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Performance: What's Behind the X Factor

by Rachael Young(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 125 - July 2006

What gives a performance, an event, a meeting, that inspirational, joyful, alive greatness? What imbues some special experiences, to use a contemporary phrase, with the X factor? Each of us has had these types of experiences, whether in our daily lives with our family or loved ones or colleagues, or in a communal spiritual moment, or maybe as a witness, or a witness and an active participant, to its unfolding in a great performance. We all somehow know the quality this phrase describes, this sense that an experience, if this X factor is present, is more alive or true or creative. And if this quality is present, it has the effect of changing the way we feel in a positive way. We may feel more alive, or warmer physically – glowing inwardly somehow, maybe more in tune or in harmony with our surroundings or even, in some moments, the world.

As a musician, cellist and conductor, I am taken up with the process of manifesting this quality, this X factor, and the questions it raises on a daily basis. This pertains to the preparation of a performance on the cello, or in the preparation of a score for a rehearsal or concert. In my work as a conductor I am obliged to consider how to, in the rehearsal process, effectively communicate my view and intuitions of a score to the musicians who will actually play the notes, and make the sounds in the performance itself. The latter is a quite different process from the former, in that it is obviously completely non-verbal.

It has been said that around 92% of communication is non-verbal and this is a reality that the conductor must really strive to master. Even before a conductor takes to the podium, the players of the orchestra have made many, to put it kindly, 'assessments' of the qualities of the human being that stands before them, ready to lead them on a journey, the personality of the conductor comes shining through. Of course every conductor has a different approach to the process and needless to say some are more effective than others, but the essential question remains: What qualities will most engage the players in the process, make them eager for this journey ahead and ready to give their best?

As in life, the most engaging experiences are ones where you do not notice that someone is actually dong something. The focus has been taken off the individual or individuals and shines fully on the task or process at hand. In this case, the focus is on the music that is being rehearsed; it is put directly into the penetration of the score or music and it is this state of creativity that allows the quality of humility to be engaged. This state of humility, this act of letting go, of suspension of the ego, is an essential aspect of any truly creative act and it does not allow controlling behaviour to pass over its threshold.

This does not mean that outside the act itself a person can't or won't have wildly ego-driven aspirations of manifesting great control or power or creating the greatest work of art ever to be seen. There are endless examples of obstinate, difficult, obsessive artists and musicians dreaming of creating the greatest example of their art form, and then manifesting these in the world. From Michelangelo, dreaming of creating the greatest sculpture in the form of David, the most perfect example of man, to Beethoven's towering 9th Symphony, or Wagner having no less ambition than to combine all the great performance art forms of theatre (words, set design, lighting, acting) and music into the greatest artistic expression yet known to man. His obsessive creative drives led to such artistic achievements as the Four, 4-hour cycle of operas known collectively as The Ring and the opera Parsifal, to name but two. It is true that creative aspirations such as these require an ego of gigantic proportions. And paradoxically it is also true, that during the acts of creation itself, in order for creative energies to flow freely, it is vital the artist bow down in humility to the force and spirits higher than their own ego-driven creative aspirations, and make way for them to begin to manifest and take form as the work itself.

In the realm of performance art this state of being, or process, has been very effectively described by the great British theatre director Sir Peter Hall, in some salient observations he made about the leading of the rehearsal process. Over his extensive years directing many artistically wonderful and successful theatre and opera productions, he surmised the most creative way of conducting a rehearsal process is to come to the rehearsal as well-prepared as it is possible to be, being fully immersed in the text, having fully researched the background of the work and the cultural context in which it was created, the various performance theories associated with the epoch of the work and new developments that have occurred, etc., etc. Certainly, to come prepared in this way but then, to come also with an open agenda and open mind. This means, not to come with a rehearsal plan or an agenda, not to nail down a series of events or points that must be covered, but to be alive to the moment and see where the process takes you. He has found this to be the most enriching, alive and therefore, most fruitfully creative way to conduct rehearsals. Of course, it helps that he is such an immensely gifted director, but each of us possesses the possibility of opening ourselves up to the creative moment in this way. In my own experiences, conducting rehearsals, I have certainly found this to be the most absorbing, effective and fulfilling way of conducting them. The energy in the room lifts, the players become absorbed and fully engaged in the process of manifesting music and for a while at least a world of enchantment is created.

This is one way in which the ego can be suspended for a time. It is not the ego drives of the individual, director, conductor or performer, that are being engaged but rather it allows for the intuitions and insights, those often wordless impulses rising up out of the unconscious, to flow to the surface and be given form. For during these moments of creation and enchantment, during the rehearsals, during the performance, if it is to be a real communication, if it is to contain within it the X factor, the ego drives will certainly be suspended.

So these processes allow for something greater than the manifestation of the individual ego to appear. It allows for the work, words or music in this case, to become a gateway, a magic threshold to an enchanted land, to something greater, sometimes to something divine. And it is equally possible to apply these ideas and processes to our daily lives, to manifest these worlds of possibility in them. Like a rehearsal, a day in any of our lives can be a humdrum routine affair where the tasks at hand are met and more or less effectively dealt with, but it is possible that by the end of these tasks we may feel tired or drained or uninspired. Perhaps, if we were to look at such days, or our lives in general, as a rehearsal process or, on some days, even a performance, where we chose to sublimate our own ego drives and so allow a deeper more creative part of ourselves to emerge, we may find a way of connecting in a more effective, enriching and fulfilling way with ourselves, and move closer to living out our most potent possibilities, to living out our vocation.

We all have this possibility within us. There is no doubt, although of course at times it can be very difficult to see this, we have all been given this gift of life, this gift of making our own creative journey, of discovering our own possibilities, our own mysteries our own wonders, and these are potentially as rich as any text by Shakespeare or any symphony by Beethoven. We, each of us, have within us this possibility to quell our personal ego drives and open ourselves to something greater. To create our own X factor experiences in our daily lives is to find what is truly ours in this world, what is our vocation, our passion, our love, and to give ourselves up to living it as whole-heartedly, passionately and humbly as possible, as any great artist might. It is this knowledge that resonates within us every time we experience a performance that moves, excites and impassions us, a performance that contains this special X factor. It stirs and ignites something within us and reminds us of our own X factor, lying, abidingly, waiting to be manifested.

If we take the concept of love in its wider meaning here, as incorporating our sense of our individual passion, our vocation, these opening lines from the New Zealand poet Bill Manhire's Love Poem describe this journey in an unending way:

"It is not a question of choice,

But it takes a long time."


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About Rachael Young

Born in New Zealand, Rachael Young began her musical studies at the age of 14 with the cello and went on to take her BMus at Victoria University, Wellington. She came to England in 1994 with a grant that enabled her to study cello with William Pleeth who, during a discussion with her regarding her musical aspirations, encouraged her to begin studying conducting. Rachael went on to study with eminent Maestri Jorma Panula, Neeme Jarvi and Paavo Jarvi. Presently she lives in North London and works as a freelance conductor, coach, cellist and teacher and the conducts The Edgware Symphony Orchestra. For more information contact;

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