Music: The bravery of the solo performance


Life is not a solo act. Anyone can tell you that. And yet, the musician is the creature who must stand alone and perform solo for the world as though it was a perfectly normal thing to do. Who would have the audacity?

Who has such conviction?

As musicians we learn from a very young age that solo performance comes with the territory of our vocation. For some it can be a truly liberating experience, but even the slightest mishap in a public forum can generate negative associations that imprint themselves for a lifetime.

Like other Performing Arts subjects, Music is curious in the extremely public nature of its assessment. We cannot shelter in the relative anonymity of a 300-strong cohort sitting an examination together in the Great Hall. Our performance examinations are immediate, fleeting, oh-so-risky, and present no opportunity to go back and check for mistakes. There are no second chances. A brilliant performance will vanish without a trace (but, somehow, a lesser performance manages to stick). The solo performer is a brave individual indeed.

With this in mind, how do we prepare our Knox boys for the truly terrifying life experience that is the HSC, particularly when our Music students are facing it with the prospect of presenting compulsory solo performance exams?

The great character builder
To learn music well is to equip oneself with tools. This is where we see the long-term study of academic Music prove to be the great character builder. Our Knox musicians are fine-motor athletes who, alongside physical capability, need an understanding of symbolism and notation, history, numeric subdivision and patterning, the science of sound production and the expression of personal sentiment. Training our boys in the art of solo performance requires a multi-faceted approach and takes many years to yield success.

Cultivating the mind
First: cultivating the mind. No soloist can be confident if he doesn’t understand his craft. Our Music students develop necessary cognitive skills early by pushing themselves through highly sophisticated repertoire, increasingly so as they reach Stage 6. Classical performers analyse the mathematics of Bach polyphony, and Jazz performers learn the geometry of chord progressions, over which careful improvisation must occur. Music is discussed and dissected, and opinions need to be justified.

Building social skills
Second: social skills develop in a weekly setting of our department master-classes and lunchtime concerts, often focusing on the etiquette required as a soloist and an audience member. To be a successful soloist includes the demonstration of respect for others.

Learning time management
Third: every Knox Music student knows the daily struggle of scheduling individual practice between ensemble rehearsals, sport and homework; impeccable self-discipline and time management become a characteristic trait in musicians for a reason.

Then, there is the spirit of the musician himself, and that key factor in any musical journey: resilience.

While our students get used to receiving feedback on all their schoolwork over a lifetime, there is something so much more personal about the responses to a solo performance. On stage, the musician is completely unprotected and exposed, all his imperfections laid bare. To hear any critique after this (constructive or not) can be devastating. The Knox Music teachers deliver feedback in the form of strategy and ideas, keeping dialogue honest and reciprocal. Therefore witnessing a student’s development from their first Year 7 performance exam to the HSC can be as inspiring as it is gruelling, with our boys developing grit and hardy problem-solving skills that many adults can only dream of.

For a soloist to truly soar to his greatest heights he needs to trust in the teachers around him. There is a rapport between the Music student and his teacher that is perhaps unique in most school settings; both need absolute buy-in through working together one-on-one. Both need to commit to a learning environment beyond the four classroom walls to seek every authentic solo performance opportunity available, few of which ever occur during class time. Both need the determination to regroup and start over again because, without some sense of heroic self-belief, musicians can never improve.

Singer-songwriter Bruno Mars is quoted as saying, “I would hate to be at a show and some nervous wreck is sweating up there because he doesn’t feel like he deserves to be there”.

Our Knox Music students certainly deserve their time on the stage.

Ms Belinda Markham, Head of Music

This article was originally published in the June 2018 edition of The Thistle