Does the performer have to listen?

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DOI: 10.32063/0606

Anthony Gritten

Anthony Gritten is Head of Undergraduate Programmes at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He has published on Adorno, Bakhtin, Cage, Debussy, Delius, Lyotard, Nancy, and Stravinsky, and written for visual artists’ catalogues and philosophy dictionaries. His articles in Performance Studies have included studies of artistic research, collaboration, constraints, distraction, empathy, entropy, ensemble interaction, ergonomics, gesture, listening, problem solving, recording, and timbre.

by Anthony Gritten

Music & Practice, Volume 6

Meaning, Articulation and Reception

1     Introduction

In this article, I shall sketch out two related arguments about how the performer listens. One concerns the embodiment of listening during performance; the other addresses the different functions of listening during practice and during performance.

First argument: I argue that during performance, the performer listens with her entire body, not just with her ears. Listening with the entire body means that the privilege normally accorded the performer’s ears, which are often assumed to provide a disembodied and uninterrupted conduit to her mind, is displaced by recourse to other sources of sensory information, including the fingers, shoulders and hips. The body leads the way, rather than simply doing what the mind and its ears determine. The idea that the body listens is more than a metaphor; it is an argument on behalf of proprioception, the self-perception of the body in its environment.[1] However, I frame the argument in terms of concentration, which, as a mode of focussed attention, is broader, in my view, than listening. This helps me to clarify the pragmatic first-person stakes of proprioception for the performer, for whom concentrating on music is intense, demanding and requiring of a serious expenditure of energy (regardless of the music’s technical difficulty).

Second argument: having displaced the concept of listening by that of concentration in order to retain an emphasis on the body, and subdividing concentration heuristically into hearing and listening (the former broadly practical, the latter broadly aesthetic) I argue that, in terms of the ratio of hearing to listening, during performance the performer hears more and listens less than during practice. The precise ratio will vary according to factors like the style of work being performed, the acoustic of the venue, the performer’s physical constitution and level of fitness, the instrument, and various psychological issues.

Together, these two arguments afford us a configuration of performing that has two advantages: first, it is pragmatic about the temporality of performing (its indeterminacy, risk and spontaneity); secondly, it acknowledges the sensuous embodiment of performing (its energetic expenditure).

A note about terminology. I deploy the terms ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’ as heuristic place-holders for symbiotic moments within concentration that are dynamic and continually evolving, as is clear from the principles of Auditory Scene Analysis.[2] I could have used alternative pairs of terms, such as those of Roland Barthes[3] or Pierre Schaeffer, to similar effect.[4] The latter’s typology, in particular, presents a useful categorisation of such moments, ranging from écouter and comprendre, which relate to worldly listening, to ouïr and entendre (operating as l’écoute réduite), which relate to the underlying sonic object. Further terms could be extrapolated from critiques of ‘structural listening’,[5] the ‘thresholds’ of listening,[6] or the ‘postures’ of listening.[7]

For the purposes of this article, the heuristic notion that hearing is broadly practical and listening is broadly aesthetic is usefully congruent with the logic of pedagogy and with how the performer develops her capacity for concentrating on music when transitioning between practice and performance. In any case, the terms are less important than their deployment. This is set in motion by my belief in the importance of finding a genuinely pragmatic understanding of listening in line with Cage’s position, which articulates the minimum threshold for musicking: ‘Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating’.[8]

2     Listening scenarios

We assume that the performer listens, and, in a conservatoire environment, we exhort her to listen better during practice, during aural classes, during study of recordings and even during analysis lectures, where it is claimed that what her eyes see should be developed into a modus operandi for her ears. However, we do not exhort the performer to listen during performance; at least, not literally. We sit quietly in the audience, resting and waiting while the event happens. Indeed, we would be expelled brusquely from the hall if we yelled out something like: “Don’t forget to listen carefully to the voicing when the melody returns in bar 34!”. The performer would be annoyed by such an interruption, given the mores of Western classical music, in which even vocalising praise mid-performance is usually frowned upon, let alone making utterances that appear to be still teaching the hapless performer. Even end-of-year recital reports address listening only indirectly, statements about the sonic outputs of actions doubling as retrospective judgements of how well the performer is inferred to have been listening.

In short, the status quo suggests that how the performer listens may be monitored, or at least questioned, during practice and after performance, but not during performance. My concern about this arises in the perhaps counterintuitive questions left begging in this scenario: Can we nevertheless assume that the performer does listen during performance? If we can, then what types of listening does she deploy? And what is their relation to the listening that is monitored during practice? Is listening even the best term to describe the performer’s attentional focus on her tasks and responsibilities? Does the performer have to listen?

These questions, and the dilemmas they reveal, can be illustrated by juxtaposing two wonderful and completely different concert performances: Mikhail Pletnev performing Balakirev’s The Lark (1864) in 1983,[9] and Kjell Samkopf performing Cage’s Child of Tree (1975) in 2010.[10] On first exposure to them, one might say that Pletnev seems to seek strenuously to control his listening, how it is constituted, what it apprehends and how it contributes to his performing. It is as though his ears operate as an extraordinary policing mechanism reigning in the rest of his body, and there is little visual display to watch, quite unlike the deliberately theatrical gestures of, say, Lang Lang. Everything is apparently going on in Pletnev’s head, in the music itself or in both. By contrast, Samkopf seems to be less worried about the constitution of his listening and its material contents in relation to his sensuous presence on stage. He follows the rules of a different bodily regime. For a start, he cannot practise much in advance with the materials without destroying them, and thus cannot use time during practice to prepare for performance.

Any useful comparison of these two performances – once one overlooks their obvious aesthetic and sonic differences and the element of artifice in all comparison – must go beyond the question of expertise (who listens better?) since, for the relevant communities, both are expert performers and both events are expert performances. The question is, how general would an account of musical listening have to be before it would encompass both performances? Conversely, how nuanced would such an account have to be before each performance would be separately recognisable under the terms of its description? There is also a further issue of whether we could configure a pedagogical protocol relating to in-performance listening that would help a third performer in their own execution of both works – notwithstanding the low probability of this occurring pedagogically.

In sketching out this account of listening, I have two concerns. First, whether how Pletnev and Samkopf listen has anything in common with how their respective listeners listen. Secondly, whether how they listen during practice has anything in common with how they listen during performance. These two issues are related. Regarding the first concern, in line with research that analyses listening from the audience member’s perspective, it is clear that, being located on different sides of the proscenium arch, performer and listener have different tasks and responsibilities. Pletnev’s audience can assume that he has already done their listening for them while he was practising and that, through his actions and sounds, he will effectively tell them how to listen. Samkopf allows his audience to listen alongside him to whatever sounds come forth from the plants, if not simply to listen for themselves, and to co-create the music in multiple ways. I shall say no more at this stage about the relation between the performer’s listening and the listener’s listening. Instead, I shall focus upon the second of my concerns: the relation between listening during practice and listening during performance.

Regarding this topic, the relative paucity of research on how the performer listens during performance (as opposed to during practice) is curious, even given the methodological complexities of studying listening. There is plenty of analysis of how listening during practice and over the course of preparing a performance aids memorisation, refines touch, improves vibrato, develops rubato and acclimatises the performer to instruments and room acoustics,[11] but it is unclear whether such benefits continue to apply during performance (assuming that performance is an occasion for learning in at least a weak sense) since different energies are invested on the two sides of the proscenium arch. There is no obvious reason why they should not continue to be operative, but there are few guarantees of what one performance may bequeath to those that come after (including the performer herself) in terms of lessons learned through listening.

Perhaps the scarcity of research stems from the banality of the phrase “the performer listens”, and the fact that this phrase is often taken falsely as the premise rather than the conclusion. Banality: everybody knows that the performer should listen (during practice), so nobody talks about whether or how she actually listens (during performance). False premise: the right type of listening is assumed to happen, so it is ignored, left to work its magic and, in the process, assumed to happen in the same way during performance as it did during practice. Pedagogical maxims are valorised by this assumption. Even when listening is not discussed explicitly, what is discussed with respect to fingering, interpretative decisions, timbre, embouchure and so on accrues value because, quietly in the background of every pedagogical utterance, the performer is assumed to be listening diligently. This seems incontrovertible: how would Pletnev and Samkopf function if they did not listen?

3     Concentrated listening: benefits

In this section I discuss the ideology of ‘concentrated listening’, and consider whether it applies during performance as well as during practice. I assume that it differs from how the listener in the audience listens (which, as mentioned above, is not my subject here).

The ideology of concentrated listening is representative of numerous folk-psychological accounts of how the performer is taught to listen during practice. Here, it is voiced without hesitation by a pianist: ‘Without concentrated listening, the fingers, arms, back, and feet may as well be blocks of wood’.[12] This maxim comes from Paul Roberts’ book on Debussy’s piano music, but it could just as easily be from any number of pedagogical primers on topics as diverse as how to balance text and tune in Schubert’s Ständchen D889 (1826), how to balance tune and accompaniment in Tchaikovsky’s The Song of the Lark (1876), how to balance the ensemble in Saint-Saëns’ Volière (1886) or, indeed, how to undertake any standard task in Western classical music. The idea that it encapsulates sounds reasonable: it is unlikely that Pletnev would perform the Balakirev in anything more than a perfunctory manner if he were not continually focussing intently on every nuance of the sound that he creates and if he were not feeling every little sensation of the contacts between his fingertips and the keyboard and the movements of his arms and shoulder muscles.

The maxim is certainly clear in one respect, namely that there is no valid substitute for concentrated listening; mere hearing is inadequate. Alongside the development of a reliable technique, it is the performer’s most substantial investment; put another way, it is the largest obstacle between her body and her artistry. As Roberts writes later about the Etudes, ‘Sonorities sensed by the fingertips, controlled by the arms, shoulders, and back; perspectives and layers of sound governed by touch and pedal, heard by the inner ear the moment before execution – all these elements at the conjunction of artistry and technique are laid bare by ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’’.[13] The entire body of the performer must lead her musicking.

The pedagogical significance of concentrated listening is magnified by its apparent intangibility (self-regulating how well you listen is harder to measure than self-regulating how well you run). The stakes are high, the performer being taught that there is much to be gained from perfecting her aural skills and much to lose if she fails to work hard enough (“You claim you were listening in the Saint-Saëns, but the flautist, judging by her face, clearly did not think so!”). She learns early on to lean in, quieten herself, and listen responsibly – not simply to hear sounds happening. Even as relaxed a teacher as Copland assumes that listening must always be concentrated in order that musicking can focus on What to listen for in music,[14] the requisite listening being a silent or transparent vehicle for the dissemination of musical ideas. Pedagogies of concentrated listening are not normally designed to accept sound for what it is. Most rely on notions of tight, pure, effective, directed and motivated attention in order to displace sound by music and to give sound meaning. Daniel Barenboim, for example, considering ‘the possibility of total concentration – i.e., thought’, is clear about the contribution of concentration to artistry:

Concentration on music is an activity that must begin at a very early age in order for it to develop organically, like the understanding of spoken language. It then becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.[15]

For him, concentration is a matter for the mind. For Godowsky, it is a matter for the body as well, although the ‘instructive annotations on the interpretation’ in his 1923 edition of The Lark hide directions about listening within advice about what must be done. For example, consider the third paragraph:

In mm. 22 and 24 will be found an accented Cb in the tenor, followed by a Bb in the succeeding measures. It is imperative that the Cb sound through the measures in which it appears; it must therefore be held its full time-value, otherwise it will be lost when the pedal is changed. The trill in m. 33 must be sufficiently long, after which the cadenza is to be played quickly and clearly with the tonal shadings as marked by the composer. The descending tones at the end of this cadenza assume a melodic quality, and each tone receives a separate impulse [my italics].[16]

Each of the italicised clauses shows Godowsky instructing the pianist not only about technical and expressive matters but also about how to listen. Every prescription has a verbal component and an adjectival or adverbial component, for example, ‘is to be played’ and ‘quickly and clearly’ respectively, and these pairings determine what should be listened to in order for the music to arise appropriately. Indeed, these prescriptions about listening act as a glue binding together the statements about technical and expressive priorities. Thus, if, in addition to the sensuous experience of swivelling the left hand, the Cb is to sound for an appropriate length of time and with an appropriate tone, then the ears must be at the forefront of the performer’s attentional focus – ‘to the extent that concentration remains focussed’[17] – but the body must lead the way. How else, if not by concentrated listening, can the performer herself judge that the imperatives wrapped up in these sentences have been fulfilled ‘sufficiently’ by her playing? If this point sounds trivial – because listening is obviously assumed whenever pedagogical prescriptions are disseminated like this – or tangential – because performers do not attempt to play according to printed edicts like these – then that is fine; nevertheless, common assumptions about concentrated listening are embedded deeply within pedagogical discourse and have a profound influence both on how performers (think that they) think and on how they (attempt to) act. ‘In such ways,’ Roberts acknowledges, ‘does the ear control technique’.[18]

The ideology of concentrated listening is widespread, reaching far beyond published editorial prescriptions. It underlies definitions of success and determines how panel juries and lone examiners alike operate in adjudications and assessments. It underpins the development of basic skills, including ‘musical attention, extractive listening, short-term musical memory, musical understanding, and notation’.[19] It is developed in a range of formal and informal training programmes, from public masterclasses to private individual lessons, from chamber music coaching to scales classes. Tales of concentrated listening generate social capital, and are recounted in the bar after concerts and on social media (“Have you heard the first Scherzo (1856) on Nicholas Walker’s latest Balakirev CD? Magnificent playing, such textural clarity, and all that energy at the end!”).[20] Research into concentrated listening, which John Sloboda glosses as ‘listening to music in deliberative cultural settings (e.g. concert-hall, psychological laboratory)’,[21] focusses on things like the operation of attentional foci, the utilisation of performance cues, the creation of strategies affording flow, protocols for successful collaboration, memorisation and technical facility.[22] Underlying both pedagogy and research is the seductive belief that, once the performer has worked out how to concentrate better, then during performance she will, unproblematically, perform just as she desires (hence the huge existential promise held out by graduation, which, although beset with financial and social anxieties, offers a welcomingly open door into a new musical room).

Therefore, when a performer like Pletnev says ‘listening’ he means ‘concentrated listening’. And when he says ‘concentrate’ he means ‘concentrate on listening’ to the tones of the aesthetic object presented by Balakirev-Glinka (as opposed to simply hearing the soundwaves entering his ears). This seems reasonable: who has ever met a performer who does not listen broadly like this? Concentrated listening is assumed to govern Pletnev’s activity and to determine his actions, judgements and expressive intentions, albeit that the very concept is biased towards such expert performers, for whom intensive and sustained energetic activity is possible because the relevant technical demands have been assimilated into the body’s motor habitus; indeed, it is one of the ways that we distinguish between those at the peak of their prowess and less able performers, or those trained within different performance practices, who may find their body getting in the way of such listening.

So far, I have bracketed the issue of whether concentrated listening functions during practice, during performance or during both; whether, for example, it is more ‘strategic and prospective’ during practice and more ‘tactical, in the moment and agile’ during performance.[23] But does it have the same force during practice and during performance? To my knowledge, this question remains unanswered. This is partly because pedagogues and scholars have other priorities, such as how to differentiate between staccatos and accents at different dynamic levels in the last movement of Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (1926), how to decide which regime of analytical study is appropriate for students rehearsing Brahms’ First Symphony (1876) or what to do with the schwa vowels in Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles (1906). However, it is also partly because there is sometimes an unspoken anxiety about the eventful reality of live performance. Regardless of what articulation can be heard clearly at the back of the hall, which voice-leading method or hermeneutic theory was applied to the symphony or how particular vowels have been learnt, reality is complex and chaotic. Confronting it involves living with potential failure (Simon Frith describes the equivalent situation in popular music in terms of ‘humiliation’),[24] an acceptance that the event may transpire differently from how the performer had planned it – not to mention its ending up just doing its own thing.

All of this, along with the grammatical imperatives in Godowsky’s editorial interventions, might seem to increase the psychological pressure and narrow down the definition of success for the performer. In doing so, it threatens her confidence in the concentrated listening and huge expenditure of energy prepared over years in the practice room and, potentially, prevents her from transitioning smoothly between practice and performance. This anxiety is unfounded, but it is understandable; it may be an important factor motivating the relative scarcity of research on concentrated listening during performance.

4     Concentrated listening: limitations

Concentrated listening is an ideology. This means that it operates as a set of decisions about how the performer is permitted to listen. As such, it has limitations. These are summarised well by Peter Szendy:

We are right to wonder, in turn, if this total listening [read: concentrated listening] isn’t precisely a form of deafness on the part of the listener. To listen without any wandering, without ever letting oneself be distracted by the “noises of life”, is that still listening?[25]

Although Szendy’s direction of travel is towards a new configuration of listening (rather than performing) his scepticism about ‘total listening’ is congruent with the point where my own criticism of concentrated listening now takes off towards a more pragmatically embodied discourse of attention based on bodily concentration and proprioception. But before embarking on this, I shall outline more fully what I consider to be three key limitations of concentrated listening.

First limitation: in configuring performing as dependent solely upon listening, with hearing displaced and all but absent from pedagogy, concentrated listening cannot explain how the performer deals with bodily interruptions that force her to suspend processing what she (thought she) was previously engaged with. Examples may include a slightly different acoustic interaction of the instrumental sound with the room, now full of listeners; a longer pause than she (had thought that she) had planned on the low dominant F natural in bar 53; a feeling of pleasure at how well the final cadenza went in bar 64 (just as Godowsky said it should go: ‘extremely soft and quick, although it is of a melodic nature.’);[26] a hot temperature that causes her to sweat just enough to notice it; and so on. Indeed, only by reserving a proper place for hearing, for what is falsely called low-level bodily processing, can the performer maintain a healthy relationship with her environment and her activity. In this respect, the limitation of concentrated listening is clear: it is disembodied. Often, however, solutions proposed under the aegis of empirical research into cognition remain with the performer qua object, writing from the listener’s perspective about the performer’s body and what the performer’s ears are assumed to do as part of this body, but ignoring what this means for the performer herself as a self-perceiving, acting, and worldly subject, managing the space on stage. In the next section of this article my configuration of concentration is intended to embody listening, not from the listener’s third-person perspective, but from the performer’s first-person perspective.

Second limitation: concentrated listening focuses on what happens in the mind, rather than what happens in the body. In this respect, it has trouble with the worldliness of performing in the material world (the performer endures audience coughing, checks the oboe reed between movements and makes tiny tempo adjustments responding to how the pianist opens the Rondo finale of Poulenc’s Trio). This is because it fetishizes listening at the expense of hearing, assuming the former to be a matter for the mind, the latter for the body (this article, itself, treads a risky line in its heuristic distinction between hearing and listening). The broader problem is the false assumption that body and mind are separate organisms, the former reliant upon the latter. Indeed, in this respect, the very term concentrated listening is itself back to front: grammatically, listening should be the adjective and concentration should be the noun.

Third limitation: concentrated listening provides only a weak explanation of how different performances of the same work by the same performer turn out differently, as with Pletnev’s previous live recording of The Lark in 1982,[27] which, at 4’46’, is a whole 64 seconds (about 20%) shorter than its 1983 counterpart. It also cannot explain how the performer grapples with the challenges presented by works like Child of Tree. In this piece, Cage asks the performer to improvise with plant materials, stating at the end of the score that

The improvisation is the performance. The rest of the work is done ahead of time. The performer shall take as much care as possible during a performance not to make any other sounds than those he makes with his instruments.[28]

For Cage himself this is a reconciliation with the activity of improvisation, which he had previously avoided.[29] For Samkopf, the task is simultaneously to hear sounds and to listen to them musically; this is the paradigmatic phenomenological challenge. He must balance on the fine line separating hearing and listening, the point where they touch and displace one another. Some performers of Child of Tree seem to slip back into listening musically to the materials in front of them, rather than also hearing the sounds, having already mapped out a numerical duration structure by applying the I-Ching according to Cage’s hand-written directions. An example is Christopher Shultis’ 1988 performance,[30] in which his body language and gestural rhetoric incline more towards a conventional configuration of the Western classical work and its implied listener than towards a Cageian mode of concentration. This is surprising, perhaps, since Shultis is an expert Cage scholar, knew the composer and even corresponded with him about the performance of this particular work.

These three limitations of concentrated listening can be contextualised by two brief related tangents regarding the natural world. First tangent: put schematically, The Lark is nature several times removed: from nature to the concept of ‘nature’; from ‘nature’ to Glinka; from Glinka to Balakirev; from Balakirev to Pletnev; and from Pletnev to his audience. Child of Tree, part of Cage’s ecological thinking along with its companion piece Branches (1976), is nature investigated by and interacting with nature: plant materials played by a sentient animal following instructions. Second tangent: there is a long tradition of opposing humanity – and hence aesthetics, its innermost potential – to wood, which is taken as a proxy for dead matter. Leonardo Da Vinci’s position is paradigmatic of this tradition:

The attitudes of the head and arms are infinite in number, and so I shall not undertake to give any rule for them, but simply say that they should be easy and agreeable with different inclinations, and the joints that are there should be united intelligently, so that they will not seem to be pieces of wood.[31]

This position remains popular in the humanities, including music pedagogy; recall Roberts’ maxim about listening when performing Debussy, which I now quote in its wider context:

But the most essential part of the body for tone production is the ear. Without concentrated listening, the fingers, arms, back, and feet may as well be blocks of wood. Pedalling, above all, is done with the ear: the only rule a pianist needs to know about the foot is that it moves up and down. […] The difficulty with pedalling lies in knowing exactly when the foot should move up and down, and this is governed by the ear.[32]

Taking Roberts at his word, we might suggest that if the performer’s hands were actually ‘blocks of wood’, then this might not make Samkopf’s task of performing Child of Tree more difficult, but it would undoubtedly somewhat complicate Pletnev’s task in the Balakirev. Roberts’ maxim highlights the importance of ‘touch’, whether the interface is with the piano keyboard developed over several hundred years or with plant materials chosen a week earlier: both interfaces need the performer’s touch (normally refined during practice) in order for their sonic affordances to be realised appropriately. Pursuing the point further and flipping the logic, we might propose, somewhat ironically, that, despite the fact that the performer’s fingers might feel like blocks of wood on account of her self-diagnosed apparent failure to listen in a concentrated manner, this situation simply forces her to rely more explicitly on the very touch from which she cannot escape. If she deploys touch more honestly, acknowledging her ‘wooden’ embodiment (puppet on a string held by the composer) then concentrated listening becomes less all-encompassing, less tightly policed and less anxiety generating. By thinking of her ‘fingers, arms, back, and feet’ as hopelessly wooden, concentrated listening may just become easier. As I argue next, it will have become concentration.

5     Concentration

In this section I argue that in order to understand Pletnev’s and Samkopf’s performances together, we should configure attentional focus in terms of the displacement of disembodied concentrated listening by sensuously embodied concentration. Stylistically, this is a movement from Pletnev-Balakirev towards Samkopf-Cage, for, while the above discussion of concentrated listening describes the former better than the latter, it is clear below that the latter’s performance practice better models sensuously embodied concentration. This being said, I do not wish to play off the two performance practices against one another; and, of course, in any case, each performer deploys both hearing and listening. The displacement towards embodied concentration is also a general movement towards a pragmatic embodiment of the performer’s concentration on her tasks and responsibilities, in which sensuous proprioception leads her attentional focus during performance. The point for pedagogy is not merely to combine hearing and listening (or any equivalent pairing like Schaeffer’s) but to acknowledge that they had never been separate ‘things’ in the first place.

Let me clarify the argument. Phrased simplistically, from the first-person perspective of the musical performer, concentration has two components: hearing and listening. These components are always combined and are never found separately. They are less opposites than symbiotic, dynamic activities, continually adapting to each other, and they can be differentiated only heuristically. Hearing situates itself within the sonic environment, accepts that the boundary between sound and music is porous and deploys the entire body as a resonant chamber for feeling, perceiving, and enacting sound; listening attempts with varying intensity to ignore the environment and to survive within the virtual world of tones and the aesthetic world of the music alone. Hearing may seem to be more passive than listening and a matter of simply registering sound, but this is a false assumption that arises when the heuristic distinction between the components of concentration is taken as ontological (rather than methodological). This said, maintaining a loose distinction helps to focus on how the performer deploys her attentional focus during performance (if ‘deploy’ is the right term when speaking of attention).

To ask the question ‘Does the performer have to listen?’ is to express the issue as an imperative. This emphasises as necessities several factors: the energy expended developing ever more efficient ears; the cultural and aesthetic values foisted upon listening by teachers and critics; and the grounding of performing in bodily attention. However, phrasing the issue like this conflates the distinction between ought and must, between the decision to listen in a particular manner and the ontological necessity to listen as such. Some registers of performing can only be teased apart if we pursue this heuristic distinction between hearing and listening, between the perception of basic sensations and nominally higher-order interpretative protocols.

Consider this distinction in terms of the ratio of hearing to listening. This heuristic ratio is broadly determinable during analysis and reflection, but it is only a snapshot of the performer’s multiple investments of energy in concentration during performance. Pletnev’s and Samkopf’s performances are quite different in this respect. Pletnev concentrates on a register of the music concerned with tone rather than sound, having long since mastered the physical production of the latter. He concentrates on the virtual world of The Lark, which includes its internal morphology, structural coherence, aesthetic shape, timbre palette, imagery, the shaping of pianistic figuration and so on. This ideology, taken to an extreme in his disavowal of the body, is hardly unique to Pletnev. Lev Oborin’s 1971 performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Song of the Lark, for example, has a similarly undemonstrative physicality, partially accounted for by its being recorded in a TV studio and subject to the constraints of Soviet identity politics.[33] The apparent disembodiment, which is a visual deception afforded by extraordinary technical refinement, should be taken as a stylistic component of performance practice in the same manner that Glenn Gould’s vocalising is taken as part of his; but it does not give us a licence to focus on Pletnev’s performance of The Lark without considering the proprioceptive qualities of his body movements on stage. There is as much hearing happening in Pletnev’s fingers and shoulders as there is in his mind and its brain, and there is as much hearing going on as there is in Samkopf’s tender navigation of the plant materials. Hearing is distributed around the body. Nevertheless, there are some differences in intention. Pletnev seeks to force hearing underground while Samkopf seeks to build listening upon hearing, Pletnev seeks to hide listening’s foundation in hearing while Samkopf seeks to reveal it collaboratively. Pletnev assumes that, within concentration, listening rather than hearing is the semiotically marked term, and that concentrated listening, along with cognates like absorption and focus, is the quality that must be pursued. Samkopf, on the other hand, seeks neither to listen in such a way that only conventional musical sounds are acceptable, nor to repress the sounds of the natural world. His listening apprehends everything that happens as suitable material for the event, including unplanned sounds and failed sounds; each sound can ‘be occupied with the performance of its characteristics’.[34] This means that each sound can fill its duration, rather than having to transform itself into a negative absence. As Samkopf himself says, ‘When we define sound as time in space / and silence as space in time, / then the event of listening can be understood as the balancing of time in space’.[35] During his performance, listening is, on the one hand, demanded by the musical work (since, following John Butt’s argument that works ‘contain an implied listener’, they should presumably also contain an ‘implied performer’)[36] and, on the other hand, open to interruptions from outside his control, some of which are environmental (the prolonged audience noises and coughing at 2’55’’) and many of which are from the plants themselves.

Pursuing this comparison between Pletnev and Samkopf means rejecting two common pedagogical maxims, to wit: one must stop assuming that anything other than ‘total’ concentrated listening (pace Szendy) is inadequate and reverse the logic of concentrated listening by configuring listening as a qualifier of concentration. This reversal is not dialectical, since the issue is ontological rather than aesthetic, concerning how attentional focus arises rather than interrogating the ideology motivating particular modes of musical listening. It sets hearing and listening on an equal footing and enables the performer to inhabit her environment more fully as a sentient being. This is congruent with the evidence discussed by Barbara Montero, who concludes that what expertise requires is not automatic, un-thinking action (she argues against the belief that the better the skill, the less conscious attention it needs during performance) but intensive, deliberate and reflective concentration about what the entire body is attempting to do.[37] Even in Child of Tree, where first impressions might suggest that expertise is rejected, the body is not absent from the stage, but leads everything that happens in performance (‘leads’ being a heuristic proxy for expertise). The body’s lead is evident in Samkopf’s performance, where he tries plants out for their sonic potential but has to allow them to interact with his hands in ways that remain stubbornly unpredictable and relatively chaotic, the sounds clustered according to the physical affordances of the materials. Samkopf’s task includes ‘working with the unpredictability of nature and not against it’.[38]

Given the body’s lead during performance, it seems more productive to configure concentration, not in the either-or terms of failure (To Pletnev: “Your listening was not concentrated enough, so you lost momentum in bars 46-49 before the climax”; to Samkopf, “The dry leaves started breaking apart 4’02’’-4’54’’, because you failed to use them properly”) but as a dynamically evolving state within which hearing and listening are symbiotically related. Their multiple overlapping means that either may stimulate the other; “Think about what you’re hearing in bar 46 – its textural feel and harmonic direction!”  could equally be rendered as “Can you hear and feel the harmonic direction of bar 46 in what you are thinking you need to do here?”. We could say that concentration is stretched between hearing and listening, in the sense that the noema of sound is seductive before it is significant, is constituted as timbre before it is comprehended as structure and is embodied before it is understood. There are many ways in which the ears find themselves subject to sound and in which auditory processing is subject to the performer’s physiology. Some are non-musical events (“I no sooner start to work than the telephone rings.”[39]), some are musical events. The latter, as Mary Hunter has suggested, include moments when concentration is staged, sometimes self-consciously.[40] This happens in Pletnev’s performances when the crescendo trill launches the first cadenza in bar 33 and the sheer sound of sound takes over to great musical effect, at 2’30’’ in 1982 and at 2’55’’ in 1983. There are fewer examples in Samkopf’s performance, for such staging is aesthetically not part of the contract: perhaps there is a momentary exception at 5’55’’, where he takes one of the pine cones again and starts flicking the leaves, taking care that they sound but do not break under the pressure.  Shultis’ remarkable performance affords more examples, not least because of the dance elements, which he says were included in homage to Merce Cunningham’s choreography of the work,[41] and because his performing seems to be conventionally musical, ending with a build-up to a climactic big bang.

Put more broadly, if Jon McKenzie’s provocation that ‘Performance will be to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries / what discipline was to the eighteenth and nineteenth: / an onto-historical formation of power and knowledge’[42] is to have teeth, then it needs to give embodied concentration a central position within performance. It requires an acknowledgement that the fluid and sensuous displacements to and fro between hearing and listening, and the performer’s investments of energy now in one, now in the other, some conscious, some not, are vital components of performing and not simply a sign of the failure of concentrated listening. If, in our century, ‘discipline’ is to yield primacy to ‘performance’ then for music pedagogy this will involve displacing the ideology of concentrated listening with a configuration of attentional focus based on a dynamic flow to and fro between hearing and listening, in line with McKenzie’s claim that ‘Performances are territorializations of flows and unformed matters into sensible bodies, while performatives are encodings of these bodies into articulable subjects and objects’.[43] This dynamic flow is nothing more than the embodied performer in action, concentrating with her entire body.

Concentration is hard work; it is fragile and subject to distraction. Indeed, given that the body takes the lead during performance, it is unsurprising that the displacement of hearing by listening, which is effectively a disavowal of the body, can generate anxiety in the performer, even when concentration seems otherwise to be working.[44] There are longstanding cultural reasons for this: one is the institutional structure of music conservatoires, which, having invested heavily in the ideology of corrective teaching, generally discourage students from configuring their scores as scripts, to be treated only as starting points for individual exploration; another is the Stravinskian ideology still driving much Western classical musical culture, in which power is invested downwards rather than sideways, and from which concentrated listening draws much of its energy, configured as the audit of performance qua ‘execution’.[45] With performance configured as a matter of execution and scores as inviolably definitive texts, anxiety is understandable. After all, the performer’s entire development is centred on refining her body’s interface with the instrument in ways that afford her more, rather than less, flexibility in how she utilises the feedback coming from her senses. Even allowing for modesty (genuine or false), the rhetoric of public interviews, and the vicissitudes of Soviet life, it takes something to say, as Pletnev does, that ‘All I do is play the piano, and enjoy life. […] I hope I survive some more time to continue enjoying it’ (a statement with a curiously Cagean tone).[46]

The anxiety from which the performer can suffer about genuine, untrammelled hearing involves uncertainty at the sheer sound of sound, at its impropriety and failure to submit fully to the performer’s intentions (unlike her breakfast before her daily practice, she makes the sounds but does not own them). This stems from the imposition of the ideology of concentrated listening upon her activity, and it is often exacerbated by a false conflation of concentrated listening with the silent listening regime that polices the audience (even listeners at concerts of Cage’s music generally sit still and listen silently). As John Rink has noted, pedagogies based upon concentrated listening often fixate upon splitting apart concentration into a hearing-listening dualism, and base their prescriptions upon this false beginning, rather than simply asking what is being heard and done.[47]

The potential for anxiety is, in part, something peculiar to music, many of whose performance practices, including the one supporting Pletnev, Balakirev and Glinka, remain bound to the logic of ‘performance of a text’, as opposed to ‘performance from a script’.[48] Other arts, in contrast, operate more flexible scenarios, such as the empty black boxes of theatres or the empty white boxes of art galleries, both of which are closer to Cage’s starting point. Some performances of Child of Tree treat the concert stage as a simple open space upon which to lay out the plants (sometimes not even centre-stage),[49] while others happen in art galleries[50] and outdoors.[51]

In the spirit of reducing unnecessary anxiety, we might ask about pedagogy’s focus on repressing and displacing anything that (it assumes) does not lead towards ‘total’ concentrated listening. After all, concentrated listening constrains the performer both to a single narrow mode of perception, driven by what, when in the practice room, she had hoped and planned would happen during performance, and to a single mode of performance (execution) evaluated by audit rather than listening. It proposes one solution (“Concentrate more on your listening!”) to the problem of what the future holds in store for the performer, because it assumes that the future is a problem in need of a solution. This assumption creates a host of dilemmas for the performer, such as: Why pretend that the stage is cool when sweat can be felt dripping down the performer’s back? Why fear lingering languidly over the poco meno mosso in bar 55 for more than a strictly measured poco when doing so affords an expansion of creative possibilities? Why treat the recurrent pitches in Carter’s 6 Letter Letter (1996) as a matter of invariant intonation when their varied manners of presentation (changing durations, registers, and intervals) resonate via the reed and make the entire body vibrate musically? Why assume that the thematic equivalence between subjects and answers in the finale of Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 59 No. 3 (1806) is the only thing driving the music when, in addition, the sensuous experience of playing material just played by one’s friend on the viola is quite different from playing a solo fugue?

There seems to be a pedagogical assumption that success comes from not allowing the performer to face such dilemmas, let alone enjoy them, and from binding her to a legalistic configuration of concentrated listening in which such bodily sensations must be forced to the back of her mind or, at best, insisting that such dilemmas must always be resolved in favour of one solution. Such moments, however, which are both more than solely auditory phenomena and not necessarily fully-formed thoughts, are when the body calls its mind to order and insists on reminding itself and its inhabitant – the musical subject – of its affective and dynamic place in the world, starting with the concert stage under her feet. This is a good thing, both for the sensuous immediacy of a particular performance here now and for the broader social functioning of the performer as a citizen.

6     Conclusion

So, to a conclusion. Have I answered my initial question from Cage about the minimum threshold for musicking? Have I managed to avoid playing off Pletnev and Samkopf against each other?

I think that it is clear that, for both Pletnev and Samkopf, the performer’s task is to live with the multiple registers of attention. In the terms used in this article, this means living with the indeterminate displacement of hearing by listening and of listening by hearing, along with their mutual imbrication. The performer does this by learning to inhabit her entire body, feeling the music with all her organs and accepting and acting upon their feedback on what she attempts to do. In this respect, more aural training (beyond the imitation and reproduction tasks that dominate educational curricula) and greater engagement with bodily awareness regimes like Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique would help the performer to trust her body and what it tells her, to develop resilience in the face of indeterminacy and to concentrate on her tasks and responsibilities. In the process, expertise, insofar as its recognition by relevant communities functions as a rite of passage for the performer, would become more than mastery and something akin to phronesis.

We might conclude, perhaps controversially, that this phronesis is more evident in Samkopf’s realisation of Child of Tree than in Pletnev’s rendition of The Lark. This is not a criticism of Pletnev’s artistry or imagination; both on his own terms and for his listeners, his performing has more than enough of both – hence the range of responses to his playing, from idolisation to accusations of excessive mannerism. Rather, it is to suggest that Samkopf emerges from his performance with superior transferable skills and better prepared for the next thing in his life, whatever that may have been in 2010. This is the truth about concentration and the risk of displacing hearing away from the centre of attention: while both performers use their entire body (Pletnev malgré lui), and both learn from performance, Samkopf also learns during performance.

And, finally: No, the performer does not have to listen – at least, not in its most banal sense. However, she does have to concentrate, which, as I have tried to show, is an action which, for the musician, subsumes within it both listening and hearing. By concentrate, I mean deploy her entire body proprioceptively. This allows her ears, instead of predetermining concert decisions, to guide the performance as it unfolds, thereby assuming no more than their rightful place within the human sensorium alongside touch and the other senses. The moral of the tale is that when the performer, rather than simply listening, concentrates and deploys her body’s ‘blocks of wood’ to good effect, she has more expertise at her fingertips – metaphorically and literally! – than she might otherwise imagine – and more than Roberts might have thought when he penned his maxim. One consequence of this conclusion is as follows: listeners simply listen, while performers additionally harness their listening as a dynamic component of their concentration and apply it directly to their performative actions. This is not a criticism either of performers or of listeners. It is simply a distinction between the different ways in which their bodies are deployed during performance, and between their different tasks and responsibilities.




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[1]        Alicia Peñalba Acitores, ‘Towards a Theory of Proprioception as a Bodily Basis for Consciousness in Music’, in David Clarke & Eric Clarke, eds, Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 215-230

[2]        Albert Bregman, Auditory Scene Analysis (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990)

[3]        Roland Barthes, ‘Listening’, in his The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 245-260 at pp. 245-46

[4]        Pierre Schaeffer, trans. Christine North & John Dack, In Search of a Concrete Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012)

[5]        Andrew Dell’Antonio, ed., Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)

[6]        Sander van Maas, ed., Thresholds of Listening: Sound, Technics, Space (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015)

[7]        Victor Stoichita & Bernd Brabec de Mori, ‘Postures of Listening: An Ontology of Sonic Percepts from an Anthropological Perspective’, Terrain 68 (October 2017),, accessed 5 September 2019

[8]        John Cage, ‘The Future of Music: Credo’, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), pp. 3-6 at p. 3

[9]        Mikhail Pletnev, Performance of Mili Balakirev, The Lark, (1983), accessed 5 September 2019

[10]      Kjell Samkopf, Performance of John Cage, Child of Tree. (2010), accessed 5 September 2019

[11]      Aaron Williamon, ed., Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

[12]      Paul Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1996), p. 286

[13]      Roberts, Images, p. 313

[14]      Aaron Copland, What to listen for in music (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939)

[15]      Daniel Barenboim, Everything is Connected: The Power of Music (London: Phoenix 2008), pp. 37 & 42 respectively

[16]      Leopold Godowsky, ‘The Lark: Interpretation’, in Mili Balakirev, The Lark, ed. Godowsky (St. Louis & London: Art Publication Society, 1923), not paginated, italics added

[17]      John Rink, ‘The Work of the Performer’, in Paulo de Assis, ed., Virtual Works, Actual Things: Essays in Music Ontology (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2018), pp. 89-114 at p. 90

[18]      Roberts, Images, p. 291

[19]      Gary Karpinski, Aural Skills Acquisition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 62

[20]      Nicholas Walker, Balakirev: Complete Piano Works, Vol. 4, Grand Piano GP810 (2019)

[21]      John Sloboda, ‘Music in Everyday Life: The Role of the Emotions’, seminar at the Institute for Musical Research, London, 7 May 2009

[22]      Peter Pfordresher & Caroline Palmer, ‘Effects of Hearing the Past, Present, or Future during Music Performance’, Perception and Psychophysics 68.3 (2006), 362-376. William Wrigley & Stephen Emmerson, ‘The Experience of the Flow State in Live Music Performance’, Psychology of Music 41.3 (2011), 292-305. Lori Buma, Frank Bakker, & Raôul Oudejans, ‘Exploring the Thoughts and Focus of Attention of Elite Musicians under pressure’, Psychology of Music 43/4 (July 2015), 459-472. Muzaffer Ҫorlu, Chris Muller, Frank Desmet & Marc Leman, ‘The Consequences of Additional Cognitive Load on Performing Musicians’, Psychology of Music 43.4 (July 2015), 495-510. Ruth Herbert, ‘An Empirical Study of Normative Dissociation in Musical and Non-Musical Everyday Life Experiences’, Psychology of Music 41.3 (2011), 372-394 and ‘Musical and Non-Musical Involvement in Daily Life: The Case of Absorption’, Musicae Scientiae, 16.1 (2012), 41-66. Peter Weeks, ‘Synchrony Lost, Synchrony Regained: The Achievement of Musical Coordination’, Human Studies 19 (1996), 199-228

[23]      Jeremy Cox, personal correspondence, 6 February 2020

[24]      Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996)

[25]      Peter Szendy, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Listen: A History of our Ears (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 122

[26]      Godowsky, ‘The Lark: Interpretation’, not paginated

[27]      Mikhail Pletnev, Performance of Mili Balakirev, The Lark. (1982), accessed 5 September 2019

[28]      John Cage, Child of Tree (New York: Peters, 1975), p. 7

[29]      James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 194

[30]      Christopher Shultis, Performance of John Cage, Child of Tree. (1988), accessed 5 September 2019

[31]      Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks, quoted without page number in Jean-Luc Nancy, The Pleasure in Drawing, trans. Philip Armstrong (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), p. 96

[32]      Roberts, Images, p. 286

[33]      Lev Oborin, Performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, The Song of the Lark. (1971), accessed 5 September 2019

[34]      John Cage, ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’, in his Silence, pp. 13-17 at p. 14, italics original

[35], accessed 5 September 2019

[36]      John Butt, ‘Do Musical Works Contain an Implied Listener? Towards a Theory of Listening’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135 special issue 1 (2010), 5-18

[37]      Barbara Montero, Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[38]      Pritchett, The Music of John Cage, p. 195

[39]      John Cage, ‘Juilliard Lecture’, in his A Year from Monday (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), pp. 95-111 at p. 99

[40]      Mary Hunter, personal correspondence, 7 July 2018

[41]      Christopher Shultis, ‘The Process of Discovery: Interpreting Child of Tree’, Contemporary Music Review 33.5-6 (2014), 570-579 at 578 n 3

[42]      Jon McKenzie, Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 176 [all bold in original]

[43]      McKenzie, Perform or Else, p. 177 [all bold and centre aligned in original]

[44]      Helena Gaunt, ‘Understanding the one-to-one relationship in instrumental / vocal tuition in Higher Education: comparing student and teacher perceptions’, British Journal of Music Education 28.2 (2011), 159-179 at 170

[45]      Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, trans. Arthur Knodel & Ingolf Dahl (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947), pp. 121-135

[46]      Mikhail Pletnev, interview with Jessica Duchen, The Guardian, Tuesday 16 May 2000,, accessed 5 September 2019

[47]      John Rink, personal correspondence, 7 July 2018

[48]      Nicholas Cook, ‘Music as Performance’, in Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, & Richard Middleton, eds, The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 204-214

[49]      Greg Beyer, Performance of John Cage, Child of Tree, (2014), accessed 5 September 2019

[50]      Lynn Vartan, Performance of John Cage, Child of Tree. (2011), accessed 5 September 2019

[51]      Rosie Bergonzi, Performance of John Cage, Child of Tree, (2015), accessed 5 September 2019