Morocco, Vienna. Naturalness – a lesson from the desert

A few months ago I found myself singing Waltzing Matilda with an accordion player in a Vienna heurige (a wine tavern). I was glad to find that I had improved since my last performance in the desert in Morocco.

Sometimes music just seems to come out so naturally that it’s like it is not even there. That may seem strange, but I mean that the ideas just jump straight from the musician to us, and we forget that there is something in-between. For me this is a sign of a good performance – that we are carried away by the ideas, and we stop listening to the ‘sound’.

How does this happen? This is where Morocco comes in.

P1070353When we were there last year we took the chance to see the sand dunes of the Sahara (they are extraordinary). At night the guides made a campfire and sang Berber songs to us. All the tourist operators do this, but luckily several of our guides were highly accomplished musicians. I still remember their remarkably flexible-sounding vocal lines, gliding over drum rhythms that were ‘felt’, not calculated.

I admired them even more after they invited me to try out Waltzing Matilda. Compared to the Berbers I sounded formal and stiff, and whereas their vocal lines flowed over the drumming, mine seemed to get hitched up.

So I found myself thinking: this flowing of ideas is the reason why music communicates directly with us. It is why music captures us, and why we are drawn along, transported, rather than simply being observers. And so we must be sure that we do this in classical music as well.

Unfortunately, this can be difficult because in classical music we have to start from notes written on paper. They don’t show us how it flows and so it can be hard not to simply focus on playing the notes well. But this only means that we have work to do – it is our job to figure out a sense of flow that works with the notes, and that carries the ideas out to the audience.

In short, our performances should be just as natural, free and expressive as the songs I heard that night in the desert.

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