How do really great performers get so good? And can we emulate them in any degree at all? Is it, in short, possible to go from good to great performance?
Last weekend I had the immense pleasure of seeing my childhood hero, recorder player Michala Petri, perform with lutenist Lars Hannibal here in Bristol. At the end of a truly sparkling first half, the audience spilled out of the performance space and spent the interval sipping wine and wondering at what we’d just seen. A couple of things really stood out for us:
- She played the entire first half from memory.
- She barely moved anything other than her fingers (and they moved very fast indeed!), and yet was utterly mesmerising.
And the most common question I heard during the interval? “How does she DO that?!”
How she does it, step 1: Practice
Michala Petri has been performing for around 40 years – she gave her first concert at age 11. She’s pretty experienced. She’s done a lot of hours in the practice room.
So how does she remember all that music? She’s practised it! I suspect that she’s played some of those works for at least 20 years. After that time, I suspect that memorising isn’t really an issue.
It also strikes me that Ms Petri’s experience of playing those pieces of music is going to be completely different to the experience I have when/if I play them. Her relationship with the music goes far beyond needing to know what note or phrase is coming next. Through familiarity and close study, she has been able to cultivate such an in-depth knowledge of each piece that even the most difficult piece of Bach has a clear sense of line and purpose.
Put more simply, what takes Ms Petri from good to great performance is not remembering the notes, but her ability to move to a completely different level of relationship with the notes as part of a holistic structure.*
What would happen if we, whatever our field of expertise, were able to do sufficient work that our next performance moved to the level beyond ‘remembering the notes’?
How she does it, step 2: Concentration
More than just knowing the piece, however, Ms Petri is able to communicate her ideas clearly to the audience. She does this by maintaining an absolute focus on what she needs to do to communicate. As FM Alexander said,
We must cultivate, in brief, the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind, with a living desire to carry each action through to a successful accomplishment, a desire which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention. By use this power develops…**
Concentration is the ability to stick with the process you’ve designed, and not to allow your focus to waver. What would happen if you brought that level of attention to your next presentation or performance?
How she does it, step 3: do only what you have to
Because Ms Petri has done the practice and the study, because she has lived with each piece of music for a long time, she has developed clear ideas about what she needs to do to communicate the piece to the audience. So she does those things.
And only those things.
That’s why she doesn’t move much – she doesn’t need to. Her fingers and her lungs are doing most of the physical work. Any other movement would run the risk of disturbing them, so she doesn’t indulge in any. This isn’t to say that she looked rooted to the spot. She could have moved as much as she wanted. She just didn’t want to.
What would happen if, in your next performance or presentation, you did only what you believed necessary to achieve your purpose?
Going from good to great performance isn’t without effort, but the steps are clear. Do the work and the study. Take it up with your whole mind, both in rehearsal and in performance. And only do what you need to do.
Simple steps. A world of experimentation and improvement awaits.
* Interestingly, the only times she resorted to sheet music were when she was playing very new works that had only been written a couple of years previously. She’d only known them for a couple of years – they hadn’t reached the level of knowledge for playing from memory yet!
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete edition, pp.66-67.
Picture of Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal by Tom Barnard.