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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What really moves the listener?

To continue discussion, I have taken the liberty of transferring the following commentary regarding the last blog entry from my FB page:

Do you think Ma, in his anecdote, was fearful of making mistakes?" ? Seems like it was boredom with his high achievement ("perfection") that caused him to feel like he was letting his audience (and himself) down. But I wonder if his audience felt what he was feeling, or if, in fact, one of the reasons that we love to listen to folks like him is precisely his precision. He says you should make people feel something. OK, how do you do that? Miss a note or rhythm every now and again? Flap your elbows? Does accuracy not move people? (I know it moves me!) You can say, 'sure, you have to know your notes and rhythms, but there's a certain "I-don't-know-what" that's what REALLY moves the listener.' What is it? Can you teach it? Seems to me like the best thing you can do for yourself as a performer is let those feelings of whether or not you are moving the listener go. (Blow not intensely, but from the heart, someone once told me.) Like tonglen, if you feel like you've done well for the world, breathe it out; if not, breathe it in. And keep on smashing, for god's sake. (In potentially-related news, you ever checked out Carolyn Abbate's paper, "Music—Drastic or Gnostic?"? http://goo.gl/dCEzq <-- It's here.)

From the Abbate paper: "There are differences between listening and performing that should not be ignored; the former hardly involves the same responsibilities and anxieties as the latter. One can more readily depart mentally from hearing music than from performing it, though mulling over the bank balance while your hands continue the sonata by themselves is not unheard of. But that, perhaps, is the point: to reflect, must one in some sense depart? Split a drastic self from a gnostic self?"]

There are broad questions here, worthy of a long discussion.  For starters, let's look at some research.

Jonah Lehrer references a study by Limb and Braun that used functional MRI to peek inside the brain of improvisors, and significantly, to compare these results with scans of the same performers playing prepared pieces.  You can view the original study here:


Limb and Braun discovered that improvisation involves the deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  This is a part of the brain that regulates self-consciousness.  There is even some indication that this part of the brain regulates truth-telling (or lying).  Check out this abstract on a study using magnetic stimulation of the DLPFC:


I am willing to speculate (I know, shame on me) that there is a connection between pure improvisation and spontaneous interpretation.  (This would be difficult to prove for two reasons:  the difficulty in creating such a situation while the musician is in the MRI machine, and the further challenge in quantifying genuinely spontaneous interpretations.)  If the musician could perform the neural trick of the improvisor and willfully shut down the DLPFC, effectively dampening social inhibition, the resulting performance might be significantly less cautious, and more personal.  If there is a transcendent self, the DLPFC seems to be protecting it, or at least keeping it on a leash.

I believe that Yo-Yo Ma wasn't talking about playing perfectly, but rather he was talking about worrying about playing perfectly.  This is the critical self being too active, and at the wrong time.  There needs to be a balance of reflective, feedback-controlled performance and being in the moment.  The internal world of the performer is quite different from that of the listener, and while precision can certainly be impressive, and even expressive, what else is going on?  What really moves the listener?

I have serious doubts that anyone could move an audience by purposefully making mistakes.  Accuracy is certainly important, especially in European-style, classical music.  I also think that most audiences can tell the difference between feigned affectation ("flapping elbows") and an uninhibited performance.  What I'm getting at here is that it would be difficult to act as though the DLPFC is turned off, and that bad acting is fairly easy to spot.  Just as in a play or movie, bad acting draws the audience out of the experience; suspension of disbelief collapses.  Clearly, the affectations of the performer must be believable, or better yet, completely genuine.

A listener could be moved by sympathy for the performer.  We feel a connection to the tortured artist, or the brave hero.  The virtuoso has a certain superhero quality that we love.  Of course, listeners also have their own internal experience (i.e., baggage), and a great performance can allow a listener, through introspection, to access emotions that are purely their own.  A combination of external sympathy and internal emotions would be a satisfying concert indeed!

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), we do not have the technology for biofeedback-based practice in the technique of turning off the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  Perhaps the best advice really is to "let go," especially as it relates to concerns about what the audience is experiencing.  This is easier said than done, and best achieved through disciplined development of technique and interpretation.  When skill and experience converge, the performer might gain access to higher levels of expression.  While the discipline itself can certainly be taught, the performer must experience these higher levels on their own.


  1. My comments: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sWJt49MrWHId9wEXn6UzxzXO0XQ74qTPZgciGA5Faf4/edit

  2. Josh - You make some very good points. Obviously, improvisation is always contextual, and an artist can only create within the constraints of what's in their toolbox. What we are really talking about here is the act of making creative decisions in the moment (which occurs over a wide spectrum), versus recreating something that is memorized. Limb acknowledges that his research is more about questions than answers. Still, there is some interesting data there.

    Regarding Yo-Yo Ma, I concede that he is expressing boredom with perfection (#humblebrag). As far as good acting goes, this gets back to suspension of disbelief. If the actor (or musician, or whatever) believes that they are THAT character, even if just for the moment, they aren't acting anymore. They are BEING. As you point out, Baron-Cohen does this so convincingly, it is hard to watch - or to look away! In a sense, everything that we do could be considered role-playing of one kind or another. Nobody is inherently a musician, or a parent, or a janitor, etc.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. It's always great to hear from you!


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