- Charm and Speed: Virtuosity in the Performing Arts
There may be one other book on virtuosity, but nothing that approaches the depth of argument put forth by V. A. Howard in Charm and Speed. As the author states, “[t]his book offers an interpretation, analysis, and reconstruction of the concept of virtuosity which plays so prominent a role in historical, critical, and theoretical discussions of artistic performance.”1 The book is not an easy read, however, because of Howard’s customarily esoteric vocabulary. While the writing is in fine style, there are too many occasions where the reader may be hampered by having to pause to reconsider what was stated, especially in some of the longer sentences, or because a dictionary consultation is warranted.
Nevertheless, this is a must-read for voice and instrumental students and their teachers, coaches, and accompanists. Moreover, this book is a must-read for anyone working with performing artists; Howard covers the performance arts broadly, including theatre and dance as well. If you only surmise what virtuosity is, you will become intimately aware of its meaning and all its ramifications.
Its casual use suggests that virtuosity can be found everywhere, from auto mechanics to baristas and even include, as Howard describes, cheetahs on the hunt and the kill. And although the cheetah is perfectly suited to find food to feed her [End Page 101] cubs, the intentional development of techniques and a conscious plan to attack her prey is questionable; she acts out of instinct. We can admire various manifestations of excellence, but their qualities do not measure up to the characteristics of virtuosity. Excellence in execution is not by such virtue virtuosic.
The fact is performance in the arts requires a special understanding of virtuosity that must be narrowly applied under appropriate conditions. The ten chapters comprising the book deal with every facet of virtuosity in performance and clarify the issues forcefully and accurately. Charm and Speed is a brief treatise of only 134 pages, plus notes and a 3-page appendix. But in those chapters lie explanations to which most professional performers, teachers, and subsidiary personnel may need to give serious consideration. On the other end of the spectrum, for those who may require a less than keenly argued thesis, how much does one really need to know about virtuosity to enjoy fine, but lesser, performance? Some differences do need to be noted, however, and confusing virtuosity with other artistic appellations could be eliminated.
At the outset, virtuosity can easily be confused with creativity, but the latter is more general while “a judgment of virtuosity is necessarily grounded in the observables of execution.”2 Howard’s outline of the conditions of virtuosity is carried throughout the discussion. Three parts comprise any consideration: 1) the performing individual or group “inclusive of training and manifest talent,” judged by experts; 2) the domain of the performance—acting, dancing, and playing the violin—must be specified; and 3) the audience comprised of a general audience and “critics, colleagues, and institutions” must render appropriate judgment.3 Virtuosity is not a single state but requires both process and achievement.
Howard narrows his discussion on virtuosity to those in the performing arts, “to those who play instruments, or sing or act, dance or conduct,”4 with no other reason or intention but to render the artwork with unique interpretations at the highest level possible. Howard restricts discourse to allographic5 works in the Western tradition, an important distinction that I had considered questionable at first, but came to realize that virtuosity considered on a wider scale could be overly complicated. My experience with Japanese performing art, for example, would have to examine, Nô, Bunraku, Kabuki theatre, and traditional vocal and instrumental performance, among other things, all quite complex in their own right. Can a puppet in Bunraku be a virtuoso, or would it be the puppeteer? Further, Korean art forms such as pansori and African arts, where some cultures are communal rather than performed by superb practitioners, would all have to be considered. When the whole world is examined...