The Student Performer Cycle

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Every musician is at once a student and a performer. In each role, the musician explores and hopefully expands. The efficiency of progress for the student often suffers because of his inability to clearly see the differences between his own roles as student and performer.

The attitude of the student must essentially be one of humility and patience. The work usually centers on the difficulties of developing one's technical capabilities and one's unique musical personality. Focusing on weaknesses rather than strengths is often difficult for the ego to accept. Most musicians prefer to hear themselves at their best and practice per se is certainly not their best. Stumbling over fingerings, rhythms and new ideas is not particularly inspiring. This difficulty, if considered in the proper perspective, can be exciting since the search inevitably leads to progress. However, a time gap is always present. That gap, filled with doubts and frustrations, is a critical point in anyone's awareness and evaluation of himself.

Feelings of non-progress or even regression are so common that they can be considered virtually universal. Continuing to work and strive forward during this period is often painful.The student destined to succeed seems to know, intuitively perhaps, that endurance and determination are necessary to help him through these periods and feelings.

Ego, so disruptive to meaningful student-teacher relationships also has a destructive effect on the student-performer relationship. The performer feeds on ego. This ego is not conceit but the projection of the uniqueness of oneself to others. Since ego is critical to the performer and the performer is at the same time a student, the ego must learn to function on different levels. It must accomplish this by neither exaggerating nor depressing the ego. The fact of one's concern for and with oneself must be accepted and used to benefit the two distinct but forever interwoven personalities that is the essence of a musician.

The student works on a level of conscious awareness and concern for progress. Often this occurs in a disciplined manner. The discipline is not always easy to perceive but it is usually there is some form. The progress can occur in many areas and on many levels. It may be technical, aural, creative or any number of other possibilities. In most cases multiple areas are affected simultaneously.

Typically, the student has some type of accomplishment goal in mind. It can be measured in quantity, depth or subject matter. In contrast to this approach, the performer typically has no predetermined accomplishment goals in his conscious mind as he performs. The performer's intent is to express. The expression itself can be of one's emotions, ego, personality or physical capacity. The conscious mind is not in control of the performer while performing. It is as if he is directed or guided by a force. It is a force difficult to define or describe but it nevertheless moves and motivates the performer to perform. Much of the mystique of music performance comes from this force. The force itself is so strong, so attractive, that it is often the single most important factor in the drawing power of live music performance. The force driving the student as a student is nowhere near as strong nor as appealing. Thus, playing or performing has infinitely greater appeal than practicing.

Every teacher is familiar with the dilemma concerning playing and practicing. Questions like "how long will it take to get good!" are so predictable as to be humorous. Confusion about the means as a contributing factor toward the accomplishment of the end is a typical dilemma to many students. Practice as a means and performance as an end is not difficult to accept and even believe from the standpoint of the intellect or logic. However, as so often happens, logic is not the determining factor in many situations involving music. The desire to succeed in as short a time as possible has been instilled in many by the very culture in which they find themselves. Something for nothing and short cut attitudes surround everyone in daily life. It is little wonder that it affects musicians. Since a musician is striving so hard to develop his own sensitivities, these difficulties probably affect him more severely than many others in the same culture. The musician must see the performer in himself as a student and the student in himself as a performer.

This paradox becomes easier to accept by considering four critical factors of music that are in common between the performer and the student. It will be seen that it is not the factors themselves that allow the differentiation to be clear but rather it is the role of each factor as a prime mover of the other factors. This ordered approach can be helpful to a musician's understanding of his seemingly contradictory roles. This comprehension in turn should allow the musician to function more comfortably in his role as a student-performer and musician.

The Four Factors of Students and Performers

The four contributing factors which deserve special consideration are:
  • Hands
  • Mind
  • Soul
  • Ear


The Hands refers to the physical aspect of playing. It can be the hands themselves, the embouchure, the voice, etc. Physical coordination, synchronization or control is stressed in this area. Since it is a purely physical factor, we can identify it with the technique of playing. Some would consider it to be the easiest factor to develop though in most cases this would be the musician who had above average natural coordination in the first place.

The Mind refers to the comprehension factor in music. Understanding a musical principle intellectually is not particularly difficult. It is naturally more difficult to apply or master the same principle. Music is often made overly complex from an intellectual point of view. I think that this is often done so that the subject of music seems as complicated as the subject of calculus for example. Perhaps this attitude stems from the ego of music teachers striving for a type of equality with teachers in other disciplines. In any case, music is fundamentally an art form and though it does have its theoretical or analytical side, I do not feel that this aspect of it should be stressed to the detriment of its other important aspects.

The Soul refers to the creative urge or capacity. It certainly is not limited to composing music. It can manifest itself in improvisation, interpretation of a theme or in a multitude of other ways. The touch, the sound, the ability to express one's emotions to others are indicators that this capacity exists in the musician at one level or another.

The Ear refers to the aural capacity in the musician. We differentiate here between simple listening and hearing which is a very personal and involved relationship. Obviously to "hear" in this context goes beyond the physical ability of hearing. The "hearing ear" must be able to recognize, identify and categorize the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic factors of music. Instrumental virtuosity, i.e. technical brilliance, should not properly be called virtuosity without a well developed and sensitive ear. Most musicians can relate to the fact that there are players with well developed technique whose agility and coordination are exceedingly above average but whose music seems empty and purposeless. What they are describing is an instrumentalist, perhaps an outstanding instrumentalist, but is he a "musician"? These questions have launched countless debates but the subject is at the very least intriguing to consider.

The musician must be a rather complex human being and that he is. He is also a simple human being. This quality causes trouble for the musician himself and then, of course, for those who are in contact with him. In order to sort out this complexity, we will attempt to order the four factors of a musician's dual role of student and performer. Perhaps this ordering process will be of assistance in maintaining a musician's individual identity as a musician in the face of his seemingly conflicting roles.

The Student: Mind—Hands—Ear—Soul

To begin, a student must understand, at least grasp an idea, a concept or a technique. Without this step, the resulting confusion produces non accomplishment and probably frustration. The hands have no trouble "understanding" the orders of the mind but they may have difficulty responding to them. This inevitability is a physical coordination or response problem and is easily solved by the many technical exercises designed to overcome such difficulties. Up to this point, the ear has not really been involved. It is incapable of hearing or identifying a music principle or sound with which it has had no experience. Thus, the ear must wait for the hands' response to the mind's commands. Once played, the principle becomes sound and at this point, the ear hears, grasps and hopefully retains it. As sounds and principles begin to build cumulatively, the student's awareness of the possibilities of music begins to unfold. This discovery of unfolding potential in music and in the student himself is exciting and one of the greatest rewards of the student role.

The creative capacity "soul" has not entered into this discussion because it is virtually outside of it. This capacity waits and if the student has potential, builds in depth and intensity waiting for the proper moment of release. It is this moment of release that marks the transition between the student and the performer. It is important to remember that student and performer exist simultaneously in one musician. One role or the other becomes dominant at a particular moment but both exist at all times. Thus, we are not discussing rigid categorization and inflexible segmentation but rather an interesting blend of diverse factors in a state of evolution leading to a comfortable balance in the musician. That moment of transition occurs when the capacity to create becomes a prime mover. It does not obliterate other factors but rather becomes more compelling at that particular moment. Thus, we are led to the conclusion of a reordering of factors to describe the role of the player.

The Player: Soul—Ear—Hands—Mind

At this point the urge to play, to create, to express has asserted itself. This creative moment must be turned into sound and the sound needs the medium of technique to make itself heard. But how does the"soul" get its ideas to the "hands"? It is here that the role of the ear as a bridge becomes most significant. The lack of ear development has prevented many potential musicians from becoming musicians. The fact that the ear is responsible for linking the factors of creativity to hand response is one of the most difficult concepts for non musicians to accept. The student musician also has difficulty with this concept. He feels more comfortable blaming his hands rather than his ear for wrong notes. If the fundamental musical and physical skills are developed, most "wrong notes" are caused by the inability of the ear to accurately anticipate the music and relay the information to the hands. Since the hands are trained to respond, this is exactly what they do. Their response is in the form of a reflex.This reflex is initiated directly by the ear without conscious intellect. The mind as a consciously calculating tool has already served its function in the student role. By the time the musician has begun to function in the performing role, the mind has become the least significant factor. It, of course, retains its capacity to comprehend and indeed the mind's awareness and grasp of a principle or sound might be stronger as a consequence of having been performed. It is not, however, the prime mover. The mind's function is transformed from a prime mover to an incidental factor. The mind is analytical but the analysis is in retrospect. Too often musicians allow an analytical approach to dictate the direction of their music. This obviously curtails spontaneity and leads to an overly predictable or mechanical approach to music.

The inter-relationship of the factors and roles of musicianship is a topic of great interest to many students. If it is considered as a guiding outline and not a dogmatic categorization, I think that it will be most helpful to musicians aspiring to expand their own scope as students and performers of music.

The eternal cycle of development

Student: Mind—Hands—Ear—Soul

Player: Soul—Ear—Hands—Mind

and so it continues...

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