What does a musical performer think about?

Bradley Lehman, August 2002 - November 2004

1. Basic issues | 2. Gestural performance | 3. Gestural example

1. Basic issues

What does a musician have to think about when preparing a performance? How does one discern the "composer's intentions" and then bring a work to life? It is much more than merely learning the notes in the score, "slaving away" in a practice room.

Borrowing an analogy I wrote in March 2002:

How does a good musical performer know how to approach a composition? The same way a plumber knows how to work on your faucets even though he's never been to your house before. To get ideas on a basic approach he studies the situation, examines all the available evidence, draws on years of training and experience with similar situations, knows what other experts have done in similar situations, knows his own abilities with the tools available to him, might consult with a colleague if he's not sure about something. And then, with all that as background, he chooses a specific plan to solve the problem to the best of his ability. For most jobs you want a plumber who can do all this quickly, since he's charging by the hour.

Back to music: what does the performer have to consider? Many things, some not immediately obvious, like a set of knobs to be adjusted to some level. For example, in preparing the performance of a Bach suite, the performer would ("should!") consider:

(The numbering is arbitrary and these are in no meaningful order.)

1. Basic technique of the instrument being used - how does one get it to sound to best effect? ...

2. Character: what is this work's overall profile? How does each section fit into the whole? ...

3. Rhythm: identify multiple levels of weak/strong hierarchies (bars, phrases, notes), cadence flow, hemiola, expected vs unexpected accents, rate of harmonic change, appoggiaturas, other weak or strong melodic events ... these hierarchies affect the weighting, length, and articulation of notes and are typically not notated by the composer (it would clutter the score) ... they also should cause the performer to depart subtly from a mathematically precise rendition of the notated metric values ....

4. Learn from singing - interaction of words and music for articulation, meaning, accent, breathing, phrase structure, ...

5. Learn from dancing - tempo, steps, accents, jumps, phrase structure, flow, court protocol, ...this is useful knowledge even in music that was not directly inspired by dance...

6. Other solo instruments - tongueing, bowing, fingering, breathing, expressive devices, dynamics, tonal production, tuning, ... study the treatises, repertoire, methods, ...

7. Ensemble and orchestral performance - standardized bowings and articulation, conducting methods, dynamics, ensemble expectations, instrumentation, .... (e.g., relevant to Bach, 17th century French court performance practice like that reported by Muffat in 1698)

8. Markings in extant musical scores - compare different versions, discern how thoroughly (or how sparsely) a composer typically marked musical details, figure out how or why details might differ, compare with other music the composer knew or wrote, research the original performance conditions for clues about the notational expectations, ...

9. Expert opinion: contemporary and modern researchers, players, teachers - how other experts have integrated all the evidence into a convincing approach...

10. Personal taste and experience, instinctive musicality, "what sounds good" to oneself and to trusted colleagues...

11. Style: How is the present composition generic in style, vs how quirky or innovative is it; how far should any typical "rules" or cultural norms be applied to it....

12. How much and what type of improvisation is appropriate within this composition? How much is the performer expected to add or complete....

13. Drama and other lively arts contemporary with the music...

14. Practicality: What is relevant to the performance situation at hand today? Practical matters of instrumentation, culture, audience expectations, compromises, the nature of the gig (what is this performance supposed to accomplish?), acoustics, one's own mental and physical condition, ...

15. Rhetoric: how does one prepare a convincing structure of any type of argument within cultural expectations? At the time of composition, and now, and in between...

16. The work's reception history...

17. Intellectual analysis of the work: structure, musical grammar, motifs, drama, Affekt, ...

18. Flow: the way every moment of the performance affects every other moment, indivisibly...informed by spirit and soul for which there is no substitute...

19. Projection: to what extent must the musical features be exaggerated or minimized to make the desired effect happen at a important places in the performance space? (Every seat in the house will get a somewhat different effect; the performer has to try to maximize the experience for the people who are actually there....)

20. How much rehearsal time was available; what's the most effective use of that time? ...

21. Presentation: find a way to play the work with clarity, freshness, life, passion, multiple dimensions of interest, an artistic profile, ...

22. What ideas are available in other transcriptions of this work, either by this same composer or someone else? How does this inform the expression, along with listeners' expectations...

23. What ideas are available in earlier recorded performances? ...

24. More...

An excellent performer will have considered all or most of these parameters before and during the performance: exploring the work from these many different aspects, always learning something more. One can always improve one's performance next time, it's a lifelong process of gathering experience and resources.

An indifferent (or dare I say "mediocre"?) performer considers only a few of the above issues. Keeping up that plumber analogy, such a performance is like what would happen if a novice plumber shows up with one adjustable wrench and two screwdrivers, having worked on plastic pipes once or twice before, but never on metal yet, and doesn't ask an experienced plumber's opinion or read any manuals available for this type of faucet. The indifferent performer glances at the situation, applies a few very general principles ("clockwise is tighten, right?"), guesses at something that might work, and puts plenty of enthusiasm and imagination into the solution, just going on instinct and "let's try this to see what happens."

I suggest that an indifferent performer typically draws too many clues from the score itself, or gives those clues too much prominence (as if they were the only relevant evidence of a composer's intentions), while ignoring many other issues which are at least as important. "Fidelity to the score" is admirable, yes, but it's also limited and limiting. The more thoughtful performer recognizes that the score's markings comprise only a surprisingly small fraction of the information needed to build a convincing performance.

And then, if all the above were not already enough, there are more factors out of the performer's control if it's a performance for a recording. The listeners might play it back in some wildly different acoustic space, or change the volume and tone, or change the tempo or pitch, or omit part of the performance, or reorder the sections, or shuffle parts of it into another performance....

Plenty to think about, and to be sensitive to, in soulful preparation!

2. "Gestural" performance manner

May 20, 2003

Some notes to clarify what I think "gestural" performance is:

- Musical gestures are contrasts of character within a composition, from phrase to phrase and section to section: recognition and expression of great diversity within default continuity. Texture, harmony, melodic shapes, rhythmic shapes, ....

- Gestural playing (or singing) is multi-dimensionality. The performer allows the articulation, accentuation, even (somewhat) the tempo to be different on every few notes if that is the natural shape of the lines. Everything is dynamic, fluid, in flux. [This is pretty much the opposite of "terraced dynamics" (or articulation or tone color or tempo) which impose a consistent character on long passages of music, regardless of its moment-to-moment content.]

- This is not a set of visual stimuli; it's sound. The gestures can be heard as well or better when the audience is NOT looking at the performers. (It's easy to find out in a concert if the performers are doing this or not: close your eyes. Does the music seem just as clear, interesting, and vivid that way, or has it lost its character when the visual cues are gone? The performers' "passion"--or whatever--has to make it into the SOUND, and not just the way they look while doing their jobs.)

- Irregularity and irrationality are our friends. Booooooy howdy!

- Gestural performance is a clearly projected hierarchy of notes within the meter, and an emphasis of notes that go against those expectations, and emphasis of anything that is surprising or "new" as the piece progresses. There are many levels of prioritization among the notes and phrases. Every note and phrase is "old" or "new" in relation to some other notes and phrases. The more important something is compositionally, the more it is emphasized (allowed to sound somehow different from the normal notes). "Old" notes flow automatically from motion that has already been established, respecting inertia (and are therefore deliberately less interesting). "New" notes get emphasis.

- Within phrases, and within a metric structure, there are "good" and "bad" notes. "Good" notes receive some level of accent to differentiate them from the weaker "bad" notes; it is like the syllables of speech as they are emphasized in sentences. A well-delivered phrase (gesturally) is as variegated as a spoken sentence.

- It's all like speech. Even a dance is a speech in movement.

- Each phrase is distinct from the next phrase, just like the clauses and sentences and paragraphs of speech. Something is different: length, emphasis, asymmetry, articulation, accentuation, whatever. They are not joined, but the flow from one to the next is naturally spaced.

- Figures within a phrase are treated like the pronunciation of words: another level of hierarchy among the notes. For example, the common "dotted" figure of long+short within a beat is the equivalent of a two-syllable word going ACROSS the beat. That is, the short note usually belongs with the next long note (iambic: short-LONG) rather than with the previous one (trochaic: LONG-short); or if there are two short notes, it is more likely anapestic (short-short-LONG) than dactylic (LONG-short-short)! (And that is why performers are advised to "drop the dots"--that is, perform non-legato--in long passages of these patterns, to make sure the snap is projected across the beats rather than within the beats.) The speed of that natural snap is not pre-determined; nor does it have to be regular from one beat to the next. "Overdotting" and "underdotting" are both natural reactions to the context of a figure, and to the amount of emphasis it needs.

- The occasionally irrelevant gesture can also serve a purpose. Fresh strawberries, anyone?

- The beginnings and endings of notes and phrases can have vowels and consonants (real ones for singers, and simulated ones for players) adding to the variety. Every note has some degree of articulation at both ends according to its vowel and consonant components.

- A whisper and a shout are both strong gestures: they are surprising. They can suddenly change the audience's level of attention.

- All these complexities of hierarchy must be balanced: some (but not too much) fussy detail, some (but not too many) broad brush-strokes. It can vary from section to section....

- The brain can tolerate can tolerate much more discontinuity hey doughnuts than we usually hear in performanormances. Let the listener join in the fun wild fun of connecting things discontinuity back together! Engage and tickle pickle the listener's whole wickle bickle brain, not only the left side.

- The gestural delivery draws attention to the music's colorful variety, not attention to the performers. The musical gestures arise naturally from the music. If anything seems clever, it is the wealth of the composer's ideas. The performer is just listening along with everybody else to the ongoing variety of sounds.

- Make my day, Eastwood.

- Everything is vivid. The performer knows the structural function of every note in the composition, and makes those different functions IMMEDIATELY clear to the listener.

- An occasional error is interesting, and excusable. As Toscanini said, "For wrong notes no one was ever put in jail." A performance full of risk-taking is infinitely more engaging than a nice safe perfect surface. The odd blemish can make the whole package more beautiful and more real.

- Gestural performance is related to spontaneity, but not limited to it. Much of this can be planned. The performance gives the appearance that it is making ITSELF up as it goes along, or that it is organic, like a living animal; or like a crystalline structure growing "before our very eyes and ears." The audience can see evidence of its "thoughts" as it moves.

- Super-exaggerated and overemphatic hyperbole can also make a point, really really really well, if not used too often. So can quiet understatement. (Both of these are the EXCEPTION, not the norm.)

- If the audience's minds are wandering (whether they're looking at anyone or not), the performers are not playing/singing gesturally enough. The performance is too subtle or too regular to hold the attention: too predictable.

- Keep them guessing. Even the people who "know" the piece should still be surprised.

- It could always be better next time. That's part of the fun. Different from performance to performance. Every occasion is new. Every performance is a discovery for everyone.

Additional remarks about a "gestural" approach, November 21 2004:

I believe the performer (during preparation) should figure out as much as possible what's going on at every moment in the music, and bring out all those details clearly. That's basic preparation, in my opinion. (See also this older essay about my preparation techniques.)

That preparation includes looking back at the original manuscripts, if possible, to see if there indeed are any visual elements that stand out as especially meaningful, along with the notes themselves. It's part of a comprehensive analysis of the music, sung text (if any), any references out to unsung text (such as in organ chorale preludes), and anything else on the page. If anything on the page looks to be different from elements of normal musicianship (unusual harmonies, articulations, odd notation, whatever), it should be brought out somehow in the performance. Plain phrases have to sound plain enough, so that these exceptional phrases can stand out against them; and vice versa. Everything is in hierarchies of significance, and it's the performer's job to figure that out and find some way to make it audible in the performance.

This comes under the rubric of "gestural" performance: the performers cultivating a balance of detail vs forward flow, perhaps tending to favor the detail a little bit more than the flow, as the forward flow will still take care of itself unless things get really out of hand. Time moves on, and the listener's ear and mind will organize everything into neat little boxes of regular beats and equalized balances, even if the performance didn't present them with such an overly cautious regularity.

Communication is clearer when there's not too much regularity: this is basic human communication. Short sentences get attention. Variety engages the listener. Too much sameness loses the listener.

Performances with too much emphasis on flow, too much facility at the expense of detail, too much sameness, can come across like sight-reading. They're glib, uninflected, dull, one-dimensional. Too much of the potentially interesting stuff is hidden under a surface of monotony. Listeners can't pick up much in these performances unless they're sitting there following along with a score for their own amusement, which (in most cases) is not what music is about. The basic sound might be very nice, but it doesn't plumb the emotions; just a middle-of-the-road smoothness. (And in my opinion, this approach is a shirking of performers' duties: where facility gets in the way of bringing out meaning.)

By contrast, gestural performance style is the art of differentiation: recognizing that not all notes have equal weight in the structure of the composition, and bringing out all sorts of hierarchies among them, all for the clarity of the composition. The notes and phrases can have distinctive rhythms, tone, volume, even a slight bit of displacement as it all aids the clarity where listeners can pick out the different figures immediately, in the sound. Where the composer has written something calm and beautiful, it should be exquisitely calm and beautiful. Where the composer has written something ugly or thorny, it should be exquisitely ugly and thorny. The point is to make things exquisite, and different from one another so the listener can pick up the contrasts immediately.

It's the full range of human expression, expressed by the composer in the music and the words, and brought out with full range by the performers, not shying away from any of the intensity in either direction. The music is multi-dimensional, and so should the performance be. It's immediate to the listeners, without needing to look at anything. "Augenmusik" exists on a page only so far as it is to inspire the performers to bring things out, clearly. The performer's task is to prioritize the compositional elements, to emphasize what's most important and de-emphasize other things that are less important.

Obviously, this gestural approach requires performers to take some chances as to determining what is important; to venture an interpretive opinion. Others might disagree with such an opinion, parsing the music differently, or preferring more ambiguity. That's the risk. The music might actually disturb some of the listeners and not merely entertain them with pretty sounds. It might compel them to think, or to feel things they weren't prepared to feel. If they came to it with the expectation of being merely entertained or pleased, they might be disappointed with (or at least bewildered by) a performance that reveals more than that. That breach of expectation might be taken as "bad" or at least "unfamiliar". To make this work, the performer has to present the music with so much conviction and clarity that even if the listener does disagree with some of the points, the composition itself has been served with respect and obvious commitment.

And any fair critic, aware of the importance of this, would necessarily grant some leeway in this. The performer's sincerity and commitment to the music are authenticity, in practice; even if a critic would perhaps prefer to hear something different, personally. Critics who are not open-minded in this way have dug their own holes, as to their personal expectations. Musicianship is about serving all listeners to the extent that it's possible, and not merely serving the whims and expectations of self-important critics. Critics who believe that they alone have a handle on "the composer's intentions" are merely deluding themselves (and forcing their limited understandings upon other people as restrictions), especially if they are not performers themselves.

There are so many different types of "authenticity" all vying for centrality (see especially Peter Kivy's 1995 book Authenticities), that there is no way a performer can serve all of them at the same time. The solution to this problem is to perform gesturally, bringing out at least a reasonable amount of detail at many levels. How could such a clear presentation of the composition be anything other than "authentic" or "the composer's intentions" in at least one way? Don't composers want their listeners to "get" the music vividly? (That's certainly among my intentions for my own compositions....)

To be clear: gestural performance takes a considerable amount of work, beyond merely rehearsing the notes. And it is a willingness to sound less than completely smooth, on purpose, in service of letting the music be more immediately perceptible through the irregularity.


In the E-flat French Suite BWV 815, going from the last bar of the Sarabande to the first bar of the Gavotte, Bach uses the same notes again. The cadential decoration of that Sarabande bar becomes the melodic theme of the next movement!...as if the music is inventing itself in an improvisatory way as it goes along. A gestural performance brings that out: making it clear enough that it is the same notes, yet different enough that it's also launching the new character of a new movement. All is balance. This type of thing gets hidden, and missed by listeners, if the performance is too facile: too much preparation in the direction of mere slickness, easy fingering or whatever. Gestural performance is about finding this type of irregular and metamorphosing stuff, and reveling in the differentiation.

In the Sarabande it involves listening very closely to the intervals as they go along, as the melodic lines have unexpected leaps or changes of direction. The notes acquire different amounts of emphasis because they're serving musical functions different from one another. The tensions within melody, harmony, and counterpoint are different from moment to moment. This affects the articulation and timing, as each note has some tendencies of motion against other notes. It's the performer's job to listen to and respond to this sound, this texture that is always in flux. The bass line in bar 9 and in bar 20 are superficially alike, having most of the same pattern of tones and semitones, but the first is in Bb major while the second is in Ab major. The first is at the beginning of a four-bar period, and the second is at the end of one. In the tuning that Bach specified for keyboards, these two scales sound absolutely different from one another anyway. In bar 20 the left hand's fifth note (the D natural intruding into A-flat major) is different from its counterpart (E flat, a member of the B-flat major scale) in 9, and that's a distinction to bring out. It turns out that both these bars tonicize E-flat major while they both started in different keys! Furthermore, the motion of the right-hand parts against these lines is freer in the second case, with more forward motion eliding into the next bar. And this is only a hierarchization of two bars in particular (20 as more intense than 9), while there are a total of 24 bars to think about, plus repeats! Clearly, the performer must cultivate some internal balance of analysis and instinct here, to be able to sift all this together into a meaningful performance. That's the task.

So, there are similarities and differences to be brought out here, and the integration of all this back into lines that sound natural and inevitable. The piece shouldn't sound like an aimless succession of analytical moments, but it all has to come back together into an organic unity...with enough contrast and enough coherence. The composition has to be organized appropriately in the performer's mind, and then brought out somehow in performance as if it's being improvised, wholly formed.

These are the types of things a gestural performer thinks about: balancing all this preparatory analysis (like going through the music with a highlighter pen) so listeners can pick it up, appreciating the connections that are already written into the music. Every moment needs some different amount of weight, emphasis, irregularity, to stand apart from other moments...within a flow that still makes sense.

Balance of all this is so difficult and time-consuming, beyond merely learning the notes. But, it's worth doing! It's in service of letting the music be immediately clear, rich in depth, with many things going on simultaneously....multi-dimensionality. The performer takes the composer/improviser's role (and they were not different roles in the 18th century!...it's all part of the same craft of tuning/playing/improvising/composing) to get so deeply inside the music, that it sounds both fresh and inevitable.

Like pure musical thought, happening in the moment.

Specifics of Bach's prescribed tuning are at LaripS.com. Its harmonic and melodic shape also promote a gestural manner of performance, where the performer listens closely to the sounds being made and then shapes the phrasing to bring out irregular compositional features, highlighting anything interesting....

Listen to some samples played by me, in Bach's tuning....

3. "Gestural" example

May 20, 2003

A good example to listen to is worth a zillion words.

An especially strong gestural performance is this one, Rachmaninoff playing Schubert's A-flat Impromptu: track 15 at

Listen closely to it, several times.

That web sample shows many gestural techniques in action (*). Each phrase is somewhat different from the previous one in character: firmer or gentler touch, different dynamic shaping, different tempo, different handling of time within the phrase, or there is a slight pause before the phrase, or the phrase surges, or it relaxes, or the performer's hands are subtly desynchronized.... And when the harmony is startling, the performer makes sure we notice that it is more (or less) dissonant. And when a melodic part comes up, the performer draws our attention to it and shapes it vocally, with an easy rubato. And when one phrase is the direct consequence of a previous phrase, the relative shaping emphasizes both the connection and the dependency. And whenever a new idea comes up in the progress of the piece, the performer makes sure we notice it's new.

Yet, the point that comes across is not that the music is being distorted or messed with, but that it is somehow coming through with extraordinary lucidity and directness, naturalness, and a beauty that seems especially pure and true. And the overall flow is still there. Bingbingbing. That's the gestural delivery: that flux of articulation, accentuation, tempo, balance, subtleties of timing, always something ne(but derived directly from analysis of the composition) to keep the listener engaged. The music seems to be revealing ITSELF organically. The performer is doing imaginative things at every moment to project the piece, yet we don't notice the performer being clever. Unless we're listening for them specifically, we don't notice these nuances intellectually, and don't think about how it's being done: we just feel their rightness.

And the composer didn't notate these fine nuances. It wasn't necessary. The performer does the right things with the music because he understands the music, and because he knows how to communicate through the language of music. Every note has a proper place within the whole. The substance shapes the style.

This piece is an "Impromptu" ("unprepared"), a quasi-improvisation. But even an improvisation has firm structure and logic: that's what holds it together and makes it satisfying, not just hearing a guy make up stuff.

That recording was from 1928, on a piano roll. Rachmaninoff had also recorded this piece 2 1/2 years earlier on a 78-rpm record. In that performance, most of his decisions were THE SAME...the gestural analysis is not arbitrary at the recording sessions. This is an objective craft: going through the composition carefully to work out a convincing (and fresh) delivery for every moment, according to the character of the music, and according to the way the entire piece should flow. It's a blend of analysis and intuition. A consistency across the years, though, is not as important as the fact that the performer is doing SOMETHING clear and imaginative at every moment, and always in the deepest and most humble service of the music.

This is much, much more than slavishly following a composer's written instructions. And it goes far beyond application of any mechanical rule such as "to emphasize something, hit it with a dynamic accent." And it goes beyond stylistic conventions. A gestural approach to the music is the antithesis of rigidity.

Look at the music on its own terms, learn what makes it tick (at all levels, from large paragraphs down to individual notes), do something intelligent and beautiful. Straightforward process. Not easy, but straightforward, given a sufficient level of analytical insight and imagination.

This can be done in any music if the work is given enough focus, enough respect, enough preparation time; but it's still rare. Some of that rarity is because listeners don't expect it (and don't insist on it); and some listeners and performers don't realize it's possible. A much lower level of achievement passes as good enough, or is even hailed as "great," by the hoi polloi. That lower level is merely the "safety net" level for a gestural performer: one can always fall back on that if things are not going better, or if the circumstances don't allow that much preparation...a safety-net performance will still be at least good, and enough to fool most of the people most of the time.

What is the gestural approach?

Yo there, composition! Hello! Hey, I like you. Where would YOU like to go today, and how can I help you get there?

"Must a Spam haiku
Conform to the rigid box
Like Spam does?"

(haiku by a friend of mine, years ago)

(*) And, to make it even more mind-blowing: in that first minute (the web sample) Rachmaninoff is holding some intensity in reserve. He gets even more strongly (and more obviously) gestural at the later climax of the piece, making it even more emotionally compelling. The overall structure of the interpretation is already worked out to fit the shape of the piece...as it must be. Everything is in its proper place.

© Bradley Lehman, 2002-2004