interpretation

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, […]

Making the Well-Known Our Own

This week’s guest blog post features an article on how to approach interpretation of well-known works by Ken Johansen, author of the From the Ground Up series. In this post, Ken shares his thoughts on preparing a new edition for his series featuring Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 (please see further information at the end of this post) and provides some suggestions as to how one can develop a personal interpretation of popular works. *** *** *** Making the Well-Known Our Own Thoughts on Learning Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Why do certain piano pieces become so well known? A catchy title seems to help, whether given by the composer or not. One thinks immediately of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. In addition, these popular pieces combine high musical quality, compelling emotional content, and technical approachability. And of course, the more they are performed and recorded, the more other people hear them and want to play them, making them still more popular. Playing a popular piece of music brings a certain pleasure, like visiting a monument we’ve seen countless pictures of (the Eiffel Tower, the Little Mermaid). We already have an emotional connection to the piece, and our aural familiarity with it gives us easier access to it. But familiarity also poses challenges. It’s difficult to explore a score with fresh eyes and ears when we’ve already heard others play it countless times. Rather than searching for our own understanding of the music, we may subconsciously be trying to recreate a recording we admire. These thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing an edition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 for my series, From the Ground Up. […]

Look, No Feet!

People think in terms of pianists’ fingers – not their feet – but a direct line of communication from our ear to our right foot is an absolute necessity and there’s no doubt that fancy footwork is an integral part of our technique. I once witnessed a masterclass given by an expert in contemporary music where the sostenuto (middle) pedal was in constant use, and occasionally controlled by a left foot that was operating the left (una corda) pedal at the same time. When the right foot wasn’t busy with the right (sustaining) pedal it too took turns on the middle pedal. In my previous post on pedalling, The Dance of the Dampers, I discussed partial pedalling and the imprecise nature of pedal marks we usually find in the score. How can we possibly notate pedalling when it will vary from player to player, from piano to piano and from one room or performance space to another? Many composers and editors of piano music have felt it necessary or helpful to add pedal markings, but I would not recommend slavish adherence to these. One of the most confusing and irritating pedal notations is the abbreviation “Ped” with a star mark * indicating the release. The placement of the * mark is very often so imprecise as to be plainly wrong – lifting at the * and then waiting for the next “Ped” to put it down again would leave a gap. While this sort of disjointed pedalling was more common in the nineteenth century, we don’t tend to do much of it nowadays. I doubt that the composer actually meant this most of the time anyway and I advise players to use their discretion when figuring […]

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 […]

The Myth of the Easy Piece

Very often people tell me as they skim through a score “I don’t really need to practise this bit because it’s easy”. I also hear “I totally messed that bit up, and yet it’s so simple!”. While the notes themselves may be readable at sight and present no apparent technical difficulties, I don’t believe there is any such thing as an easy piece – when it comes to performance.  We soon realise this when we take this so-called easy piece into a performance situation and suddenly it is not such plain sailing. All the same prerequisites of performance apply to this piece as to the next piece – communicating the musical message, playing with rhythmical awareness, quality of sound and phrasing, and good tonal balance between the hands. Let’s look at an example from Mozart’s C minor Concerto, K.491 – a small phrase from the Larghetto (solo piano part is on the upper systems):   Any self-respecting relative beginner would be able to read the notes of this passage, they are simplicity itself. And yet to create the right sound and mood with just these few notes, to feel the phrase gradually gaining in intensity until it flowers in the last bar without overdoing it – these things are far from easy and take quite a bit of judgment and control. In the hands of a great artist this passage sounds sublime, as it should. During the Mozart year in 2006 I played a solo programme consisting of some sonatas, variations and a selection of baby pieces (assorted Klavierstücke, some of which are suitable for elementary players). I did this not only to give the programme a bit of lightness, but also to show that these small pieces […]

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 […]

Marking the Score

The other day I opened up a working score of the Frank Bridge Sonata I inherited from one of my teachers, Peter Wallfisch, and was struck by all the markings he had added. Some of these make obvious sense, performance directions such as “rall”, “late” and “canto”. Another word – “spell” – presumably means either that each note needed a certain clarity or that there was some magical atmosphere he wanted to create. There are copious fingerings, as well as more arcane squiggles in at least three different colour crayons that he obviously needed for personal reasons but which make little sense to the casual observer. I had to smile, as I suddenly remembered a word Peter had written in the last movement of my score of the Chopin op. 35 Sonata. It was totally illegible to me for many years. Each time I played the sonata I would stare at this word trying to decipher the scrawl, but I could never make out what it was. And then one day – eureka, I finally saw it. “Hallucinatory” was what he had written! My last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, almost never wrote anything in my score. A student of Neuhaus, she had inherited an opposite tradition. If something was important enough it would resonate deeply within you and no markings were necessary. Fingering For me, working out a fingering that suits my hand is absolutely essential.  I am a stickler for fingering as I know that with regular repetition, the muscular movements become reflex. This bypasses the need for conscious thought about what note or what finger comes next, freeing the mind to focus on the musical intent. Fingerings that appear in editions are generic, designed to suit […]

Feeling an Interpretation

I would like to throw out some ideas that might help develop an interpretation during practising, always keeping in mind that the process of practising should move us ever nearer to our ideal of what the music means and how it should sound. Digital or muscular practice is inextricably linked with developing what Heinrich Neuhaus calls the “artistic image”, namely the message of the music as we see it. In a word, our interpretation! As a student, I noticed that my technical ability with a piece was in direct proportion to the sharpness of my artistic image, and conversely if I wasn’t sure about the tempo, character, moods and so on, then I seemed to struggle physically with it. I recall a class on scales I gave many years ago (not my idea – I was invited!) where a girl was really having difficulties. All the classic mistakes were present, and in the short time I had with her, I wondered how to make best use of this opportunity. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s Third Concerto, and she said she did. I then asked her to imagine the beginning of it and then to play a scale of C minor in the style of this concerto when she had this clearly in her mind. I’ll never forget the reaction on her face (and in the room) when she played the scale in this way. She was no longer self conscious of what she was supposed to be doing with her thumbs, or where the elbows were meant to be. Rather she had a sound and a feeling in her head, and this was strong enough to command her physical apparatus to produce this. Now, […]

The Baroque Urtext Score: A User’s Guide (Part The First)

PART ONE: GENERAL Further to last week’s post about taking ownership, I thought I might say a few words about this in relation to Urtext scores – of  Bach in particular. Personally, I wouldn’t want to play Bach in a romantic way, but I can appreciate, respect and even enjoy performances in this style, where the pianist is totally committed to it. You only have to listen to iconoclastic Bach players such as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck and Andras Schiff to hear that there are very many different approaches, all of them valid. It’s about taking ownership and believing in what you are doing. But may we take the absence of performance directions in a score of Bach as carte blanche to do what we want, or are there rules? If so, where do we find them? While some of the answers are indeed implied by clues in the score and others by performance tradition, a lot of the choices are indeed at the discretion of the performer. THE ULTIMATE INTENTION OF ALL NOTATIONAL DETAILS IS TO REDUCE THE PERFORMER’S CHOICE. (Graham Fitch: http://grahamfitch.com/articles.htm#4) From the time of Beethoven onwards, the performer’s choices are much more restricted because the composer’s instructions as to speed, character, articulation and dynamics are usually extremely explicit. So how do we decide what to do with an Urtext edition of Bach where all we see are the notes? What sort of articulations and phrasings ought we to use, how do we decide the dynamics, the tempo and general character? How comforting it must have been for our pianistic forebears to open the Czerny, Selva or Busoni editions (amongst many others) and find answers to all these questions, little realising – probably simply trusting – that […]

By |October 23rd, 2011|Practising|1 Comment

Taking Ownership

Some years ago, Dame Fanny Waterman gave a masterclass for the BBC (Beethoven Sonata, op. 2 no. 2 , I think it was) and had made some suggestions to the student who then proceeded to play it back, respectfully verbatim. Dame Fanny likened this to loaning the student a dress for a party, but that to prevent it from looking borrowed or passed on, the student would need to add a brooch, a belt or some other accessory to make it her own. The lesson, of course, being that aping someone else’s playing or ideas won’t end up sounding authentic no matter how well you do it. The first stage of taking ownership of a piece of music is to process all the information from the composer’s score. This is the explicit instruction (notes, rhythm, tempo modifiers, articulations, character descriptions, dynamic markings, etc.) as well as the implicit. Examples of the latter might be the implication of più forte when the composer doubles in octaves a bass line previously written in single notes, or diminuendo when the texture thins out. It may take a while to understand the meaning behind all this so that we come up with our own understanding of the composer’s message, but digest it we must. (Implicit directions are much more significant in baroque music, say, when the composer’s score is devoid of much else, but that’s probably a subject for another post.) I am sure we have all heard performances where all the notes were there, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but you weren’t moved or stirred. There is nothing worse than a safe, boring, non-committal, grey, correct performance and obeying the composer’s instructions is only the first step – […]

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