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Going To Extremes

A lot of talented musicians like to show off their technical skills, and sometimes it’s annoying. There’s the jazz tenor saxophonist who won’t stop after 10 choruses, the lead guitarist who has never heard the expression “less is more.”

A musician’s ego can get the best of them. “Higher, faster, louder” is sometimes the quickest way to kill the mood.

But I think there is a place for virtuosity. People have a basic desire to see other people take risks. Listening to something that’s difficult to play has a certain excitement akin to auto racing-- the knowledge that a slight mistake can lead to a fiery crash. That kind of fun is found in music purposefully written to be hard. The thread of athleticism in Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto, Mozart’s "Queen of the Night" aria, and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” moves parallel to their emotional meaning and makes the performance more rare and poignant.

Here’s where real-time experience is so much better than any reproduction. The safety of recorded music edits out the death-defying nature of a live performance, to the detriment of the experience. The rapt concentration, the body contortions and the drip of nervous sweat at the end of a concert performer’s nose are visceral reminders to the audience that they’re witnessing something real, fleeting and dangerous.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.