Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How Does a Musician Know It's Time to Quit?

That's a serious question. We've all heard singers who were still on stage years after their voices had become threadbare; we also all know of singers who retired, tantalizingly, when they were in prime form, apparently with years of good work ahead of them.

I'm raising this question because of a concert I attended by a veteran ensemble where it quickly became evident that one member of this ensemble was having serious, and all-too-obvious, technical problems. The player couldn't play in tune in high and medium-high positions, which ruined one movement of one piece the group played. The player had bow-arm problems as well; there were all sorts of extraneous sounds and problems with articulating the music as written. The bow was not under good control at all.

This player is a member of an ensemble; the other members must have noticed these issues, and after a look around, reviewers are noticing exactly the problems I heard. (The reviews I looked at noticed problems with a different member of the ensemble as well.) So....how does one go about conveying to a player that it's time? that the technical issues are dragging down the entire ensemble? What do you do when it's more than one member of the group? Who raises the issues? Other players in the group? The group's manager?

Do the ensemble's written agreements include a process for dealing with this kind of problem? In a perfect world, the contracts would cover these potential issues when an ensemble is new and everybody is in top form. If reviewers are noticing the problems and nothing is happening, it's a problem for the whole group.


D. said...

I've seen some singers perform a year or two from their retirement, and--yeah.

Anonymous said...

It's a very tough question to answer, Lisa.

Music, obviously, is not like sports where all the various performance stats are there for everyone to see and compare.

I think I know which ensemble you are speaking of; I heard them play last year. I was surprised and saddened at all the technical problems displayed by this world-famous group, one of the musicians in particular, and which seriously hindered the musical "message". I think that player's time may have come.

But on the other hand, I heard the elderly Menuhin play at one of the opening week's gala concerts of the (then) new Davies Hall, and although his articulation and intonation was perhaps not what it once was, his tone was divine and his artistry fully intact.

He played the Bach Double Concerto along with the then concertmaster of the SFS, Raymond Kobler, and he totally blew Kobler away on all counts: tone quality, amplitude, expression, and yes - even articulation and intonation. Kobler simply got taken to school.

So who makes the judgement of when technical flaws outweigh artistic expression?

Yep, it's a tough question.

- Greg from SF

Lisa Hirsch said...

In the case of this particular program, the artistry of the group did not succeed in overcoming the issue with one of the players.

I think that in the case of a chamber music ensemble, the players have to have some kind of process for handling these issues, which are inevitable - we all grow old. It is really up to the performers to figure this stuff out. Of course reviews provide possibly useful information. If reviewers are noticing technical problems, well...

I get no hits on the group in question at sfgate.com or SFCV, so if you are discussing a group that played in the Bay Area last year, we are talking about different ensembles.

Mary Jane Leach said...

Well, if it's not the Emerson String Quartet you're talking about, it should be, although the Juilliard has it's problems too. On the other hand, I heard Menehan Pressler this fall, and he was great (and almost 90).

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm sorry to hear this about the Emerson String Quartet; the one live concert of theirs that I attended was fantastic, but it was also six or seven years ago.

I'm not going to identify the ensemble that I heard; I am more interested in the general question of how an individual musician or a chamber music ensemble figures out that it's time to quit or time for a member of the ensemble to retire.

Mary Jane Leach said...

I've heard the Emerson twice in six months, and it was painful to hear. One thing I wonder is if beyond physical problems, whether hearing issues come up, and many people are reluctant to admit or acknowledge the problem, as if it was their fault. Aging ensembles could really use an objective friend now and then. And maybe there's a workaround - choosing repertoire that doesn't expose the flaws quite so much and/or buying a hearing aid.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Sigh. Dealing with hearing loss is tough for everyone and must be especially difficult for musicians. I agree with you about the need for objective friends (or coaches or managers or....)

Tod Brody said...

This is such a tough one.

Orchestras have procedures by which players who are no longer performing up to the group's standards can be removed. Sometimes the procedures are followed, often they are not, but everyone knows the that they're there, and having a process in place can help foster either self-reflection or the kind of conversation that might help an individual to realize that it's time. This can all be complicated by the fact that in professional orchestras, people might be in the same position for decades. Maybe the group in question sees its quality go up…I think it would be fair to say that the prevailing standard, say, in today's San Francisco Symphony, is a much higher one than it was 30-40 years ago. Maybe, the aging of individuals aside, what was good enough then isn't good enough now.

In chamber ensembles, it's even harder, I think…long-term ensembles are like a multi-headed marriage, for better or worse, and it's heartbreaking to tell a long-time colleague, however compassionately, that she/he's over the hill, time to step aside and make way for new blood, especially since the colleague delivering that message knows that his/her own time will come soon enough.

The best hope is that the individual in question will be the first to notice the erosion of skills, and will voluntarily withdraw, but that's so hard to ask of someone. A performing artist's ability to do what they do is so much a part of that person's identity as a human.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Tod.

I'm curious whether anyone has examples of graceful individual retirements from chamber ensembles.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to point out that the play Opus and the movie A Late Quartet deal with these kinds of issues.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And I have not yet seen A Late Quartet.

Elaine Fine said...

Bernard Zaslav's "The Viola in My Life" deals with these issues from the perspective of a string quartet violist who went through the declines of his long-time older colleagues, and then had to gracefully stop performing himself. Sometimes the physical stresses of string playing force us to stop before we are ready to psychologically. Sometimes the hearing in the upper register goes without the violinist or violist noticing. Sometimes the reflexes are not what they once were.

Pianists can go on much longer than string players. That's why I practice piano every day. To prepare for the time when I can no longer keep the bow on the string.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Elaine. (Although...I've heard a couple of problematic performances from older pianists.)

Henry Holland said...

Claudio Abbado died on Monday in Italy after a long illness. He was 80 and had been ill for a while. A great conductor, to be sure, RIP Maestro.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Henry - apologies for the delay in getting the comment up; I still haven't written anything about Abbado's death or that of Gerd Albrecht (which seems to have gotten no play at all in the realms of social media that I read).

I suppose dying is one way to quit for good, but not what I had in mind with this blog posting!