Justin Pratt is a current Praxis participant. This piece was originally published on his personal blog.
What is Praxis?
Praxis comes from Greek. In philosophy, it means putting the Theoria (the theory) into action. In other words, applying ideas to the real world.
I love the world of ideas. I’m certainly a thinker. I love thinking. I love cultivating the mind. I love figuring out how others think too. I love getting others to really think. I just like thinking. It makes me feel smart and thus good about myself. In acting class, the director would often claim that I was over-analyzing, that I was too much in my head. In voice lessons, my instructor would say the same thing.
After some learning, I got a whole lot better at not letting that over-analysis get in the way of just letting the expression come out. Those were the best moments in performing — when I could just let everything go and trust the work that I had done, and let the music, the art, the meaning of the work, to take over and be transmitted through me.
It sounds pretentious if you overthink it, but that’s the phenomenon of great art. Ask any artist, especially musicians and actors. Most musicians and actors that I’ve talked to about this usually report that the best, most artistic moments are when if feels like we are totally out of control, like something other than ourselves is taking the wheel.
That’s the result of Praxis, in the philosophical sense. To actually just do it. You’ve already done enough thinking.
Trust that the theory and analytical work is there, but forget it in the moment, and just do it. Why forget the theory? Because it gets in the way.
Theory still has value.
That’s not to say that theory is valueless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Theory, ideas, some kind of systematic structure is what makes the art intelligible. Theory of technique (“relax the jaw, don’t depress the larynx, through the mask, spin that high A, it’s flat…”) is certainly important while at work as an artist.
But in a performance, in the moment that one is singing, playing, acting, and perhaps in the moment that one is writing, painting, dancing, etc., one can’t be bogged down by all the little thoughts and details. All the little stuff distracts from the larger picture.
The theory, the technique, all the work you’ve done up to the actual performance, that’s always there to fall back on. When you’re on stage, you’re not there to show the audience the result of your practicing, the result of your thinking. You’re there to show them something more. You’re there to use music to move them in some kind of way, to make them think, or maybe to make them see something differently than they did before hearing the work. In all seriousness and without exaggeration, art is meant to change people’s lives.
Theory Without Context is Nonsense.
Let’s look at it another way. The theory, and by that I mean all of the intellectual work that goes into performing a piece of music “correctly,” (music theory, history, performance practice, instrument technique) are the tools of the craft. They are the means, not the ends. Music which only demonstrates the tools of music is more akin to an exercise than a work of art.
A performer should hope to hear more than, “Your rhythm was spot-on,” or “The arpeggios in the development were so clear and in tune.” Those are signs of great skill.
“You inspired me with that song at the beginning,” “You opened my mind to how great classical music is,” or “You made me cry, it was so beautiful.” These are signs of true musicianship and are the rewards of hard work and expression.
How do you get there? I have some suggestions. Stop looking at the page. Stop thinking about the notes. Stop thinking about the specific tightness of your embouchure, or the fact that you can’t seem to get that Bb in tune at measure 32. Think about these things in practice, but not in performance. I find that abandoning all that nonsense and expressing what you think the piece means does a great deal more to fix intonation, tightness, and all the other technical undesirables than continually meditating over it.
Why? After practicing technique, your body knows how to produce the sound you have in your mind. All that’s left to do is to have a clear idea of what it is you want to come out of your instrument, and to have that you need a clear idea of what it is that you’re expressing. That’s how you actually use the tools, the technique.
That’s what Praxis is to the musician.