Reflections on the Stuttgart International Competition
Coming into the Stuttgart International Song Competition, I had so many anxieties. Above all, a lingering sense of doubt in my own abilities and a conviction that I wouldn’t be liked by the jury. But where had this doubt come from? I suppose, in part, it came from an assumption that the jury would be looking for a specific wayof playing or for specific musical decisions, and that mine would not be the same as theirs; a belief, then, that there is a ‘correct’ way of playing towards which I should be striving. This isn’t something I tend to feel in my daily life as a performer; indeed, in recitals I feel relatively assured of the decisions I have made as a performer, and feel conviction in my interpretations. And yet, when performing in the context of a competition (and, by extension, performing for a jury of renowned performers), my psychology reverts to a binary vision of music-making as either ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. Of course, this is such an unhelpful attitude for an artist to adopt – abstract notions of ‘correctness’, unconnected to the broader expressive aims and ambitions of performance, are blinkers to one’s vision –they disconnect you from your imagination, from your inner ear and, above all, they disconnect you from communication.
Knowing that this was my fear, I wanted to use this competition (like all performance platforms) to offer what I hoped would be the best of my playing and of my artistic vision, and to see what the jury made of it. And, really, my experience in this competition has taught me that it is a conviction in one’s own communicative intentions and strategies that is most beneficial. Or, in other words, an unapologetic commitment to the music as I believe it. Of course, getting to this place requires hours of detailed technical and artistic graft, but if that work is being done, then perhaps there is less to worry about than I previously imagined.
I have so often felt intimidated by famous musicians, my idols and heroes, assuming myself unworthy of them. I had the impression that they had fixed views about how music should go, and that unless we offered them exactly that, they would think of us as lesser musicians. Perhaps some of them do have fixed views of how things ‘should’ be, but this competition has made me see that while this may be true, they aren’t expecting us to simply do the music as they believe it should be done. The competition isn’t a challenge to guess at the musical ideals of the jury – such an aim is patently impossible, not only because imitation is an imperfect art, but because each of these jurors has their own opinion. They do not have a unified notion of how this music goes; rather, they want to be convinced by ourmusical ideas and vision – or, to put it another way, they want to be introduced to our artistic personality and want to be convinced by that.
In short, they wanted to be moved.
And this is the crucial thing for me – of course they are listening with expert ears for issues of technique, but they are simultaneously open to listening with their hearts. I realised this most at a feedback session with the jury after our semi-final performance. Several jury members told me things about my playing which indicated to me that I had moved them. Of course, they might choose to perform these songs differently, but I understood that my playing wasn’t engaging because it aligned with their vision for the music. It was engaging because I believed in it strongly enough, and had crafted a sound world which revealed my own detailed conception of the music.
Preparation and process, then, are everything. The pieces which I felt uncomfortable about, where my own expressive intentions were unclear, were the pieces which all of the jury members picked up on. I had technical and expressive insecurities (those two things aren’t disconnected, but that’s a whole other blog post) and this came across. By the same token, in pieces where I felt fully in control of my technical faculties, and where my imaginative world was crystal clear, listeners responded. They might have heard/imagined different things than what I thought I was expressing, but the key thing is that they imagined something. Their primary thought wasn’t a doubtful one, but a creative one.
Of course, opinions can differ, and one juror felt our performance of a particular song by Wolf had captured the dignity and devotion of the text and music, and another found it not devout enough. But, it’s impossible to please everyone, so why try!? What mattered is that in that performance, we offered a vision of the music that made sense to us, and we offered it with good technique and clear intentions. In doing so, we revealed something of ourselves and the way we see the world. And perhaps that is the ultimate aim – that in the same way Wolf’s setting of poetry reveals something about the way he saw the world, the way we read his text (that is, the words and the music together) reveals something about the way we see the world. It’s a beautiful paradox that when we invest hours of our life in discovering a piece and teasing out its mysteries, searching for a clarity of thought and a personal musical ‘truth', what we end up with is a vision of ourselves; the music seems not only to reveal things to us, but allows us to reveal ourselves through it – a double-sided mirror of sorts.
So I leave Stuttgart a very different musician than the one I arrived as. I leave with self-belief and confidence in myself as a player and thinker. Alongside this, I am leaving with a renewed commitment and determination to stretch my technical and artistic boundaries further, to create increasingly well-defined imaginative worlds from whose source will spring, I hope, ever more well-defined and multilayered sounds.