Friday, June 7, 2013

He SWAYS while he PLAYS

"I accept the chaos.  I hope it accepts me."'
                                 ~ Bob Dylan  

I'm continuing my exploration of creativity and how it is managed in the brain with a look at the world-famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.  Ma's virtuosity began with technical prowess, but he says he started really gaining notice (and enjoying himself, losing himself in the music) when he stepped away from that perfection and introduced something deeper, something swirling towards deep emotion and that expressive playing that enchants audiences.  He has proved his versatility by completing such disparate activities such as improvising with Bobby McFerrin, recording Hollywood blockbuster scores and making popular the melodies of home, central Asia.  

In the recent book, Imagine: How CreativityWorks, Ma talks with author, Jonah Lehrer, about how he made the distict discovery of performing expressively versus performing perfectly.  In his own words, "I was nineteen and I had worked my butt off, I knew the music inside and out.  While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, 'Why am I here?  What's at stake?  Nothing.  Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored.'  Perfection is not very communicative."  He learned that there are tradeoffs when choosing between expression and perfection.  "If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing," he says.  "You will have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something."  Likening a musical score to a detective novel, wherein you must hunt for clues and tell the whole story, in conclusion, he states, "It's all about making people care about what happens next."   The author likens this skill to turning "a work of intricate tonal patterns into a passionate narrative."

Bringing the title of the post into play, perhaps you didn't know that Yo-Yo Ma sways while he plays.  He does this because he cannot restrain himself from feeling and experiencing all the emotion he is dredging up from the score and propeling out into the audience.  He says, "I know that the some of the best music happens when you let yourself get a little carried away."  I have some personal experience with this.  I literally cannot stay still when I listen to music.  I am often the only one in an audience moving, and I wonder about the ability of my co-concertgoers to keep themselves still.  Are they uninspired?  Perhaps rhythm-challenged?  Or, is it a social nicety to sit still in one's seat?  I have to confess, I often wonder how I am perceived in my swaying.  My eldest son has become somewhat known for his physically expressive playing.  Beyond swaying, I have likened it to dancing with his instrument; the string bass is proportionate in size to his own body.  It's positively charming.  In junior high school and high school, several band directors mentioned this to him (and to us, as parents) as being a distraction on the stage.  That did not change him.  At a recent master lesson at USC, their director of bass studies also told him to preserve his energy, to expend only what he needs to get to the next finger position, elegantly and with a minimum of movement.  But, despite the good advice, he cannot stay still.  He also, SWAYS while he PLAYS. *

Interestingly, Ma added that when he is least conscious of what he is doing, when he is lost in the emotion of the music, that is when he performs at his best.

It is also interesting to know that the male brain and the female brain accomplish the same tasks using very different circuits in the brain.  The male brain has much larger centers for muscular action.  Perhaps, it's a brain thing, a male brain thing. 

*  "In many respects, Ma's obsession with spontaneity and expression - and his disinterest in perfection - evokes an ealier mode of performance.  The classical music of the eighteenth century, for intance, is full of cadenzas, those brief parentheses in the score where the performer is supposed to play 'freely.'  (The practice peaked with Mozart, who wrote cadenzas into most of his compositions.)  In these frantic and somewhat unscripted moments, the performer was able to become a personality and express what he felt."

Brizendine, Louann.  The Male Brain.  New York: Broadway Books, 2010.  

Lehrer, Jonah.  IMAGINE: How Creativity Works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012.