expression

Where Do We Find Musical Expression?

This week’s guest blog post features an article on finding musical expression when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken suggests practise methods using examples from various pieces featured within his From the Ground Up series to help you discover an interpretation for yourself from the inside rather than relying on external instructions. *** *** *** Where Do We Find Musical Expression? Some years ago, I took a class and several individual lessons in the Feldenkrais Method, a technique developed to improve physical functioning by imparting an awareness of how we habitually use our bodies. In this training, the instructor doesn’t issue prescriptive instructions (“keep your back straight,” “don’t let your shoulders sag,” etc.). Instead, she guides the students through simple movements and exercises that allow them to experience new sensations. Simply by being consciously aware of these sensations, the students re-program their own brains to learn new, healthier movements and habits. It immediately struck me that this kind of instruction, in which the teacher is more of a facilitator who creates conditions that allow students to make their own discoveries, rather than a master who dictates the “correct” way of doing something, was of great relevance to music teaching. So much music teaching relies on correcting mistakes (“your left hand is too loud,” “don’t accent that note”) and giving instructions (“make a diminuendo here,” “slow down there”). What if, instead of correcting mistakes, teachers could help their students to discover the logical, natural expression of a piece from the beginning? Perhaps instead of just giving students instructions about how something should sound, we could devise exercises that would help them to experience the music directly and develop their own responses to it. Why, one might ask, […]

Our Inner Conductor

In some Romantic music it may be appropriate to change tempo slightly when the musical idea changes, even if this is not specified in the score. This is just one of many personal freedoms that is part of Romantic style. However, in a Classical sonata we need to be able to contain the various different musical ideas in a movement more or less within one basic tempo – contrast within a unified tempo is what helps everything hang together. Quality of Beat I am no conductor, but when I wave my arms around in a lesson I feel that the energy of the beats varies from one section of the music to another, even though the tempo may stay exactly the same. The beat may have a strong, explosive attack which I show with a snap of the wrist. If this needs to happen at the piano or pianissimo level, I might make the movements quite small and high up. If the beats blend into one another smoothly, I might show this with more circular motions or even a figure of eight. The tempo stays the same but the energy and quality of the beat can change markedly within that tempo. This is often what happens in a Classical sonata first movement – the first subject may be extrovert and the second subject more expressive and intimate. As players respond to the different musical material, they often seem to change tempo without even realising. This is obviously an issue that needs our attention. Our Inner Conductor Of course we can use the metronome to stabilise the beat as we practise, this is such a tried and tested way of doing things that I am not going to dwell […]

Making Scales Sound and Feel Good

Some years ago I was invited to give a class on scales and arpeggios for a piano teachers’ association. There was one advancing student who was really struggling with them – everything was faulty and she could barely manage to get through. I only had a brief time with her, and I decided not to spend too long trying to correct the technical faults because they were just too numerous. Besides, I knew her teacher had already shown her what needed to be done. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and she said she did. I then invited her to imagine the piano entry in the first movement and, when she was ready, to play a scale of C minor in that style. To everyone’s surprise (including her own), she played the scale flawlessly. Instead of trying to remember what her elbows and her thumbs ought to be doing, she had an artistic goal in mind before she played – a definite mood and character. This is what enabled her to forget about the “how” and instead focus her mind on achieving her musical intention. This is how it is when we play real music; we can’t be thinking about the means in performance. Scales are not music of course, but we can still imbue them with character and imagination.   Styles When playing a scale, rather than simply thinking of the note patterns of that particular scale, have a style or character in mind. Here are some examples useful at a more advanced level (there are loads more you can come up with). Take a moment or two before you play to get in character: E major in the style of […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 2)

One of the things that really gets my goat is the totally erroneous statement that the harpsichord is incapable of expression. Many famous and influential pianists who should know better regularly fall into this trap. We need to remember that the harpsichord from the High Baroque was a fully developed and mature instrument, perfect for the music written for it. In order to play expressively on the harpsichord, it is necessary to have a highly developed sense of touch. Harpsichord players make a slight articulation before a note to give it an accent, or they might delay it or hold onto it a little longer. In an expressively slurred pair of notes, the player overlaps the two notes by holding onto the first until just after playing the second note – this overlap masks the attack of the second note, thus making it sound softer. You really can create the impression of strong-weak in a slur, especially if you let go of the second note early. Sensitive under- and overlapping of notes combined with skilful timings cause the playing to sound musical and expressive. This is but illusion, I hear you say! I suggest that making an actual honest-to-goodness crescendo in a melodic line on the piano also relies on illusion, since the individual tones begin to decay the moment they have been sounded. We achieve a crescendo by artfully blending the end of one sound into the beginning of the next. Pianists spend most of our lives attempting to make a percussion instrument sing. As a youngster, I was fascinated by the hybrid harpsichords made by Pleyel, Goble and others, with their array of pedals. Here is the inimitable and great Wanda Landowska playing Bach […]

Freedom in Interpretation

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”. Peter Kivy, Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197. The other day an adult student came for a lesson on the E major Mendelssohn sonata. As he was playing, I was struck by how vibrant and communicative the playing was, except for one small section which felt grey and unconvincing. When I brought this up, he smiled. Apparently another teacher a while ago had told him how that passage should go. As he was explaining all this, I was struck how what this other teacher said was just an opinion – nothing more. There were no indications or directions from the composer to this effect , this teacher had given him an interpretation of the passage that was hers. The trouble was, it just didn’t work for him – he hadn’t managed to make it his own which is why that place in the music didn’t make any sense. There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience. Love them or hate […]

Keep Calm and Carry On Practising

When I was on the selection committee for the 11th Unisa International Piano Competition, we listened to two solid days of audio recordings, one after the other. Our selection of those pianists who would go forward into the competition was made purely by listening – we weren’t given their names, ages or any other information about the entrants, they had to make their impression on us solely by the sounds they made. There are viral performance on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are (all) destined to be the next Horowitz. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen. Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here. In my adjudication work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing – having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical […]

On Attitude & Gesture

Some years ago, I had the privilege of sitting in on some lessons taught by a colleague who specialised in teaching talented youngsters. Because she also had a background in dance, she managed to bring to each lesson some of the qualities of a classical ballet class where every gesture counted and no sloppiness of any kind was permitted, ever. The lesson began when the child walked into the room. Formalised greetings were exchanged, and there was a tangible sense of occasion in each lesson which bordered on the ceremonial. There was certainly a feeling of  specialness and magic about it all. Nothing was routine about the lesson, everything was focussed on the meaningfulness of every sound and gesture, and the beauty of what was being engaged in – music as art and self-expression. I am certain this attitude of mindfulness and respect in the learning environment has a knock-on effect in the day-to-day practising of the student. Young pianists brought up in such a way learn to love and respect music – doodling at the piano or hacking away at a passage during practice would be as foreign as a slouched seating position. GESTURE Gesture is defined as the movement of part of the body, especially the hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. We all know that gesture is vital to piano playing – our gestures at the keyboard are translated immediately into sound. If we use smooth and flowing movements, we get a smooth and flowing sound. An actor friend uses the gestures and body language associated with a particular state of mind or emotion to get into character, to evoke a particular emotion and then to communicate this. Lang […]

By |November 17th, 2012|Performing|5 Comments

The Monkey And The Typewriter

If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? This favourite question of barstool philosophers seems relevant to us pianists when it comes to why we do what we do as we practise. Eavesdropping outside practice rooms (as I have been known to do), it seems that after countless repetitions an interpretation, or a solution to a problem, is supposed to emerge fully formed out of thin air. If I hack away at it for long enough, I’m bound to get there eventually… This week I was directed to a short video clip of Leon Fleisher. He is coaching a group of students, and quotes from his teacher, Artur Schnabel: “Hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident, and everything is built then on an accident.” Leon Fleisher, Carnegie Hall YouTube Channel Liszt had a similar maxim: Think Ten Times, Play Once. The problem with embracing this in our practising is the mistaken belief that unless we are moving our fingers, training muscles and making sounds, we are not really practising. In reality, thinking ten times and playing once would mean pausing regularly in our practising, awakening our imagination, inwardly hearing how we want the phrase to sound, rehearsing this in our mind until it is vivid, and only then playing. Extremely challenging, enough to try the patience of a saint, surely? As a student, I recall lessons where my teacher would talk about a passage in my piece with such incredible insight, making the character and the meaning so vivid and real to me that the penny dropped and I would replay with […]

By |September 5th, 2012|Performing|4 Comments

The Baroque Urtext Score (3): Articulation

Articulation in music is understood to mean the way notes are connected or grouped – this involves accentuation and, to some extent, rhythmic inflection. While François Couperin was an obsessive control freak in this regard, it was only from Beethoven onwards that composers routinely marked articulations into the score. Open a score of Beethoven and you will see at a glance how he wanted the music to be articulated. You will find a few dots and slurs in Bach’s keyboard music, but for the most part we have to make our own decisions. How? On what basis do we decide? I don’t think this can be done cosmetically, by which I mean I don’t think we can add slurs and staccatos willy-nilly  (“Oh, I haven’t had a staccato for a while, better stick one in on this note”). The articulation should enhance phrasing, help project rhythm and show the design features of the thematic material. The long legato line is a 19th century concept – 18th century phrasing was based more on the articulation of shorter units, at the discretion of the player. Long legato lines are just as out of place (and boring) as long staccato ones, and the still-prevalent idea that quavers in baroque music should be detached is just not correct. Now for some examples. The first is the subject from Bach’s B flat major Invention, for which I have given three possible articulations (scribbled, somewhat clumsily, one on top of the other). There will be other possibilities, but these were the first that occurred to me: I would say it is important to stick with the same articulation in the second half of the bar as you use for the first half, because the second half is an inversion of the […]

The Baroque Urtext Score (2): Dynamics

I would like to suggest some guidelines for using dynamics in the music of Bach (and others) at the piano. The only absolute rule, in my book, is to PLAY EXPRESSIVELY! When all is said and done, we are making a transcription from 18th century instruments – and 18th century ears – to 21st century ones, and I sincerely doubt that the 18th century musician felt restricted, that the answers were to be found in some dusty book. Texture The subject of dynamics in Bach playing relates to choices about the louds and softs in a score where the composer has not explicitly instructed these by way of performance directions (such as f and p, crescendo and diminuendo). We have to determine the dynamic level (and the tempo) from the general character of the music, taking into account the texture. Thick textures are strong, thin textures lighter. The opening of the C minor Partita has an implied dynamic level of forte. We would reach this conclusion even if we did not appreciate it was a French Overture (with all its associated grandeur), because of the big, thick chords and springy dotted rhythms. It would be hard to play it otherwise. Within the overall dynamic of forte, there is an implied crescendo to the second beat in bar 2, because of the structure of the phrase. Harmonically, this is the moment of greatest tension; melodically, it is the highest point (this is reinforced by the tonic pedal C in the bass). Then, allow the tension to release at the cadence on the third beat using a small hairpin diminuendo: The second section, now in two voices, is obviously intended to be softer and more melodic: The final fugue […]

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