On Inspiration

I recently had two insightful conversations with a couple of friends about performing. In one conversation, we were discussing the fact that, usually, in performance, we don’t necessarily play every single note in tune, we might have memory slips, and we may not even hit all the right notes (gasp!), but there’s something about our playing that audiences seem to relate to and are touched by. Another professional musician might hear us and judge our playing as imperfect and in need of more practice, which we couldn’t deny, but there is a certain expressive quality that we bring to performance that trumps any technical imperfection in the eyes of most audiences. It’s confusing sometimes, because while we might feel that we didn’t play very well technically, the reaction from our listeners is often the opposite.

In the other conversation, a friend was telling me about her boyfriend, another musician (not classical), who doesn’t practice nearly as many hours a day as she does, yet he is able to bring to his performances an indescribable musicality that wins his audiences over. She was jokingly lamenting the unfairness of the situation—he should have to work harder for his success!

In many fields, but especially music, the one theory that gets a lot of attention is the 10,000-hour rule. It basically states that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice or study to achieve an expert level of performance. And we musicians take this to heart, because to a certain extent, it’s absolutely true. Those 10,000 hours, or 10 years, or even 20 years, or MORE, are what it takes to have a solid enough technical foundation to make it in the professional realm. But there is an aspect of music-making that the 10,000 hour rule does not necessarily take into account: Inspiration, spontaneity, creativity.

If you haven’t already seen this video, it’s an incredible talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity and genius. In her talk, she cites ancient Greek and Roman beliefs on how “creativity” did not used to be seen as something that a person was capable of possessing and bringing forth whenever they wanted to, it was more like a passing spirit that may or may not come by at the right time. Of course, this theory is hard to sum up in one sentence, so it might sound a little wacky (just watch the video!), but it strikes a deep chord for me.

For me, inspiration and creativity come directly from the pull of the audience’s energy during a performance. When I play Kol Nidre at my synagogue during Yom Kippur each year, I feel an incredible positivity coming from the audience because the 1,000 people who are listening are hearing the music as a prayer. Their energy draws me in and allows me to tap into a creativity that I could never find in a practice room. When I performed new music with Chicago Q Ensemble at the Thirsty Ear Festival a few weeks ago, the audience in the crowded bar pulled me into their casual yet excited energy and inspired me to play differently than I would have in a different setting. When am I NOT inspired? Well, one place would definitely be during an audition—when there is a complete lack of energy coming from the curtain hanging in front of the blind committee.

A few years ago, I performed a short Schubert quartet with Joel Smirnoff (the former first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet). I’ll never forget him mentioning offhand in a rehearsal that we should expect to be on our toes in the performance because the energy of the audience would affect the spontaneity of our playing.

This idea that the audience themselves play a role in the creativity of a performance is, in itself, inspirational to me. In a time when audiences are finding less and less to relate to and taking less and less interest in classical music, it seems to me that this is a key way to engage people. Instead of dumbing down our performances or just limiting our repertoire to the major war horses or (God forbid) pops, what if musicians were able to find a way to connect with our audiences by creating a unique energy that excites them, which in turn would enhance the performance itself? Or why don’t we concern ourselves less with the pedantic technique of our own playing and focus more on what the audience is actually listening to…the music?

I’m sure by this point I’ve long completed my 10,000 hours of practice. I’ll never stop working on my scales, etudes, and general technique to keep myself in shape. But having good technique isn’t exactly the reason I got into this business. The reason this career satisfies me is the thrill I get when that rush of inspiration seizes me in performance. It’s the relationships I build with my audiences and fellow musicians, and the way those relationships change after a spontaneously inspirational moment. It’s the fact that I am unable to replicate a performance because each audience and each setting feeds me with a unique energy that I latch onto and become inspired by in order to perform my best.