Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sound and Theory: Vive la Difference!

This morning I had occasion yet again to taste the difference between sound processed directly and sound explained a priori by theoretical concepts.  My student hears without conceptual interference; I hear always with conceptual interference.  The difference is revealing.

The reason to hear with theoretical concepts interceding is that it saves time.  But note that the time saved is superficial time, inconsequential in the grander scheme of things.

And what is that grander scheme?  Attentiveness.

The music in question was a Bartok setting of a folk song from For Children, the two brilliant volumes he made for his sons.  This is Bartok at his very best, with every detail directed specifically to developing ears of the deepest love and affection as opposed to an anonymous public clamoring for more, more: more notes, more speed, more bravura.

Every connection, every note put in or left out became a moment of deepest intention on the part of all three of us:  the student, myself, and Bartok.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Blog Reader Has Made My Day - Thank you!

A faithful reader of this blog did me and it a tremendous service this morning by sending me an email with a question about a Mozart string quartet. 

Many subjects ran concurrently in the question: Why hate Mozart?  Are you worth listening to?  And more, which I try to elucidate, though that is not simple.

The reader is a lifelong aficionado of chamber music and plays both violin and viola extremely well.  Wherever she goes - and she has traveled and lived, it is safe to say, both far and wide - she has brought her instruments with her and disseminated her love of playing music with people of all ages and descriptions.  It would be impossible to pay her greater tribute. 

Now she asks whether some of the musical references she suspects are lurking within the Mozart A major quartet are really there.  If she finds them then they are surely there.  She would like me to back her up in this.  But I, for sure, will not find them by looking at the score, for they can be found only by listening.  I do not know how to read that way, having realized that such spontaneous in-depth listening is not accessible to me by reading the notes.

My suggestion to her has to do with making her colleagues listen as she brings out the references she detects.  Perhaps they exist in her part only: Mozart famously played any one of the three upper voices in his quartets, so he was liable to hide anything at all in any one of them.  You may be sure that whichever part he played his fellow quarteters would be paying attention to his articulations, to his pronunciation of this or that phrase.  He would surely have played so that they had little choice but to pay attention. 

These are the very things that, unrecognized, are glossed over by "correct" interpretations, in which homogeneity rules, rather than playful interchange between parts whose proper enunciation require four passionate personalities, inviting, commanding one another's attention.

Are You Worth Being Listened To?

It is usually with some embarrassment that people tell me, as many do, that they "took piano lessons for a while."  What is the source of their embarrassment?  Impossible to tell, for sure.  But I have the feeling that some, if not most of that emotion comes from their recalled feelings of combined inadequacy and non-comprehension.

Inadequacy is the main lesson taught by the teacher's constant insistence that every note be correct and played on time:  This impossible and meaningless standard will certainly foster feelings of inadequacy on the part of the student, particularly if gifted or intelligent.

Non-comprehension is fostered by the lack of vocabulary in which to frame questions, and there are many questions.  Why do I have to practice such boring music?  Are technical exercises really that important when I hate them so much?  How can Mozart be so famous when I find nothing of interest in this sonata?

In teaching/learning situations like those I evoke above, the one thing the teacher is not doing is listening to you.  If the teacher heard your boredom the teacher would surely address it, enlighten your ear and your mind, teach you about the wonders of the hand and fingers, reveal how much more there is to music than what is printed on the page.

But teachers are not encouraged to listen to what you bring to your playing.  They know how to listen for the finished product and when that is not there they know how to make you feel inadequate.

Everyone's loss.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Too Much Text

An art historian friend tells me of the trend in art museums not to have "program notes" next to the art works; nobody looks at the art, they just read the text and think they have had the experience they paid for.

Or perhaps they click the camera in their phone.

Well, so I'm part of a trend.  A bas the written barrier.  Turn on the eyes and turn on the ears.  Indulge the senses; get back to the reason why the stuff exists in the first place:  as a sign of life for the creator, the performer, the beholder.

Nothing short of wow. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Not to Hate Mozart

I know so many people who do hate Mozart - who feel, as someone once put it, "Mozarted to death."

This has to have happened because his music all adds up -- at least, most of it does -- to the right number of beats per bar, and is characterized by a lot of solid musical syntax that puts a lot of it within the playable range of children, amateurs, and professionals who can't be bothered with their own boredom, in other words, they can't take a hint.

Their boredom should be the clue that indicates the presence of something beyond the printed page.

Today I had a wonderful chat with a Mozart hater.  During his many years of music training and exposure no one ever told him that within Mozart's music are hidden, sometimes thinly, sometimes deeply disguised, references to a universe of musics: street music, Renaissance counterpoint, Baroque dances, even speech.  To make the puzzle even more intriguing, Mozart had a way of switching from one hidden reference to another with no pause, no preparation: catch it if you can.  (Errol Garner's allusion-rich jazz piano playing comes to mind.)  A player must be on the alert so as not to miss the crossovers and must take the chance that, though this will not be the usual packaged-in-the-factory variety of Mozart it just might prove compelling.

Worth a try, don't you think?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Program Composition by Free Association

There used to be a standard way of putting recital programs together: One started with the earlier music, almost always of the Classical period, working one's way forward in time and upward in difficulty, ending with some virtuosic number to get everyone excited enough to demand an encore.

I long realized that to me this is counter-intuitive.  Why not start with the music of one's own time and work backwards so as to enlighten the music of the past with the ear of the present, so to speak.  Nobody who every wrote music did it in a vacuum, or out of a textbook; so why listen that way?

Now I will be programming based on my own ear working its way from period to period, starting wherever it will and ending however it ends.

Engage the audience in the process.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Habit Hits Happening

Emphasizing technique* in piano study is closely related to the sort of  conditioning produced by constant re-listening to the same recorded performance of a piece of music.  After a repetition or two most people stop listening, unless they are listening for specific details or with an agenda that requires repeated hearing.

But for most people repetition is a turnoff of real attentiveness.

So what happens when you are in the same room with a live performance of, to pick one of my favorite over-heards, Fuer Elise?  I get a great kick out of playing such pieces imagining Beethoven is right there, making it up as he goes along.  Just how far apart are those first two notes: in terms of tonal weight? in terms of timing?

Wait 'til you hear it!

*Every time I think of piano technique I am reminded of what Busoni said about teaching it:  To paraphrase: Technical exercises should be assigned the way doctors prescribe toxic medicines.