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Roger Freundlich

Much has been written about performance stress, genuine issue of course, but listening is also hard work. Conductors listening to a band struggling through arrangements for the first time, or professionals listening to playbacks at recording sessions will know what I’m talking about. My mother once told me that she sat in front of the composer Aaron Copeland while a work of his was performed at New York City’s Carnegie Hall: his audible gasps and heavy breathing revealed the intensity of his listening.

Imagine sitting in a concert hall or outdoor festival setting with the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins playing while balanced precariously on a tightrope 60 feet in the air without a safety net. Would you enjoy that performance? I doubt it; all your energy would go into worrying about Sonny falling off the wire, not to mention the repair bill for a sax dropped from that height. Even assuming that he could pull it off, by the end of the evening you will have been so distracted that you probably wouldn’t be able to recall half of what he played.

This article is addressed particularly to amateurs who should avoid putting themselves up on that metaphorical tightrope because you want listeners to concentrate on your music instead of wasting their energies worrying whether or not you are going to “fall off the rope.” That’s listener stress.

For every performance situation, your listeners intuitively establish a specific frame of reference for the assumed maximum and minimum competence levels you bring to your performance. This means that Placido Domingo will not be faulted for avoiding the tune Donna Lee, nor would James Brown have been expected to perform an aria from The Magic Flute in German. This subconscious “framework of anticipation” is based on the listener’s previous or assumed knowledge of an artist’s output and capabilities.

Thinking in absolute terms, perhaps we need a new scientific unit for measuring artistic creativity. The range of listener expectation will be wider for major artists like Sonny Rollins and Tony Bennett compared to, for example, amateur players or even young students in a school band.


I believe there are three main listener stress areas:

Upper: The performer is trying too hard. For variety, Tony Bennett hires Yoda as lyricist and performs In San Francisco My Heart I Left. Tony’s fans would not be pleased. Just as we’ve all heard a student big band’s brass section not quite making a soli in an arrangement slightly beyond their technical abilities.

Middle: The performer is competent but uninspiring. Tony comes out and sings I Left My Heart In San Francisco 10 times in a row. You can’t say he’s trying too hard; he knows the tune inside out. You can’t say he isn’t trying hard enough; each version sounds good by itself. But by normal standards, the overall programming concept is mediocre.

Lower: The performer is not trying hard enough. Tony Bennett again, but this time while thinking about something else (of course unlikely with Mr. Bennett), he forgets the name of the city where he left his heart. Another example would be any famous saxophonist playing only long tones for one set at Carnegie Hall. Somehow you know they could have done better.

Text Line Parallel Font Diagram

For a visual reference I’ve included a diagram titled “Listener’s Expectations and Stress Areas” to clarify the “three stress levels” just explained. Immediately surrounding the central axis (Performer’s Average Skill Level) is the first source of potential listener anxiety: “Mediocrity”. This means that the listener is “stressed” because he or she knows that the artist is capable of more, even if the performer does not live up to their expectations. This is bordered on either side by the listener’s “Assumed Maximum” and “Assumed Minimum Competence Zones” (the competence of the performer). This is what the audience expects to hear: opera from Placido Domingo and I Feel Good from James Brown. It’s important to note that the upper and lower limits for these “thresholds of approval” will be correspondingly lower, or “more forgiving” for amateur musicians than for professionals.

Above and below these zones are transitional layers that I call the “Dazzle” (on the upper end) and “Artistic Effect” (on the lower end) zones. These are the in-between moments when the artist oversteps the listeners’ Assumed Maximum and Minimum Competence Levels without necessarily creating listener stress; the upper “Dazzle” zone is also the province of the musical risk-takers.

At the lower “Artistic Effect” zone we find Jimmy Guiffre’s low-register “look how many notes I’m not playing” artistic style. An example might be Sonny Rollins honking a low note repeatedly on one of his calypso numbers. From the standpoint of saxophone technique, Sonny’s repeated low notes clearly fall beneath the listener’s Assumed Minimum Competence Level for Sonny Rollins, but it is accepted momentarily for artistic effect because Sonny’s supreme musical intellect and exceptional accomplishments outweigh the momentary simplicity.

Beyond these transitional zones lie the primary Listener Stress Areas: The Performer Is Trying Too Hard (upper) and The Performer Is Not Trying Hard Enough (lower); these are ultimately limited by the performer’s absolute Maximum and Minimum Skill Levels. Performers who have achieved “cult” status distort this pattern because there is naturally no assumed level of minimum competence. By definition the “cult figure” can do no wrong and everything produced is of value. Cult status is, however, only reserved for those performing at the highest levels of musicianship.

As a musician your task is to avoid these Listener Stress Areas. To achieve this, and keep you off the aforementioned tightrope of listener stress, your performance must remain safely within your maximum and minimum skill levels, with perhaps momentary excursions into the upper “Dazzle” or lower “Artistic Effect” zones. This ensures that the audience will listen to your music and not expend excess energy worrying about whether you are going to “make it” or not. Because audience hostility is usually limited to commercial situations, such as a concert that begins two hours late, amateur players rarely need to worry about a genuinely hostile audience.

Personally, I have found one maximum outer limit in my own playing: the loudest possible low Bb I can play on tenor sax. I now know that with my given anatomy, present physical condition and sax/mouthpiece/reed setup, there is simply no way I can play any louder. Of course there is no playing situation, even in a free improvisation context, where I will ever use this sound because it is not particularly attractive nor artistically justifiable. However my having reached this point – coming up against the wall so to speak – will make all my other low Bb’s, loud and soft, more convincing to listeners because they will instinctively sense a “reserve power supply” they never get to hear. The obvious analogy from baseball is swinging five bats before you hit. The power required to lift five bats is focused – more efficiently of course – into the single bat. Playing at your absolute maximum volume in a gig situation would be like stepping up to the plate with 5 bats; momentarily showy but ultimately meaningless.

In terms of supplementing normal practice routines, this means looking for the limits: the loudest and the softest (dynamics), the fastest and the slowest (manual dexterity), the ugliest and the most exquisite (tone quality) and so forth. For example, one of the exercises I employ in my Jazz Studio improv teaching at the City of Espoo Adult Education Center in Espoo Finland is “Ugly-Beautiful”, described in the article Psyching Out Improv Demons (Down Beat/Pro Session/June 1998 p.62 and Sax on the Web). Students are first asked to create the worst possible, or ugliest solo performance on their instrument (or voice) that they can muster, lasting 15 - 20 seconds. After a short pause, this is followed by a 15 - 20 second performance in which they attempt to play the most beautiful solo they have ever performed. It is the student’s thought process that’s important, not the actual performance result. The exercise facilitates a direct confrontation with the darker side of one’s own instrument and/or musical personality. But like in the old monster movies: the creature is less scary after it shows up and the result is an increased awareness of the emotional range and expressive capabilities of one’s own instrument.

Source: Saxophone Journal, NovDec 2007. David J. Gibson, Editor.
Reproduced with the permission of Ken Dorn, Dorn Publications.
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