Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Hear First; Then Play"

Thus did Artur Schnabel sum up the art of playing the piano.  I used to wonder what he meant:  what exactly was one supposed to hear?  You might say that my musical life has been a pursuit of the answer to that question.

It begins with listening to the instrument--to every particular piano that we play, not to a generic non-existent Platonic piano.  Ideally this begins with earliest exposure to the piano.  Properly nurtured it can lead to depths of insight into the greatest compositions written for the instrument.  Proper nurturing means avoiding theoretical notions until the student is more confident of what he/she hears than of what is printed on the page.  Too much theory is based on visual identification.  Here are two examples of what I mean, both as it happens, concerning Beethoven.

The boy of eleven reacting to an unusually widely spaced harmony in the F major Sonatina: "It looks like an F major triad in root position but it certainly does not sound like one!"

The girl of seventeen reacting to her very first reading of the G minor Sonata:  "It is strange: It looks like it is in G minor but it is not convincingly minor."

Such observations expose a critical flaw in my education: I read the score, identify the harmonies, then try to make the music conform to my notion of the sound, rather than respond directly to the sound itself.