Friday, February 13, 2015


People who are new to or unfamiliar with classical music are often perplexed about the fact that the same pieces of music sounds differently when played by different musicians. It would seem that playing the same notes in the same rhythm should produce identical sounds, unlike jazz, where the notes themselves may be changed by the musicians' improvisation. However, most of you reading this will know that this is far from the case. Just a few factors that make the differences from one performer to another are tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and touch, as applied to the whole piece or any given section.

Tempo (speed) and dynamics (loud vs. soft and all the gradations between) are fairly self-explanatory. Phrasing and touch are not so obvious. Phrasing could be thought of as the same way you might speak: where you put commas or periods, where you breathe or pause between sentence clauses; how you inflect it (whether your voice goes up or down; which words, if any, you emphasize with an accent or stress); and nuances of timing (lingering briefly on a word or speeding up on others); in other words, how you "shape" your phrase or sentence. Touch could be described as a quality of the tones, whether sharp and crisp, smooth and connected, for two examples.

If we don't use these tools, our rendition of the piece of music will sound stiff and mechanical, which is, in fact, the very sound often associated with a beginner or someone who has no emotional connection to the music. But even a moderately experienced player will use these tools to some extent in their playing.

The question is how to decide if, when, and how to use the tools. And a deeper question is: who, or what inside us, is actually doing the "deciding...."

Many people will begin a new piece (let's just say a big piece, such as a Beethoven Sonata) and try to develop/decide their "concept" of it. What is the composer trying to say, they may ask themselves? Is there a story behind the piece, are there certain emotions the composer is trying to evoke, and other questions such as these. Once they decide their "concept," they may use that to decide on specifics as those mentioned: tempos, dynamics, etc.
Or so they THINK.....

To me, this approach completely misses the point. Victor Hugo said "Music expresses what words cannot, and what cannot remain silent."  Music reaches so deep into our souls that it goes beyond what words and ideas can express. To me, to try to decide cerebrally what a piece of music is about is as bizarre and trying to decide what a mountain is "about." We may know what geological process created the mountain, but this is not what makes the sight of it beautiful to us, or makes it fill us with awe and inspiration.

Where does that leave us? We can't just play mechanically, but perhaps we can't really "decide" on our interpretation of the piece. What I propose is that it's something quite different: our bodies (how we move) and our "ears" (how we hear) decide for us.

Here's an example: when a 5-year-old beginning piano student plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," he or she most likely plays it very stiffly, with no nuance or phrasing, in other words, what we might call "unmusically." Yet to the ears of that 5-year old, it sounds perfectly normal, even great! He or she cannot tell it is unmusical. Why? Because their ears have not been trained yet to hear the difference between smooth and clunky. Equally as important, their bodies (in particular their hands and arms) cannot yet feel the difference between smooth and clunky. If they have a good teacher (!), they will gradually learn to tell the difference, and will begin to play differently, more musically. (Some never do learn that and eventually quit playing the piano.) The key point here is that both the body and ear have to be exposed to new sensations, new movements, and new subtleties of sound, so as to be able to tell the difference. (I should mention that there are those amazing prodigies, who, even at a young age, seem to "get" music to such a degree that they play musically very early on, but these are still rare exceptions in the world as a whole. We have no way to explain how they seem to be "musically mature" without a great deal of experience.)

Whether thinking about the 5-year-old or the experienced and talented professional, I believe it is our bodies and ears that decide our interpretation for us. A brilliant "concept" of a piece will not help you if you move in a jerky or clumsy way. You will not achieve the interpretation you desire if you don't have the physical tools to create it. You also cannot manifest your concept if your ears are not fine-tuned enough to hear differences and subtleties of tone, touch, and phrasing. You may think you are "the decider," but in the actual moment of playing, your body and your ear take over.

Here is the point which I want to stress and which I believe is quite revolutionary: we "hear" the way we play, and we play the way we "hear." If you hear music in a note-wise, mechanical way,you will play that way, and if you play note-wise and mechanically, your ears will be continually exposed to that sound. The body and the ear respond to each other. It can be a vicious cycle, unless there is intervention (yes, a good teacher) who helps break the cycle. In my teaching I approach it from both the physical and the ear standpoints, but I find it is easier to start with the physical. I have specially designed work on physical movements, or technique, which gives the student a different physical experience. Once they have absorbed that experience and can duplicate it on their own, they will want to play that way, because it is more pleasurable and just feels more "right." Then they notice how it also sounds better. The ears now want to hear that more pleasing sound, so the body responds by trying to produce it. And so a new much better cycle is created, and progress is made.

The body and the ear are inextricably linked for the musician. You cannot, or at least should not, develop one without the other. This is why you should never play mechanical exercises, or play without 100% emotional involvement and listening. If your technique advances past the level of your ear, you may be dazzling in that way, but the playing will sound hollow and will not move your listeners. If your ear develops but your technique does not, you will not be able to produce the sounds you may hear in your head.

If you achieve a high level of mastery in your body and your ear, you are now free to respond, emotionally, to the beauty of the music. You do not force your interpretation on the music, you allow the music to come though you. Each performance is a creative act as you respond to what you are hearing. You let the beauty of the music wash over you and through you. You let your body take over and you are just the listener.

The music is already beautiful; you don't have to "do" anything to it to make it beautiful. You just have to get out of the way.

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