Find yourself by forgetting your self

Guiding principal-

The more selflessly a performer follows the written instructions of the composer, the more personal their performance becomes.

The more subjective their approach to what’s on the page, the more generic their performance tends to sound.  

This apparent paradox is, one of the most important tenets of my musical belief system.

I was reminded again of this when I was wearing my cellist hat back in February. After my first run through of the Elgar concerto with the conductor, he remarked that he thought my interpretation was quite fascinating, because it was so different from any he had ever heard.

I was a bit surprised (but flattered) by his remark because it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I had an interpretation of the work at all. I was just trying to play exactly what Elgar wrote, as it appears on the pages of the score, as best I could.  

Of course, after I thought about it a bit, I realized that he made a good point- I did sound different to all my recordings of the piece, even though that had never been my aim.

In the conducting world, it is considered bad form to listen to recordings, although everyone does. The reason for this is that it’s all too easy to base one’s performance on what one has heard rather than what one has read. You end up imitating instead of generating. Many players, even very good ones, don’t have this same prejudice, and, especially in their years of training, tend to build their performances from what they’ve learned off of recordings.

I once heard the world’s most famous teacher of an-instrument-that-shall remain-nameless tell a student who was struggling to find the right tempo in a movement of Bach to go listen to the four most famous living performers on that instrument recordings of it and take the average of their tempi. I’m not making that up. Listen to four recordings and take the average.

I had an early and intense lesson in diplomacy as a student conductor when I conducted a fine fellow-student in one of the Mozart wind concerti. Before the rehearsal she gave me a video of the “most famous ____ player in the world” playing the piece. It was pretty great ______ playing, but not very good Mozart. Worst of all was the second movement, a lovely, simple, singing Andante in ¾ that was played in a funereal, lifeless, thudding six. I’m normally very happy to do whatever a soloist wants, but she and I talked about it a bit, and I even showed and played her a couple of Mozart arias in the same Andante ¾ groove. She was open to the idea of doing it a bit quicker, and agreed we’d try it with the orchestra.

I never quite got it to a true andante, but when her teacher came to the dress rehearsal, all hell broke loose. Her teacher, hearing me start the second movement tutti (bear in mind, I was just a student), immediately interrupted me and told me, rather politely, to please take it in six, and much slower. “Of course,” I said, “but don’t you think that for Mozart, an andante should definitely be quick enough to sing the tune in one breath and be felt in the larger pulse unit….”

Somewhere before the end of that quote, he interrupted be again, this time not so politely, and told me to “remember my place.” He even asked me whether I had “bothered” to watch the video. Within minutes of the end of the rehearsal, even when I’d quickly complied with that request to take the tempo-di-videotape, he’d called both of my teachers to complain about my snotty attitude…. Yikes….

The funny upshot of this was that about a year later, the new most famous _____ player in the world came to town to solo with the big orchestra in the same piece. Funny- he took the Andante as an Andante, in a nice, flowing, three. Turns out the next year another student of this teacher was doing the same piece with another student conductor, and that student conductor got a new video of the new most famous ____ player in the world, and was quickly admonished not to take that movement too slowly. Mozart’s wishes were considered irrelevant compared to those of the past and current most famous _____ players in the world.  Yikes again….

The upshot of all of this is that many of us are taught to build a performance like a collage. You’re playing Elgar? Take a bit of Ma, a handful of Harrell, some nice chunks of Mork and a fistful of du Pre. It’s all a matter of selective imitation. It’s a bit like hip hop- sampling things you like, rather than creating them yourself. Sampling may be an art form, but it is a lower art form, unfashionable as that is to say.

There are three things I don’t like to hear young soloists (or conductors) (or old soloists) say.

1-       My teacher told me to do it that way

2-       I heard it like that on a recording

3-       I like it that way

Those are only things one would ever need to say to defend the indefensible. The only defense of a performing choice is the score, which is always open to infinitely varied readings. But just because a score can be read honestly in an infinite variety of ways, it does not follow that all ways of reading a score are honest. As a performer, my likes and dislikes are irrelevant. Imagine me refusing to take an accelerando that Mahler had marked because I didn’t like it. That’s not my choice to make. My job is not to impose my likes and dislikes on the orchestra or the audience. My job is to understand it- once I understand it, I always like it. Appreciation follows understanding, and not the other way around.

Start with the score, and you have to build your concept note by note, symbol by symbol. You have to read the music, think about it, and make your own decisions about how to execute what you see. Why is this here? Why isn’t there a dot on that note? Never mind that “everybody plays it short,” what did the composer write? Why? By definition, everyone one of those questions, processes and decisions will lead you somewhere unique to you. The less you try to interpret and the more you simply try to realize, the more personal your playing becomes.

“Man, I’ve never heard the piece like that. Really interesting….”

Yes, you can have that happen to you! All you have to do is not try to sound like yourself but to sound like the composer wanted you to sound. The harder you try to do it, the more like your true self you will sound.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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5 comments on “Find yourself by forgetting your self”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » Three things no performer should ever say

  2. Vanessa Lann

    What a wonderful way to express such a sentiment. As a (living!) composer, I can also add that for me, the greatest gift is to travel to different performances of a particular work of mine, and to hear completely different interpretations of the sounds and silences on the written page — while still encountering the essence of the original vision of the work. And there are (or should be, on the part of any composer, I believe) so, so many varieties of expressive possiblity when the interpreter is completely honest and true to the notes on the composer’s page. Lovely to read about an interpreter who has the same respect, and passion, for all aspects of the creative process. As far as I’m concerned, that’s where the fun lies.

  3. Reid

    On the performance side, one of my teachers asked what the point of playing the particular piece was. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a negative comment but a question of my direction. He reminded me of the instrument I played, and I (following his philosophy to a certain extent) was reminded that it is an absurd tool and a less-than-profound piece. Silliness prevailed.

  4. siu-ting


    There are three things I don’t like to hear young soloists (or conductors) (or old soloists) say.
    1- My teacher told me to do it that way
    2- I heard it like that on a recording
    3- I like it that way

    at 10:33 AM

    2 response:
    P. Lo said…
    At the risk of sounding like a book of quotations, here’s another one from Thomas Carlyle:

    The merit of originality is sincerity, not novelty.

    June 6, 2007 7:34 AM
    p. lo said…
    I was quoting from memory. This is the correct version:

    The merit of originality is not novelty, it is sincerity.

  5. Sounds and Fury

    On Reading A Score Between The Staves
    [Note: This post has been edited as of 5:40 PM Eastern on 4 Jun to add an inadvertently omitted numbered item in the graf beginning, “And what did I find?”.]

    Conductor and blogger Kenneth Woods of Kenneth Woods — A View From The Podium writes in a post on performance matters entitled, “Find Yourself By Forgetting Yourself”:

    The only defense of a performing choice is the score, which is always open to infinitely varied readings. But just because a score can be read honestly in an infinite variety of ways, it does not follow that all ways of reading a score are honest.
    To that absolute truism should, I think, be added, “No honest reading of a score is complete or sufficient that doesn’t, by reading between the staves so to speak, enter into the mind of the writer of that score.”

    I once became involved in what developed into a prolonged and savage argument with a conductor (who I’ll here refer to as Conductor X) concerning the Prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Conductor X, in all earnestness, declared that every conductor of his experience got this 136-measure opening episode wrong. Wagner, said Conductor X, not once called for a crescendo before the last few bars of the Prelude, and at no time during the entire Prelude did he call for a dynamic above p (piano, or softly). Wagner, he declared, in fact notates p repeatedly and often throughout the Prelude’s 136 measures; ergo, declared Conductor X, according to the score, the Prelude should be played by the entire orchestra at a constant p from beginning to end except for the last few measures where Wagner notated measure-long, “hairpin” crescendi that should be observed…..

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