Music You Hate (Or: Not Everything is Beethoven, Okay?!)

In my young performing career I've had the distinct pleasure of playing (what some might say is) an inordinate amount of new or new-ish music. I have found great pleasure playing works written in the past twenty years and even greater delight in commissioning some wonderful composers to write works for me to premiere and play (often).  Collaborations with composers have been my lifeblood since 2010, sustaining my musical curiosity through even the most (seemingly) hopeless situations. I've loved just about every minute of working on and performing these commissions and other fresh works.

There does come a time when music that I've often performed is music that I dislike, and less frequently falls into the category of "hate." One must push through and give each work its best, most convincing performance: the audience mustn't realize how much the performer dislikes a piece of music. They should always leave a performance feeling the performer's love for the music they just heard! (Sidenote: the photos on this page should not be seen as examples of music I hate. They are just a few examplse of the opposite: pieces I love!)

This isn't easy; like all artists, performers chose their profession because of all the artistic freedoms of expression available to them. Most - if not all! - have a distinct musical voice and very personal "things" to say about the works they are performing. In this sense, it's so easy to flip the switch (as my friend Jennifer Bewerse has said) and start learning from a place of "no!" rather than a place of "yes!" When that switch is thrown, and the performer first says, "I hate this piece!" it is so very difficult - nay, impossible! - to throw it back. 

I've experienced this first hand, having performed a handful of works since 2010 that I really disliked. While I've been lucky to collaborate with great composers (many of my favorites have been mentioned in past posts and whose names can be found scattered across my website), I would be lying if I said that I've loved each piece. I know, certainly, that I've given less-than-stellar performances of some works (commissions AND extant works) simply because I threw the switch at some point, and couldn't go back. 

It shouldn't be this way: performers should find the beauty, the honesty, and the depth of a work no matter how they are feeling. Resist the urge to throw the switch! (And honestly, how can you really form an opinion of a piece if you haven't heard it at it's best - this is definitely the case with a brand new commission or unrecorded/unperformed work.) Here are some things I've been experimenting with to keep the light turned on:

1. Find the challenging parts of the work and fascination within the notes.

My students often "hate" a piece when it is too hard for them to sightread. We've all been there; not having the technique to say what you - or the composer - want to say makes it difficult to fall in love with a piece of music. This is what practice is for, though, and the technical challenges will eventually become less challenging through organized, intelligent practice. Finding an interest within the notes is more difficult. If, after tackling and mastering the challenges of the work, there isn't much to be fascinated about within it, invent something. Create a narrative! One of my favorite pieces of music is Benjamin Britten's Third Suite for Cello. The anchor of this work is the massive Passacaglia that ends the piece. It has taken me years to dig into this movement and at one point I invented a narrative - two voices, within oneself, arguing with each other and eventually coming to blows - to make the movement more interesting for me and (hopefully!) more interesting to the audience. (I never hated this movement, quite the contrary, I just never understood it - more on that coming below.)

2. Do not allow yourself to indulge in the hatred of a work, nor should you pressure your peers to yield to the same!

I think that this speaks for itself: just because you are performing a strange piece, with strange instrumentation, strange notes or sounds, strange structure, or a strange - missing - narrative, does not give license to write off the piece! It is boring to give up on a work that you must perform (and perform well!). It is much more interesting to say to yourself or your colleagues, "Hey! This could be more interesting/better/not so bad if we did it this way…" and then try it. You might find your experiment to be a terrible idea, but at least you haven't flipped that switch. And while you laugh it off, you'll think of your next, imaginative attempt to give the piece meaning.

3. Just because you don't understand what the composer has written, doesn't necessarily mean that the piece is bad.

Let's talk Anton Webern. Dude was brilliant. His works for string quartet - just as an example - are sublime, high romantic and expressive, with so much packed into his characteristic brevity. And yet, I've worked with performers and students who just despise his music. I'm ok with this - you are perfectly allowed to dislike a composer - but one must (MUST!) present good, solid, musical reasoning for the opinion. To say, "this sounds weird," or "I don't get it," does not qualify. Your ignorance does not an opinion make. I have been guilty of this many times before, especially in my younger student days, but even recently. Again, one must find the interest: if a chord sounds "weird," recompose it to identify what it is or is not (dissonance is not a crime). A difficult or "poorly composed" rhythm may make a bit more sense when it is slowed, learned well, and then sped up again. If your part doesn't make sense while you are practicing it, check the score, and see how it fits with everything else. (If it's a solo work, figure out how this "weird" part corresponds or interacts with the rest of the piece or the music that has come before and will come after.)

4. If you just can't do it, be honest with yourself, then give it your all.

It's happened to all of us: no matter how much you try, no matter how much you want to, sometimes you have to perform pieces that you just don't like. Try those things above, but be honest with yourself: you aren't enamored with this particular piece. That's ok. Push through. Identify some things that you like (maybe the ending is really nice, or the harmonies are beautiful in the opening section) and grab on to them. You'll find that they may carry through the piece. Perhaps just picking out one or two points of pride will be enough to bring the piece from a place of "dislike" to a place of "love." Simply, don't sucumb to the danger of flipping the switch, where everything and anything becomes something that you hate.

One of my musical inspirations has been known to say, "It may be an ugly baby, but it's your baby." At first, I found this humorous but crass. On the surface this is true, but the moral is quite powerful: your first impression of a work may be alien in nature, but the piece will grow as you spend time with it. You will nurture it through its infancy and into adolescence, eventually performing it in its adulthood. It is what you do with the work that makes it "good" or "bad." Go ahead and choose the route of no judgement and introspective thought and this "ugly" baby will certainly grow to be a stunning adult.