All too often when we as musicians or conductors look at a piece of music, we forget about the possibility that it could be that wonderful musical “moment,” that beautiful polished gem, a standout in its own right. When you’re presenting musical theater you know it’s pretty obvious that some tunes were written as solo features for one of the stars, and that sometimes a tune was inserted purely for that purpose and it causes the narrative flow of the show to come to a screeching halt. That’s not a problem if the performer can make it a memorable moment, where the audience is captivated and is carried along with the music and the performance by the artistry and emotion of the performer. Anyone who has ever attended high school musicals has seen a character’s “big” tune that doesn’t turn out so big because the performer is, after all, a high school student, and occasionally, one that really does become that moment because the student brings the artistry and emotion to the piece.
There are as many ways to create a moment as there are pieces of music. The key is for the musicians and the audience to become completely involved in what is going on. It’s not easy to do, even in a live setting. Lots of things interfere with it.
Sometimes just the size of the performance space makes it difficult to do. Try to do a beautiful ballad with a jazz quartet in a high school gym with the lights on. Not an easy task. For a couple of years about 20 years ago I conducted a community concert band. We played in a different community park each week throughout the summer, usually without a dedicated performance space. The band could play beautifully (and often did, in spite of the distractions of the outdoor environment) but achieving that moment was pretty much impossible.
Two things reminded me of this lately. One was that I was looking up the words to “Hush Little Baby” because my wife and I remembered different sets of lyrics. I went, of course, to the web. I happened across this performance:
It’s an infectious little groove and it has the tremendous artistry of the musicians brought to bear on simple source material in a way that generates a certain attitude or feeling in the audience – even watching this online. I think the video is better that an audio-only performance because you can see the involvement of the performers. That can be critical in creating the moment.
Last night, sort of by accident, we ended up watching “The Sing-Off” on NBC. I watched this a couple of years ago and was pretty impressed with the quality of the a capella vocal groups involved. This is the first time I had seen it this year. A couple of the groups, Pentatonix and Delilah, created real moments last night. Even the judges, seasoned performers all, seemed to be moved by them. Those performances weren’t available yet on YouTube, but here is one of the performances from in the season:
I think this is why I tend more and more to prefer not only live performance, but recordings of live performances. It is so much easier today to create squeaky-clean fine-tuned recordings than it ever has been before that I think sometimes that becomes the most important thing. The immediacy of the live event, the interaction with the audience, and yes, the possibility that there might be mistakes all make a live performance that much more interesting to me.
Every genre of music has its own kinds of musical moments. Sometimes, at the end of one, there is no applause. There is a pause while the performers and the audience alike take a collective breath.
Here’s a classic tune that, if played correctly, can become a wonderful musical moment:
As any orchestral or wind conductor who has performed the piece can tell you, Grainger’s “Irish Tune” looks simple and is actually a beast to play well. It requires maturity of sound, good breath control, and an accurate sense of pitch from the performers, and it demands a highly defined sense of tempo, dynamics and balance from the conductor. When I looked for an example of this on YouTube I found quite a few that were either hurried or dragging. Tempo control in this piece, management of the flow of the piece, is very challenging.
I heard the US Marine Band play this at Wheaton College once. I think I held my breath through the whole thing.
I’ll look for more examples. Think about it. What can you to do create musical moments, instead of just “playing the songs”?