the audience might be judging you.
- Pretend you are at a competition/audition and play your piece as if you were all the various contestants. Try every style and interpretation...even ones you consider "wrong."
- Memorizing your music can help make a stronger connection to the audience because you do not have the barrier of the music stand. Although the stand is not large, not having it can make a big difference.
- If you are singing, decide whether you are singing the text from your heart or that of a character you will portray. The same goes for instrumentalists. Give every line meaning and purpose just as if it had text.
- Play for people. Have them stand or sit right in front of you as you perform and communicate just as if you were in a conversation. The audience comes for this interaction so don't close them off.
Westney's evening session was titled "The Value of Juicy Mistakes in Music, Learning, and Life." The lecture was full of amusing stories. Westney explained how musicians can get into a rut by focusing on the concept of perfection. The phrases like "Practice makes perfect" and "Practice makes permanent" are poorly worded statements that instill a sense of dread in our playing. Mistakes become an opportunity for self degradation rather than learning and growth. Westney proposed revisiting the excitement and vitality of our youth. As babies we moved our bodies freely to the music we heard without concern of looking silly. When learning to walk, we didn't say all sorts of negative things to ourselves when we fell down. Just like learning to walk or ride a bike, music requires a learning process were the only way to grow is to accept the possibility of falling/crashing/mistakes. Mistakes should be observed without emotional attachment. They are something that happens which, contrary to what we might tell ourselves, reflects nothing about us. Westney suggested being like a detective and try to find out the cause for the mistakes that are happening outside yourself in your playing. His main points for the session included the following:
Remember how fun and enjoyable music can be.
Music can be an oasis for learning and self acceptance.
People who reach virtuosity are those who embrace and take risks.
Observe your mistakes rather than try to manage them.
Don't worry about playing musical at all times. There is a time to focus on technique.
One of the main questions to yourself should be, "How can I make everything I am playing feel great?"
I enjoyed the William Westney's workshop and I highly recommend you attend one if you have the chance. Here are links to his website and his book.