are performers just a means to an end?

You know that saying, “let the music speak for itself?”

What does that exactly mean? As a performer, you have multiple opportunities to express your creative freedom: tempo change, style change, key change, lyrical change, and melodic and harmonic changes or embellishments. So much of your unique skills, imagination, and emotion can help shape a song or piece. Now it makes sense that if you wrote the song, you can do whatever the heck you want with it, but how about when you didn’t write the music?

It’s been said in Western music that it’s necessary to follow the music the way it was written as this is the intention. You should sing it exactly the way Mozart wrote it; he is very clear in the sheet music with what he wants. Didn’t Mozart make his own creative decisions, especially with his oh-so-famous Miserere mei, Deus? Totally original. If Mozart was able to take creative liberties as a composer “recreating” another composer’s work, then why can’t the performer execute their creative liberties while giving proper credit to the composer?

Now it would be different if you claimed the song or piece as your own (which btw, composers of the early centuries did so all the time); Can you call it your song if you didn’t write it? Should you? I think give credit where credit is due – rather than “my song”, how about “my single”? Don’t say “my piece,” rather “my performance.” If the performer recognizes the composer or writer, why not make it their own?

To be fair, do I dismiss learning the song or piece the way it was written?

Absolutely not. I firmly believe that you should learn it exactly the way the composer wrote it. Same if you were hearing a demo: learn it the way it was performed before putting your own spin on it. Don’t completely lose the spirit of the composer. Learn to embrace it the way it was originally presented before embellishing it. I’ll give it to Mozart: yeah, he pretty much stole Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, but he did a damn good job doing so. He did his best to transcribe it exactly the way he heard it performed under Allegri’s direction. He took the time to try and be as precise as possible in interpreting Allegri’s version before recreating it in his vision. He brought Allegri’s voice along with his own, which I believe to be the desired performance you should expect. Even if you’re singing a pop song written by someone else(es), understand how it was originally envisioned and then incorporate your own vision alongside the original. I think Stravinsky says it best:

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

Yes, it’s important to abide to those constraints, but when you fully understand the composer’s vision, you’ll be able to maintain the spirit of the song while making it your own. Why can’t that be done with current performances and covers without being frowned upon as disrespecting the “sanctity” of the piece or “awesomeness” of the song, no matter how bad it is. “It’s fine to assemble the shards of a lost performance tradition, but how much better to reinvent it.” You said it, Mr. Taruskin. Oh, ok “Richard.”

If composers can recreate a song or piece in their own vision, why can’t a performer do the same?

I could also argue vise vera. If you are writing for the performer, do you write through the lens of the performer or from your own perspective? How about incorporating both? ╮ (. ❛ ᴗ ❛.) ╭

Feel free to challenge me in the comments. 😊

Zach Aldana
I am a musician with a focus in voice. I studied music during my undergraduate years, receiving a degree in Music at the University of Illinois at Chicago. My musical experience stems back from when I was three years old singing in a church choir. 22 years later, I've participated in numerous choirs, some of which have toured internationally from South Korea to Wales. I am also a classically trained singer, performing solos around the world, most notably for Kelly Clarkson's Piece by Piece World Tour at the Allstate Arena in 2015. Aside from performing, I also enjoy songwriting, analyzing music, and of course, stating my opinion about all things music. Aside from that, I am a graphic designer and web developer. I began graphic and web design at the age of eight. In time, I have been commissioned to help schools and universities, businesses, and personal clients develop their presentation and online exposure. ​

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