• Tanya Tomkins
  • September 15, 2013

When Music is More Dangerous Than Skydiving

credit Richard Bowditch

credit Richard Bowditch

I just got back yesterday from performing at the Moab Music Festival in Utah. During the final week I was surrounded by violinists in their early 20’s, one more virtuosic than the next. One of these impressive musicians made an interesting observation. After skydiving for the first time in Moab, he proclaimed that playing a concert is more dangerous and life threatening than jumping out of a plane. When I asked him “Why?” he replied that if you made a mistake in a concert, you wouldn’t ever be hired anywhere again and you would die from starvation in the gutter!

When I moved to Holland in 1984, I was struck by the very different way people played their instruments there. The Schoenberg Ensemble, the Orchestra of the 18th Century, and my teacher, the amazing cellist Anner Bijlsma’s playing were all revelations to me. What was the difference between this European approach and the American approach? The technical level of playing in the US was higher, but there was a slickness to it that lacked the immediacy I was hearing in the performances in Amsterdam. Both modern music and the Early Music movement were thriving in Amsterdam at the time. logo Schoenberg ensemble
I asked Anner what he thought the difference was, and I still remember his answer: it was economic. In Holland in the 80’s and 90’s the arts were heavily subsidized. If you were a performer and made a mistake on the stage, it didn’t matter. You wouldn’t ever end up jobless there, or if you were jobless, you would still have healthcare and all of your basic needs met, so there was less pressure, and therefore much more room for experimentation without huge financial consequences.
I have been thinking a lot about the crippling perfectionism that seems to be permeating the classical music world here. I believe it can be devastating to human creativity and expression. The skydiving musician is one of the most naturally gifted musicianAsko-Schoenberg-2721.foto-Hans-Hijmerings I know, both technically and musically; but if this is the kind of pressure he is living with (and many of us old-timers also live with it), I fear for the future of classical music as an art form.
Mistakes can be wonderful. They are evidence of freedom, of going for something other than playing the notes perfectly. I propose that, like the ancient rug weavers that purposefully wove in a mistake so as to prove that the rug was produced by a human and not a god, we musicians stand against this perfectionism, and start MAKING intentional mistakes in concerts to prove that we are humans making music, not CD recordings! Let’s bring back the joy of making music, not as a sport or competition, but as an expressive art form that can only benefit from taking risks, and yes, sometimes failing in the process.
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