Steven Banks

Saxophonist. Educator. Inclusion Advocate.

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable"

- Ludwig van Beethoven

Who Do YOU Play For?

When I was in high school, I developed such vivid dreams of where music would take me in my life. I thought about playing in Carnegie Hall, traveling the world to play concertos with major orchestras, playing solo and chamber recitals in the world's most beautiful halls, and using music as my major contribution to society. I dreamed of being able to join my musical heroes like Andre Watts (my favorite video of his), Anthony McGill (Anthony's website), and Albrecht Mayer (his Berlin Phil page) as one of the world's most powerful and passionate performers. I never listened to anyone who said that I couldn't do it because I grew up with the mindset that I could do anything that I put my mind to. I loved the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and so many other iconic composers of classical music. I never truly realized that, as a saxophonist, I wouldn't really ever be able to play the works of these master composers on a regular basis. I truly felt invincible, and I was so excited to continue down this path that I had laid out in my dreams. 

Over the years, these dreams have become more and more hazy as I learn more about the real world of classical music, classical saxophone, and the music business. I see that being "talented" doesn't get you performances around the world for sold out audiences. I see that I play an instrument that practically never plays the music of the composers that I truly love and believe in. I see that being a world-wide performer isn't really on the list of jobs that I can have. Currently, the options are: become a college professor or join a military band (after going thousands into debt from getting a doctorate because so many jobs require it...). For a guy like me, who isn't truly passionate about band, the options are narrowed to an even greater degree. However, through these dark, ever-present clouds, I can still see my dreams in the distance.

Unfortunately, many of my most passionate performances have been written off as immature, uninformed, or overdone. One of the most difficult aspects of classical music performance for me to internalize is that it's not "right" to use your intuition to transfer your emotions and feelings to the audience. Many teachers don't believe that we should let our fleeting feelings of the moment determine how we play on stage. It's very hard for me to believe this for myself because I've always used music as a means of expressing my true emotions in a way that words could never accurately convey. When I was a sophomore in college, I performed Bach's Flute Partita in A minor and was told by a colleague that the performance almost brought him to tears, but that he could easily give me a long list of reasons why it wasn't appropriate for the performance of baroque music. This troubled me so much at that time, and still feels a little counter-intuitive today. I believe that music should be a meaningful exchange of emotions, feelings, and characters above all else. My first musical memories come from hearing people sing in church. The feeling that fills your soul and softens your heart when you hear someone sing out of genuine praise or thanks is like none other. I want my performances to create this feeling in anyone who is listening. This feeling is the reason that I play music at all. If my performance moves someone to tears, I won't even remember if I missed a note or used vibrato on a note that I wasn't supposed to.

However, I think that so many musicians (especially music students) feel that their feelings shouldn't matter because their teacher is the one who should lay out their approach to performing a piece. It's so easy to lose one's self-confidence when you are told as a student that your ideas are wrong that and that in order to be a good student, you should do as you are told by your teacher. I know that constantly hearing feedback on my juries, recital hearings, recitals, and other performances can make me feel like I literally didn't do anything right but play the correct notes (and sometimes not even that). I understand that every performance is a learning experience, but I've never once gotten a comment back discussing if my performance was emotionally relevant. I've never been critiqued on whether my performance created a sense of timelessness in which the listener was properly prepared to experience the piece before even starting. In my experience, a performance can be made or broken by how you let the sound clear in the room after your last note, or whether a listener can tell that you are engaging with a piece on a personal level. I think that understanding how to successfully engage with an audience as a musician and performer should be viewed as even more important than whether your tone is spreading in the upper register, or if you didn't put a tenuto on the note that you were asked to in your last lesson.

It seems to me that the lack of emotional connection while performing classical music may be a primary reason that it is not as popular with contemporary audiences. This music doesn't use electronic sounds, or have a heavy beat that you can jam to, so audiences and listeners are able to understand that this music can still have the power to give you an emotional reaction when you listen to it! Just the other day, someone casually stated that the audience for my music probably consists of "other saxophonists and old people." I was initially slightly offended, until I realized that they were totally right. The saxophonists listen because they already love the instrument and the repertoire, and many older people just describe the music as "pretty and relaxing." In my dreams, I saw my audiences consisting of people of all ages and backgrounds. In my reality, this is not so. 

This leaves me with a few questions to ponder.  What do we have to do to make classical music relevant, or is it truly dying? I'm not talking about dressing it up with fancy spectacles that can appeal to our ever-shortening attention spans...I want to know if my dreams are worth while! What will bring a 35 year old male, for example, to a performance for the pure sake of personal enjoyment?

Maybe we don't have to change the music or add a gimmick...perhaps we have to overwhelm the world with the humanistic sincerity of an emotionally charged performance, instead of one that would simply get an A+ at a recital hearing at a conservatory. Perhaps we can get carried away every once in a while. Perfection does not mirror the human experience. Struggle, triumph, depression, joy, awkwardness, and kindness (allowing with countless others) are elements of real life that music can tap into. If we put our humanity before our pedagogical suggestions, maybe we can actually give an everyday listener something to truly enjoy and relate to.

I know that this isn't an easy thing to do for us trained classical musicians, because we feel that we have to gain and maintain the respect of our colleagues. To be honest, I don't even know if I have the courage to let go of all the rules and regulations of music that I have learned over the years. I have struggled so much in the past few years, because I don't feel that I can ever present an interpretation of a piece that would please other saxophonists and classical musicians, much less a panel of judges. When I play from my heart, I'm described as underdeveloped and indulgent. When I play with the "rules" in mind and fully base decisions based on logic and intellect, I'm described as a boring and safe player. So what do we do? I still don't know how to please everybody, but perhaps I am focused too much on pleasing other musicians than inspiring the general public by using the power of music to express emotion and spread love and joy. Maybe then I will be able to use my knowledge of music and technical abilities to create opportunities that reach beyond the boundaries that the classical music society has confined itself to. Perhaps then I can truly turn my dreams into reality. 

I know that these ideas are all easier said than done, but I truly believe that they would  be better done than just said. I'd love hear all of your thoughts on this issue, because I think it is an important one!