Judy Tarling: The art of delivery

by Minji Kim

Judy Tarling. PHOTO: Minji Kim
Editor's note: Judy Tarling, a violinist focused on Baroque music, presented a master class to Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra on November 15, 2010. The event was co-presented at Memorial Church by HBCO and the Office for the Arts Learning from Performers program. While at Harvard, Tarling also coached the cast and musicians involved in the Harvard Early Music Society production of "Les Plaisirs de la Paix," which was performed December 9-11, 2010 at the New College Theatre. Harvard Arts Beat blogger Minji Kim, who has an interest in all things "early," caught up with Tarling to talk about music, rhetoric and the art of delivery.

Many musicians use the metaphor of "speaking" through music when talking about performance, but Judy Tarling actually dissects, studies and relies on techniques of speech when she plays her violin. Instead of viewing speech and music as analogous comparisons, Tarling, a renowned Baroque violinist, uses her music as a case study for the dramatic effects of the application of rhetoric. Music is a real language for Tarling, and she treats it as such.

In the late '70s, when early music was not a major field of study, Tarling was one of the few who sought to specialize in Baroque based on her own initiative and her fascination with the teachings of Cicero and Quintilian. It wouldn’t be until the '80s that historical music would become a serious field of academic scholarship, but Tarling saw a major opportunity to fuse her two passions and create a practical application for rhetoric theory other than speech.

"The academics love rhetoric, but hardly anybody, of course, will write about delivery, because they’re more interested in analysis and all the thinkers. Most academic writing get stuck on formal analysis, structure … but I’m not concerned with all that as long as I understand it, since it’s already written for me," Tarling said. "I have to understand the connection between that and delivery. Because even if you understand structure, how do you get that over to the audience?"

Through variations of motifs, subtle inflections in the notes and avoiding evenness at all costs, Tarling strives to "affect" her audience, constantly refreshing the dynamism of her music so that the audience experiences a different mood at each moment. Music, after all, can express mood powerfully, uncluttered by the standardized definitions of words one deals with when communicating language.

Rhetoric, for Tarling, is more than just a set of technical guidelines or premise for musical study. The veteran musician, who has been playing in a professional orchestra for more than four decades, gives credit to learning rhetoric for dodging stage fright and acquiring the confidence to play effectively for an audience. Learning the technique and the musicality of the concertos and symphonies has not only taught Tarling the art of delivery, but also the art of composure.

"I used to get very very nervous. But studying rhetoric actually helped that. It’s very interesting—Cicero talks about the difference between sitting at home practicing, and walking out into the glare of the audience. And he says well, what you did at home then feels so different when you do it in front of an audience," Tarling said. "Now I relish performing much much more, and I’m more confident of what I’m doing, much more controlled … I’m not a superstar or anything, but I think it’s really upped my game on the platform. I felt it coming back from the audience, a real difference in the way I played. I think any performer will benefit from rhetoric. It makes you convinced of your own performance."

The one thing Tarling laments with regards to such performances is the inability to share and discuss the music with the audience, for whom she has crafted such rhetorical delivery. The rush of life on tour unfortunately inhibits the interaction between performer and audience, and Tarling craves moments of pause to discuss the musical elements she has incorporated into the performance.

"I’ve done loads of American tours with groups. I hate when you fly in, you crash through Beethoven’s symphony for two hours, and you fly out again. You don’t meet anybody," said Tarling. "Maybe going out to the concert hall, you might hear people talking about it, like ‘Oh, I was really shocked by that tempo,’ and you want to talk to them, but you can’t, you’ve got to get on the bus or something. It’s such a waste for these musicians to go traveling around the globe, and not connect with the people they play to."

Tarling is constantly thinking about how to improve and incorporate fully the philosophies of rhetoric that she has studied for so long. Ironically, Tarling thinks about rhetoric and listens to speech radio more than she ponders or listens to music. And as if fusing rhetoric with music wasn’t enough of an artistic innovation, Tarling is currently delving into the rhetoric of the garden. She will be giving a lecture on 18th century garden rhetoric in England next year.