Play Behaviour and Performance

Wired News: DIY Tunes Turn It Up

This is weaving together a few threads.

Although the article comes from a rather specific perspective, it does offer some insight as to important issues of creativity, art, and specialization.

Recent technology has been at the center of some intriguing social movements which
give value to processes of remixing, mixing up, mashing up, bastardizing, collating, and collaging. The obvious example is the act of the Hip-Hop DJ artist who creates through mixing.
Bricolage” is another interesting concept for this type of thing. And it does connect to “Do It Yourself” as in the title for this Wired piece.

It’s very post-modern in a quite specific sense. Modernity as cutting away from Classicism, not depending on having internalized the Canon. Post-Modernism as moving away from Modernity and having fun along the way. So it’s ok, in this context, to be scattered. Not trying to make one specific point. Just having fun with idea. Is it post-modern in every sense? Depends who you ask. Is it modern? Well, we’re still in the same historical period as the Revolutions, right?

Besides cultural history, there’s something happening “in the now” with technological culture understanding the value of play.
For one thing, a notion of play behaviour as being creative and useful. Johan Huizinga’ Homo Ludens proposes an interesting concept for play behaviour. To simplify, play isn’t lack of seriousness though seriousness is a lack of playfulness. There’s much more to the book than this simple notion, but the notion itself is quite useful to understand human behaviour. In fact, introductory textbooks in cultural anthropology often have sections on play. Often with associated notions of games, rituals, rules, symbolic life, hedonism. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s Theory of Flow also seems relevant.

Was teaching yesterday on “music people,” people as they are involved in the act of music. (Our course website is available through guest access.) One of the main issues in such discussions is in fact the distinction between professional and amateur musicians. It’s not universal but it’s quite common. A generality, if you will.

Through this distinction, quite present in the Wired piece, we can think of rehearsal and practise as preparation for performance. In a more existentialist frame, rehearsal precedes performance. Simple, yet important. Performance is one thing professional musicians do. The very concept of performance has had a deep impact on the study of verbal art and oral literature and we may talk about “performance theory” in the work of several anthropologists and folklorists. Studies of music tend to take it for granted. Performance is heightened experience which implies the involvement of performers and audiences. In performance theory, the relationship between performer and audience is quite specific. An audience “evaluates” the performance based on expectations set by the type of performance, for instance a joke is supposed to be funny. The performer is responsible for this evaluation. This is a simplification, but it’s still useful.

Rehearsal is play. Trial and error. In many cases, it can be extremely difficult and may, in fact, seem devoid of “fun” in the common sense we give to the term. But it’s still play behaviour at a basic level. Rehearsal is make-believe performance. On the other hand, not all forms of play are rehearsal, as the “fooling around” discussed in the Wired piece isn’t leading to performance.
Obviously, there are evaluation processes in rehearsal, on the part of the (future) performers. As most musicians will admit, music-making is mostly a matter of listening. In fact, an important distinction between professional musicians and other music-makers is the type of listening involved. Even at the most basic cognitive level, musicians and non-musicians don’t listen to music the same way, at least while they practise or perform.

At the same time, “non-musicians” don’t make up homogeneous groups and there are different ways to be involved in music. While we have a concept of everyday speech, of casual conversation, people rarely talk about music-making as an quotidian activity for people in general. Music in everyday life, at least in Europe and North America, has more to do with music listening than with music-making. The “soundtracks” of most people’s lives are provided by other people.

Yet there are quotidian musical activities. These include several connections with music that is produced by others such as hand-clapping during a show or humming to a tune on the radio. Dance and foot-tapping are also important activities. Special forms of active listening. Some would say that listening is never completely passive. Assuming that people routinely listen to music, which is clearly the case for a number of people, these are quotidian musical activities. The intention here isn’t to perform then or later. So it’s not rehearsal. But it’s involvement in music.
Then, there’s a whole range of musical activities that people do by themselves, without simultaneously listening to music. Classic examples: singing in the shower, whistling a tune while walking down the street, drumming a rhythm while waiting for something. In most cases, it’s not performance as it’s not meant to be heard by anyone else. It’s also not practise as it’s not leading to performance. It’s playing with music. In some ways it can be rather close to what performance theory would call “reporting” as opposed to “performing.” The difference between someone who is merely reporting on a series of events and that same person storytelling the same series of events. Or, to use Roman Jakobson’s model of verbal communication, the distinction between the referential and poetic functions of communication where referential function puts emphasis on “the message itself” and the poetic function puts emphasis on form. There are major differences between music and verbal communication, of course. But the same type of distinction holds in both music and speech. Everyday musical activities are to music performance what report-style everyday conversation with emphasis on content is to storytelling-style verbal performance with emphasis on form. (Yup, that was a mouthful.)

All of these musical activities may be lumped together in the notion of “musicking,” another of those ugly but useful concepts. Music as a verb. It’s useful to connect informal musical activities with formal music performance. Maybe “musicking” should include both. Yet the distinction between musicians and “musickers” is also interesting.

Audience members are, or at least may be, musickers. People are also musicking in everyday life. Musicians also music informally by singing in the shower or whistling while walking down the street. That type of musical activity is quite different from musical performance.

Now, musicians as specialists. Anyone is a potential musicker, not everyone is a musician. It’s not necessarily a question of skill or talent. It’s mostly a question of intention.
The issue of “performance anxiety” is also interesting to think about. One way to describe it is that people get nervous because they think of how people may judge their performance. In daily life, it can be quite paralysing. The problem is often with seeing non-performance behaviour as performance. Here, performance anxiety is different from stage fright because being on the stage is in fact performance in a very strong sense. An important part of the distinction here is that performers who go on stage have rehearsed beforehand. Oh, of course, that particular performance might be completely unrehearsed. But the performer has, at some point in the past, been practising performance. A problem the Wired piece alludes to is that, in some cases, training and work are perceived as performance, without prior practise. In “creative work,” this can be extremely constraining. As people become unwilling to make mistakes, they may hardly do something new. And there’s a fundamental cognitive process here, as this reluctance to errors is a strong tendency, at least in societies where so much pressure is put on constant production and evaluation. The best way to prevent someone from writing is to constantly evaluate their writing. A basic pedagogical principle which is rarely applied. Even drafts are evaluated. Ah, well…
There’s so much more to say. But everything else will come in due time.

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