Monday, September 13, 2010

Living with Music

Opera Chic has up a post with a great quote from Ricardo Muti (she's a huge fan) that talks about how deeply involved one can be in making music. 

"I am very tough with myself. I never like what I do. Wally Toscanini, the daughter of [Arturo] Toscanini, when I said to her I am never happy with what I do, she said to me, in La Scala, 'My father, when he was 80 years old, and he would still conduct "Traviata," every time after a performance, or after a concert or after a recording session, he went home' -- and when his wife, Carla, was still alive and she would be preparing the risotto -- 'he went through the score again after the performance -- at the age of 80! -- to see what went wrong and why it went wrong!'


  1. This is normal. I don't aspire to the heights of Toscanini et al, but of the hundreds of concerts I have played over the years, there are less than a dozen where I've been able to come away with the feeling that I couldn't possibly have done anything better.

    It's probably just as well that they mostly weren't recorded, because I'm sure I could find something on a second listening.

    In music you can't attain perfection, you can only approach it.

  2. Hi, Jonathan - I take your point and agree with it. Put this quote up as a reminder to normals like myself what it's like for people at the very top. His going through the score and recreating the performance in his head and analyzing it at the same time - living with the music even in the absence of instruments making it - is way beyond the capacity of most of us. As I think I've said in response to another of your comments a while back, I have the notion that the difference in the music making I'm trying to encourage and that of high level players is so great it's more one of kind than degree, and it's from that starting point one needs to rethink how to present music making to those not allowed into the system.

  3. I don't think it's a difference in kind. It is just that the top level professional musicians have so many of the basic technical issues mastered that they are looking to make improvements in even the most esoteric details, ones where you or I would take the view that either way of addressing this detail would be good enough for the purpose of our performance.

    This issue of every increasing levels of detail applied to a performance i suspect is a matter of a fairly smooth curve - with greater levels of attainment comes ever greater attention to detail in order to achieve the next level.

    The trick is not to let this turn into obsession and self-absorption, but to remember tat the primary purpose is still entertaining people (including yourself). Once you stop enjoying making the music, half the point of it is lost.

  4. Jonathan - There's a lot to unpack in what you've said here in this second comment. For one thing, to come down on one side or the other, I need to have a definition of what music making is to decide if the two types we're talking about are different. Then there's that 10,000 hour thing the neuroscientists talk about as well. Spend that much time on something and your brain is empirically different - so what does that mean? Thanks for making me think this stuff through, as it's at the center of it all.

  5. I wouldn't have thought that there is any difficulty about the definition of music-making. What you do in your community band and what Toscanini did at La Scala is essentially the same activity, just that he did it to a much higher standard than you or I would aspire to. But we're all playing (or singing, or conducting, or composing) music for the enjoyment of those listening. It seems to me that differences are ones of degree, not of kind.

    The 10,000 hour thing I'm a bit dubious of, it is a suspiciously round number, though we certainly can say that effective practice at music (or anything else for that matter) makes you more proficient at the activity.

  6. Jonathan - You're right that I'm overstating the case, especially if you go with one of the "organized sound" definitions. I'm thinking out loud here, trying to better understand the differences between the highest level and the rest of us. The introduction to the Taruskin book, along with the new Ball book, have me thinking about definitional ways of making that distinction. Add in the Buddhist motivation idea and you get something like - making music to conform most closely to the score - or - making music to engage the audience. That's going to lead to differences in how you go about making music and the music made.

    If you spend 10,000 hours doing something, your brain looks different when imaged. They're saying that makes far more difference than whatever you come into the world with. I think 9,253 and 10,657 will work just as well.

  7. Of course, if you spend circa 10,000 hours learning how to do something, then your brain will be different in certain ways, simply because it is where the knowledge has been stored. And if it is different, then one would expect that with sufficiently advanced imaging tools, we would ultimately be able to see those differences.

    But it is one thing for us to be able to see the differences in brain images of one kind or another, and another for us to be able to draw conclusions from them about improved learning or teaching techniques. I don't say that you can't get there from here, just that the journey may be more roundabout than you might expect.

  8. Agreed. Current imaging much too broad brush to say whats actually going on, which is a lot of different things we're just beginning to get a notion of.