Is Musical Technique the refuge of the insecure, or a foundation for Mastery?

This question popped into my mind whilst in conversation with the professional singer and vocal coach Basira Ward-Davies with respect to the slight difference in approach she had experienced collaborating with Youth, a producer who has worked with Primal Scream, Crowded House, the Futureheads, the Verve, the Orb and experimental collaborations with Paul McCartney. His viewpoint was that technique was the refuge of the insecure whereas Basira’s point of view was that solid technique was the foundation for mastery. It got me thinking and wondering if technical mastery was different from artistic mastery. Whilst talking with Basira, it was clear that the secret to her enviable confidence and plethora of successful performances in her rich and varied career was a mastery of vocal technique.

My first question to her was in relation to her enviable booking as a session singer for the sound track to the block busting Brad Pitt movie, Troy. I made one fatal assumption and personal projection in my question about nerves relating to recording vocals for the Hollywood film with James Horner. I said “Basira, when we start recording, I would like to ask you about how you dealt with the nerves you felt when you recorded for the Troy sound track” Immediately, Basira said to me that it was not nerve wracking in the slightest as she loved doing it and it was something that she felt so confident with that it was something very much within her comfort zone. It was surprising for me as I would have been quite stressed about an opportunity like that and to be honest, I was a bit disappointed by this response as I was hoping to explore the process. My disappointment was quickly replaced with an enriching, deeper understanding of the relation between technique and confidence.

The interview started and I asked had she always been a confident performer and she said as a singer, yes, she had. In the areas of piano and acting she was less confident and in some ways, actually nervous. I asked her why this was that she was very confident as a singer and she said because she had analysed every aspect of her voice and vocal performances and worked on the vocal techniques she needed to ensure accurate performances with a voice she was able to rely on totally. Basira is able to make fine adjustments as she is singing in pretty much any circumstance. Piano and acting performances, she feels less confident because she does not have the same amount of technical knowledge about the process to fall back on. In my devilment after the interview, I wondered whether this was a self-fulfilling prophecy in that if you know that you are less adept at something, you worry more. In my case, it can be the reverse. Whilst playing guitar, I worry more because my ability is considerably less than my ability on the piano so I feel much more laid back, limiting my own expectations from the instrument. I call to mind the one and only time I saw Freddie Mercury play guitar. He said, “This shitty guitar only knows three chords” and he started playing, giving it all of his usual confidence.

Ok – so I am now measuring up against the initial statement that technique is the foundation for mastery given the amount of performances I have seen Basira perform. It would seem so. If technique brings confidence, then I need to get practicing scales and arpeggios by the bucket-load! Having seen Basira sing in a variety of situations, she is able to embrace a wealth of styles and work with an audience taking them on a journey whilst using the subtleties of a flawless technique. It was clear that a complete understanding of technique provided relaxation and a neutralisation of nerves. After further exploration, it was clear that Basira uses an inner supervisor to look over her performances, tweaking and steering her through each note, saying, “Take a low breath here, breathe here, more tilt on this note, sharpen that note slightly” Basira calls this a strong witness. I had a picture in my own mind that this witness was an engineer in a white coat with a little can of oil, lubricating the odd little cog as Basira’s vocal machine powerfully did its thing. It is interesting that this witness is referred to in a number of texts as an awareness and judgement free feedback, which keeps the musical machine rolling forward. Having known her for so long, I know that she is often very astute and direct in her observations, which results in efficient interactions and what seems like on the surface abrupt. The same is true with the response she gives to her own voice. If it needs changing, just change it. She never gets bogged down in a battle with her conscience about her voice.

The process is:-

1. Identify the problem.

2. How do you solve problem?

3. Solve Problem.

4. Keep it monitored.

This is an excellent example of performance awareness. I was wondering how there was room for musicality in this performance and preparation model but it was clear that there is a deep musical philosophy, which is being served by the technical aspects of her technique. Having known Basira for nearly 20 years, I know that she feels music deeply and her precise technical preparation for music comes from a love and respect for the music itself. She feels the need to control her voice so precisely to deliver the musical message in a precise and powerful way, which is reproducible and sustainable. This approach is really humbling in a way. We often associate ego with people who are technically proficient and yet this is something very different. The confidence about performance is so sound that she is able to deliver the music and share it with the audience and not get bogged down with worry about high notes or fast passages of music. Music must be able to speak and technique is needed to enable the music to be able to do this. Her technique is transparent so that the music can do its job. Having known her for many years, I know that she takes interpretation very seriously indeed and has to LOVE the piece and find out exactly what it is about and what it means to her and what it means to her audience. In the latter part of the interview, she mentioned that the performance process was about the music and the journey that the audience and performer will embark upon. As soon as there is Ego in a performance for Basira, the point in the performance is lost. The music must speak. She sited a few key performers who have a humble totally music centred approach to performance and to her, the music speaks. András Schiff and Daniel Barenboim were sited and having seen Barenboim’s master classes on Beethoven playing, I would agree. His enthusiasm and beautifully playful approach to trying out ideas is what every musical performance should be about.

Earlier on in the interview, I asked Basira is it ok for a musician to make a mistake and she laughed loudly and said, “Absolutely!” She recounted a long list of mistakes and potentially self-esteem crushing mistakes she had made in gigs. She laughed at length about all of these. The list was long and she also recounted a few names of amazing professional classical performers who had made serious mistakes in their musical performances, stopping and going back to the beginning or going back to a suitable restarting point. These musicians were so ‘in the zone’ that it did not even rouse them from the focus and they continued on without a problem. I have known many musicians for whom the experience of making a serious musical mistake is usually enough for them to totally crash and burn and not be able to continue. Having performed with Basira on a few scratch jazz gigs, I know that her outlook is extremely successful and conducive to a great gig. We all made mistakes on the gig but her confidence and musicality carried us through. Nobody knew we made mistakes and her demeanour on stage was so relaxed and modelling musical enjoyment that we knew we were always going to succeed, no matter what we did. The musical energy is like a ski lift through any musical error and a reminder that mistakes are liberating and indeed necessary in finding out that we don’t die when we cock-up.

Is technique really a refuge for the insecure? I thought long and hard about this question. If this were really true, then Basira should be one of the most unadventurous boring musicians that has ever lived. She would perform the same baroque piece relying on anally controlled technique to produce carbon copy performances to the same audience in the same venue and yet clearly she is doing anything but this. She improvises Jazz, Raga, various world folk musics, sings classical Baroque, classical, opera, show music, Hildegard Von Bingen recitals, experimental theatre – the list is endless and this is just things I have seen her perform. So my answer is definitely NO.

By trying such a variety of these things, Basira has developed her career and her confidence in singing and the techniques she uses to make it all possible. There is no insecurity, just a willingness to try new things and the mastery of technique makes her even more willing to be adventurous almost to the point of being outrageously experimental. Mastery of technique enables her to focus on the music and the relationship between the music and the audience. With a true love of music, there is no room for fear.

I would be surprised if an over endowment in technical mastery was inhibiting my creativity… (coughs nervously…) I cannot use it as an excuse… I just need to practice and listen to the Quaker adage, ‘Live Adventurously’.

I think its time for me to get practicing scales and arpeggios and plan some amazing creative projects.

Please play the audio recording of the interview below for more specific detail about confident performing.

About clivemusic

I have taught music, enabling musicians to be confident about performing for over 20 years. I also train teachers and trainers to be confident in the classroom. Keyboard, piano and composing, arranging and singing are my musical loves. I love performing and play Jazz with a Quartet and also sing and direct my own Barbershop Quartet called The Sherlock Combs. I used to be an incredibly nervous performer, suffering from stage fright and through teaching music and learning many mind training techniques, come with me on a journey to confident performing.
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