Why Am I Doing This?

OuzerMy favorite photography collection is Contemporary Musicians in Photographs by Louis Ouzer.  This 1979 Dover publication contains 119 photos of some of the world’s most famous musicians, from Rubinstein to Ellington, taken at the Eastman School of Music between 1940 and 1979.  Ouzer, whose studio was a few doors down the street from Eastman, was a sort of “unofficial” photographer at the school for several decades.   He captured the artists in unguarded moments – rehearsing, teaching, talking, thinking.  Many of the photos were taken in the reflective moments just before the artist walked onstage for a performance.  Although unfortunately no longer in print, used copies are available through Amazon.

I have always wondered what the individual musicians shown in the photos were thinking about in the final moments before the door opened to the stage.  Is Rudolf Serkin going over the Beethoven Sonata he is about to play?  The very young Itzhak Perlman looks almost resigned – as if contemplating his fate.  Is he nervous?  Is Count Basie actually smoking that cigar backstage?

Many performers I know, myself included, wonder in the moments before a performance:  “Why is it exactly that am I doing this?”   But while the real reason may escape me in the midst of the performance anxiety that envelops me before I walk onstage, I know exactly why I perform – and it’s not for the performance itself.  While sharing music that I love with a hall full of people has its rewards (thunderous applause being one of them), it’s actually the process leading up to the performance that I find so interesting.  It’s exhilarating to transform symbols on a page into sounds existing in time and space – sounds that carry emotional meaning.  That transformational process changes me mentally, physically, and emotionally, and it is endlessly fascinating.

And why do I study the brain?  Same reason.  It’s fascinating.  Many neuroscientists say that making music is the most complex cognitive activity that a human being engages in.  So what’s going on in that 3-lb. mass of tissue we call the brain that makes it possible for us to actually make music?  And how can knowing something about the brain help us to be better musicians?

Stay tuned!

4 responses to “Why Am I Doing This?”

  1. loren.amacher@facebook.com Avatar

    What a wonderful idea!! I’ve thought several times that you should do such a thing. Jane and I shall follow you assiduously! Know that I shall comment frequently – when I have something sensible to say. Yay!

  2. Lyle Sanford Avatar

    Got here via the Kyle Gann tip and looking forward to your blog. I’ve seen statements like making music is, “the most complex cognitive activity that a human being engages in”, before and have wondered exactly what that means. Is it simply an easy way to say that making music lights up more areas of the brain in imaging studies than anything else they’ve found – or is there something more fine grain going on?

    1. Lois Avatar

      Thanks, Lyle. All of the brain areas that “light up” are activated for different reasons. Improvising, for example, activates some different brain areas than playing from a score. So hope you’ll stay tuned as I blog about this in greater detail in many future posts.

  3. Grace Miles Avatar

    Hi Lois! It’s nice to meet you. I’m excited for what’s coming up next!