The Holy Buddha Smiled

“It’s interesting to watch the faces of classical musicians as they perform. Many players look as if they’re in pain: faces scrunched, heads and necks twisted, brows furrowed. And they look so regardless of the repertory they’re playing. A light-footed dance by Bach: scrunch, twist, furrow. A concerto by Mozart: scrunch, twist, furrow. Pain seems the primary emotion, and struggle the mode of work. In other domains of musical endeavor, however, there are many musicians whose dominant emotion is joy, and whose mode of work isn’t struggle but play. Take a guy like Elvis Presley. He was a consummate storyteller, and a singer of considerable vocal finesse. When performing, he seemed to be making fun of himself; he was both himself and his own knowing parody. His light-footed and light-hearted approach didn’t prevent his fans from going haywire!


Suppose that Presley represents profane energies, so to speak. Sacred energies, too, don’t need a furrowed brow. Consider the smiling Buddha, reminding us that in enlightenment you “embody light.” Or go on YouTube and watch the Golden Gate Quartet, a vocal group that has performed continuously (with personnel changes) since 1938. Their outlook in life is decidedly religious; after all, they sing mostly gospel, which is the word of God. Yet their music making is born of humor and joy. They deliver their songs with the cleverest rhetorical touches: accented off-beats, unexpected exclamation marks, the interplay of metronomic regularity and linguistic rubato. How about you take the same approach to your Haydn string quartets?


You can always decide that you prefer intense, passionate, and highly muscular interpretations. You can even decide that there’s no meaning in music unless there’s a fight between you and your instrument. I think you’ll be a better fighter if you know that you’re fighting; and you’ll know the fight more intimately if you ponder its alternative, which I’ve been calling the conversational approach.

By the way, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Bruce Lee, and Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of aikido, a powerful martial art) were forever smiling. Strange, huh?”

BRUCE LEE - Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor

de Alcantara, Pedro. The Integrated String Player: Embodied Vibration. Oxford University Press, 2017.

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