The compromising musician

I know how hard it is to write artist biographies for concert programme notes and so on. I always feel a bit awkward when I have to write about myself in the third person, and just hope that I’m not making myself sound too stuffy or conceited. But I do have a few pet peeves about certain overused tropes of the genre.

Top among them is “X attended the prestigious Juilliard School.” I don’t like this, because if you went to the Juilliard School, you don’t need to point out its prestige, and if you have to say the school you went to is prestigious, chances are it isn’t. In the immortal words of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, “Prestigious’ is an adjective of last resort: it is in the dictionary, but you don’t have to use it.”

A close second is the statement about “X is known for his dazzling technique and uncompromising musicianship.” What does this even mean? Exactly what is it that they won’t compromise on? Are they saying they won’t compromise their lofty principles to play less fancy gigs to pay the rent? That they won’t accept the ideas of collaborators in case they compromise their ideals about tempo, articulation, and phrasing?

The more I thought about it, the more I decided I’d rather be a compromising musician. Making music with others is all about compromise anyway, isn’t it? Ask any member of a string quartet if they ever have to compromise, and they’ll burst out laughing. If you make music with others, you never get to have your way 100% of the time. You always have to compromise.

I remember once almost coming to blows with chamber music partners in my student days when we were rehearsing the second movement of Dohnanyi’s Serenade for string trio. There’s a section in the middle where a viola solo is accompanied by cello pizzicati, and I wanted to slow down the tempo to make my phrasing sound more “shaped” and resonant. The violist, however, hotly disagreed, saying that my slow tempo would sound “notey” and disrupt the phrasing of the solo line. Voices were raised, and some unnamed person may or may not have stamped out of the room to cool off.

I was, to put it lightly, massively irritated by this dispute, but after recording ourselves a few times at different tempi and evaluating the playback as neutrally and critically as possible, I conceded that the violist was right. To do so, I had to I let go my pride as much as my tempo. Did it hurt? You bet. Was it the right thing to do? Again, you bet.

And that’s what music-making is all about, isn’t it? Trying other people’s ideas as honestly and sincerely as if they were your own; letting go of your pigheaded ego; helping your colleagues sound their best; trying to blend your sounds so that you sound like a giant, multifaceted, multicoloured super-instrument instead of a bunch of individuals doing their own thing. Maybe if all you ever play is solo unaccompanied music, you can an uncompromising musician. For everyone else, there’s compromise.


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