By John G. Taylor
If you’ve tried to read a story to a child, you’ll recognize the feeling. The words are all on the page in front of you. None of them is hard; all are familiar; and the punctuation tells you where to pause and for how long. You might even try to put on some funny voices so that the child can tell who is speaking and understand something of the character’s personality. And you’ll think you’ve done a good job… until you listen to a professional actor read the same book aloud on tape or on a TV show. You’ll realize then how flat your reading was and how much of the book you missed.
Playing music can produce the same feelings. You can read the notes and they tell you exactly how to play. In fact, you might even know the piece so well, you don’t even need to look at the music. Touch one key or one string and your hand automatically passes to the next. It feels natural.
But for great players, even natural isn’t enough.
When you listen to a top, professional actor reading a story aloud, he’s not simply vocalizing the words on the page. He’s not even telling the story. He’s creating the story. The author might have told him what to say, and he might be stating each word that’s given to him perfectly, but for the reader, the performance isn’t an act of interpretation; it’s an act of creation. As far as the audience is concerned, the book doesn’t exist. This story has never been told before. It’s happening right now, in front of them, as they sit and listen.
That’s what a great musical performance does too. Of course, the technical stuff has to be there too. You have to be able to obey the instructions on the page, play the right notes in the right order at the right tempo and on an instrument that’s tuned and working. But it’s something that goes beyond familiarity or fluency or even technical ability.
It’s All Down To Talent
It’s what happens when you have all of those things: the right instrument, an understanding of the music, and knowledge accumulated through years of practice. Then you add two more elements: A love of the piece you’re playing and musical talent.
When you have all of those things, the effect is as magical as listening to a trained actor recite Shakespeare or Richard Burton read aloud Under Milk Wood.
Not all musicians reach that level in their playing. It’s something we all aspire to and, when we listen to a truly great performance, we can often understand how far we are from it. And yet, there are also times when we touch it, when the sheet music falls away and even the instrument falls away and all that’s left is the music around us and the rapt attention of the audience.
We can get it when we read to children and sometimes, just sometimes, we can get it when we play too.