The Instrumentalist as a Highly Skilled Manual Worker

Let’s compare cello playing with the worlds of architecture, building construction, and manual labour.

A piece of music could be thought of as an architectural creation – a beautiful (or ugly) building – but made only with sound. The composer is the “architect” of the music: the original creative source who leaves behind only the plans (the score). These plans indicate exactly which construction materials (notes) we are to use and specify – in greater or lesser detail – how they should be connected together.

We, the instrumentalists, enter the music-making process at a later stage. We don’t normally change the notes (melody, harmony, rhythm) that the composer has written. We are the physical labourers, the workmen, the artisans, the bricklayers (builders) whose primary job is “just” to reproduce those notes, not only accurately, but also in such a way as to bring them to life, to make them sound as “musical” as possible. When we play solo or chamber music, we need also to assume the more creative function of the building engineer (interpreter), whose job is not just to create the sounds but also to take decisions as to how to assemble them together into a functional and hopefully beautiful (or at least meaningful) building, according to the plans that the composer has left us. When we play in an orchestra however, it is the conductor (and section leaders) who occupy the role of engineer, and our task reverts to being simply that of being an as-good-as-possible artisan, following exactly the instructions of the composer, conductor and section leaders.

Developing a good instrumental technique is also like making a building. But not only must we construct that building in such a way that it be both strong and beautiful, we then also need to permanently maintain and reinforce it to resist the forces of nature which would tend to make it fall down over time (which is what happens when we stop practicing). Playing a piece of music is also like constructing a building, but whereas a building is usually built once and lasts “forever”, we musicians have to be able to build it over and over again, because the moment we stop playing, the building disappears! This means that we have to make the construction process “sustainable” and easily reproducible, in other words, the whole process has to look and feel easy and natural.

The basic building blocks (skills) for the instrumentalist’s contribution to the music-making process are thus quite different to those of composers. Whereas composers decide on their use of notes according to their Holy Trinity of rhythm, harmony and melody, the equivalent Holy Trinity of essential basic ingredients for the instrumentalist are perhaps the following:

Instrumental Technique (Skill): This is what allows us to reproduce the notes correctly: in tune and in time. The notes we play are our construction materials, our building blocks (bricks, stones). We could perhaps consider our instrumental technique as the musical equivalent of the hidden but essential structural pillars and foundations which hold a building up.

Musical Language and Interpretation (Knowledge and Feeling): Buildings reach upwards to the sky. Music also. Our objective is to make the notes meaningful, not just correct and beautiful. “Interpretation” is the spire on the church (or the minaret on the mosque).

A Good Sound: Our sound is the equivalent of the appearance of the finishing materials of a building. Quality of sound is what makes the difference between “music” and “noise”, in the same way that an identical building design (composition) can be either ugly or beautiful according to the beauty of the materials with which it is visible parts are made. We can consider our sound as our building’s facade, or as the golden light in which the building is bathed. But even a beautifully designed building with a beautiful glass facade can become horribly ugly if it becomes covered with scratches, dirt or graffiti. In that same way, even if we play a beautiful piece of music perfectly in tune and in time, if we do it with an ugly sound, then the music will also sound ……… ugly.

It is fun to analyze our own musical and instrumental skills (and those of other musicians) using these three criteria. In which of these three basic areas are our priorities, our passions, our natural talents, and our greatest strengths and weaknesses?

But these three factors are not all that is necessary. A building needs to be built on a solid base, on solid foundations. “Instrumental Technique” and “A Good Sound” are the two essential bases without which it is impossible to build a palace of interpretation and meaning, but underneath technique and sound are hidden some even more fundamental foundations that support the whole structure:

Without these, it is as though we were building our magnificent construction on soft, unstable sand!

On a wide, deep and strong base, we can build a very stable, strong, tall building with a magnificent spire. However, a tall building (great interpretation) built on a fragile base (technique) will be dangerously unstable. A safe, risk-free, low and flat construction (interpretation) is simply boring …… but if our base is solid it is normally relatively easy to make our palace higher. Even when our technical and musical base is solid, if we haven’t learned a piece of music well enough then our building can still be unstable and collapse easily because it is as though our construction materials had not yet hardened and were still soft. And if our sound is ugly then even the greatest, tallest most magnificent building will still be just plain ugly.

Unless we want to be a secret, “closet” musician, there is still another element lacking from our trinity of essential skills: performance. A large part of being a musician – perhaps the largest – is being able to do it all in front of an audience. Performance skill – or lack of it – can wonderfully enhance or completely destroy our carefully constructed musical creation. For a discussion of this see Stagefright, and for a more general discussion of the psychological factors in music-making see the Psychology section (which is in the Musicality and Interpretation department).