Travis Stimeling on “Musical Virtuosity”

This week Travis Stimeling takes on the idea of the “genius” performer: the virtuoso. What gives certain performers that extra spark? What separates “them” from “us”? What kind of a relationship with an audience can a virtuoso hope for? Once again I feel a special kinship with something Travis has written: I wrote my (not-very-good-but-earnest) undergraduate thesis about Franz Liszt, a 19th-century composer-performer who wowed audiences with his otherworldly skills. He was the consummate virtuoso, the “rock god” of his day.

Here’s a teaser: “When I was in my late teens and early twenties and was aspiring to a career as a professional musician, I surrounded myself with as many examples of excellent playing as possible. This meant that I sought out recordings of musicians who challenged the boundaries of their instruments and their own bodies, performing at extreme tempi, dynamics, and ranges. As I listened to musicians such as trombonists Joe Alessi and Christian Lindberg and euphonium players such as Robert Childs, I found myself simultaneously inspired by their talents and frustrated by my inability to come close to the standards they set, even as I was learning the same repertoire that they had helped to make famous. Rather than seeing their work as the product of years of practice (in some cases, more years than I had been alive), I began to believe these musicians were superhuman. I spoke of their work in hushed tones to sympathetic peers, but I found myself increasingly discouraged, all that practice time yielding the musicality of a mere mortal.”

What happened next? You can read the entire essay here. And if you are feeling ambitious, take a(nother) look at Sara Haefeli’s essay “The Problem with Geniuses.” We’ve got a great conversation going on here about music and the boundlessness of human creativity. Join us!

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