This document, though full of interesting things, is rather lengthy - can I suggest you print it out and then digest it. (But please respect that it is my hard work and research and inform me if you are going to use it! I wrote it for a school project a long time ago when I was 15 and didn't know what referencing was!)
What Makes a Good Performance?
What makes a composition a work of art? What is the special quality that starts a chain of inspirations that stay with the listener and stimulate creative thought of their own? A Beethoven symphony may remain popular through several centuries, fresh through thousands of performances, because its creative fire continues to kindle the imagination, to stir emotion in all of us. It is impossible to miss the spirit of genuine art. If, before an audience, we could fashion a beautiful rose, arrange each leaf and petal until it is perfect, and then make it live for an instant, it would be an unforgettable experience for all who watched. This is what must happen when we re-create music, when we make a composition live for a few minutes, for half an hour; the quality of living force must be there if our re-creation is to be meaningful.
We receive sparks of inspiration, store them carefully in our memories, and when released, they fire our own re-creative power.
Musicians can only reflect what they are (as in a mirror). However, with strong discipline, thorough training and broad and bold musical conceptions, we can capture the power to re-create. It is therefore personal factors that contribute towards a good performance as well as technical mastery of the instrument in question.
What are These Personal Factors?
According to psychologists, whatever we know and believe, we have learned through the perception of our senses. The intensity of each sense varies from person to person. Some of us are dominated by sight perception; others receive their strongest impressions through the ear or by kinaesthetic absorption.
It would appear that modern education tends to dull the subtle variety of sensory reaction that exists in every child. It may therefore be the early application of undulled sensory perception that creates a child prodigy; therefore later education can either "educate away" the child's untutored acuteness of reaction or stimulate certain traits that will develop into artistic individuality.
Many personal factors contribute to the making of an artist: a high degree of imagination, intelligence, sensitivity, flexibility; the willingness to learn from every situation, to plod doggedly even when the going gets rough; the courage of our musical convictions even when fashionable musical-opinion-makers leave us in the minority.
A musician must be a stubborn optimist who is willing to spend hours, weeks, even months on the dull problems of technique. Sometimes faith is the only thing to carry us over a veritable chasm of despair.
In a performance, the heart, mind, and hands must all work together. The heart should be filled to overflowing with wonder and beauty; the mind must learn to communicate these emotions; the hands must obediently, and under all conditions, execute the musical ideas that heart and mind command. We must be able to imagine every tone, every phrase, the whole composition as we wish it to sound and we must be able to project the piece so that the listener receives precisely the impression we wish to create.
Why Must We Practice?
We must practise in order to develop flexibility, sensitivity and maximum mastery of our instrument. Music is an integral part of living - a part of the air we breathe, a language more full of meaning than any spoken tongue. Communicative performance is the glorious beacon that can make even humdrum practising a joy!
Technical problems CAN be solved because they are controlled by the mind. Whatever the difficulty, sufficient mental effort during practise produces a satisfactory solution.
We practise to make secure what we have learnt from our surroundings i.e. teachers and emotions. The main psychological advantage of taking lessons is the stimulus from an outside source you respect, until such time as you can find the stimulus within yourself. We practise to become competent, which in turn, if we concentrate, will make us confident.
The Theories of Practising
Alfred Cortot once said, "Music is poetry. Once you have played, it's over. You can never express the same thing twice in the same way."
The first rule of practising is to 'LISTEN' (as opposed to 'hearing') and to learn from all sources with an open, investigating mind and with the determination to make a piece 'sound right' regardless of the means required to achieve this end. We must think of our instruments as part of us - an extension of our equipment to express musical thought. The audience must never be conscious of the instrument, therefore, neither should we. (We should only be conscious of the quality of sound produced.) We cannot play for an audience unless, or until, we have confidence in ourselves. (And we must practise to be confident and sure of the music.)
There are many different theories for practising. Here are the three basic rules:
(1) Concentrate for the full length of the musical line, without interruption.
(2) Determine the mood to be expressed and make every detail point towards it.
(3) Find the focal point or climax of a phrase or section in order to give direction to your musical thought.
To establish the mood of a phrase, to convey what we believe to be the precise meaning the composer wishes to express, is one of the greatest problems facing a musician and one of the most thrilling adventures in a days work. The language of music is the most eloquent of all, but it is also elusive, working by innuendo only, suggesting rather than stating, sometimes confusing us as to the composer's real intentions.
So, what can we do to establish the mood of the music? First, isolate the musical phrase, then decide what the phrase is meant to express. After deciding, experiment on your instrument until you succeed in establishing the mood musically.
You must also, at all times, give the music direction - make it 'go' somewhere. (Even if you are only practising.) A melody without direction becomes purposeless. Every sound must be beautiful. We must never forget the infinite variety of tonal shading we are able to produce, the variations of our touch. Technical exercises and studies must also sound beautiful. You must use 'crescendos' and 'diminuendos', listen to your sound, polish your tones and aim at an even quality.
Always use the imagination to help create a mood. When a musician uses their imagination, they stop playing mere notes - they make music. To create and sustain a mood is a delicate procedure - the wand that casts the spell and holds an audiences' attention. Without the 'mood', even the finest performance remains but a reproduction of notes, untouched by human warmth, that may command respect but will never capture the imagination. It is the adventure of the unknown, the vast imponderable area created by the questions whether we have chosen the right mood for our interpretation, and how we communicate it to the audience that supplies the personal touch, makes a concert interesting, exciting and alive.
Franz Liszt had a method of practising that is worth noting because it was the foundations for the revolutionary technique that established him as the "father of modern pianism". He was not yet twenty, living in Paris, when he was overawed by Paganini's phenomenal virtuosity and pledged himself to achieve on the keyboard what this man achieved on four strings. He developed his method by himself and submitted himself to a merciless drill of his fingers six hours a day:
Scales in octaves for two hours to make his fingers both strong and supple; he lifted his hands high and attacked the keys with full energy. The same for chords and arpeggios. Repetition of notes, octaves and chords on the same key for muscular control; trills with the other three fingers resting on the keys. He was careful not to move arms and shoulders, or to bend his head forward; he sat straight and bent his head backward, but very slightly.
New pieces were studied in five stages. He started by reading very slowly, four or five times, each time from a different viewpoint. First only the notes, secondly note values, thirdly nuances, changes in expression; fourthly analysing bass and descant, always searching for the melodies that could be accentuated; finally he decided on the tempi. The he began to practise: he analysed his own emotional reactions and after passionate passages would proceed as if indifferent or too tired to express the natural slackening of feeling after an emotional storm. He insisted that passionate self-abandon to the music had to dictate a pianist's interpretation, but he had to have perfect physical control of his hands. "Never must your fingers stand in the way of your artistic interpretation," Carl Czerny, his own teacher, had always said to him.
Always listen constructively when you practise. A good way of doing this is to imagine yourself standing away from the instrument. i.e. imagine yourself as the audience.
Chances are that three-quarters of your repertoire will contain passages too difficult or awkward to be learned by the practising of mere scales and arpeggios. We all have some little bete-noire over which we stumble and even though it may not throw us, it jars us and makes us expand so much thought and energy that we cannot concentrate properly on the rest of the composition.
Many technical exercise books have been written for the purpose of training the fingers to overcome stumbling blocks in certain pieces. However this only solves part of the problem. When you have finished you will know the exercise but not the passage that you are having problems with. The only solution would appear therefore, to make a special study of each problem as it is met, isolate it, turn it into an exercise and, after the difficulty is conquered, put the passage back into the context of the composition.
You may suffer physical pain but you must learn to endure it. You will emerge in the end invigorated with a tremendous margin of reserve, and with the knowledge of complete mastery, which is well worth the effort.
Practising is dull time-consuming work! But daily practise will almost guarantee absolute perfection at every performance. The possibility of becoming "derailed" is almost nil.
Ear Training is extremely important, and more people than we realise have absolute or relative pitch that can be developed. (Only about 2% of the world population is biologically tone-deaf!) The trained listener has a decided advantage in learning music; every effort should be made to develop the inner and outer ears' listening abilities. Nadia Boulanger of the Paris Conservatoire, makes all her pupils work their harmony exercises away from the piano in order to develop the capabilities of their inner ears.
Don't imitate every idea in interpretation that you like. Interpretive concepts are very personal; diamonds in one person's hand may be glass splinters in another's. In music, mere imitation sounds synthetic. Only the genuine individual idea, based on careful study of a score and a composer's personality is convincing.
Here are two stories that involve the same composition and two opposing viewpoints.
(a) When the pianist Soulima Stravinsky (Igor Stravinsky's son), was living in Paris as a student, he had the great desire to master Liszt's "Feux Follets". He went to Vladimir Horowitz who gave him practise suggestions that he followed over a period of time. Apparently still unable to master "Feux Follets", here turned to Horowitz and was told: "It is within the province of some of us to accomplish certain things at the piano, while others among us just are never capable of mastering certain problems. Don't worry about it; you are a great pianist just the same."
(b) When I was about eleven, I asked Rachmaninoff what he considered the most technically difficult piece written for piano. He deliberated for a few minutes then said: " Well, I suppose that one of the most difficult compositions is the Liszt etude "Feux Follets". "I want to play it". "Oh no, not with your small hands. You could not do it yet." Now I knew I had to master it. I set to work and made up crazy, unorthodox fingering, broke passages into two hands, used hand positions that would have made Leschetizky turn in his grave, but I played all the notes and eventually mastered "Feux Follets" (Ruth Slenczynska)
The point illustrated is that the problem doesn't exist that cannot be solved by determined imagination. No individual, no book has all the answers. Many of the most important solutions are in your head, your heart and your hands.
Absorption and Projection
A composition isn't learned; it is absorbed. It becomes as much a part of you as a finger or a tooth; even better because, along with your mental facilities, it usually improves with age. However, before you can absorb a new piece of music, you must be absorbed by it. It will not be too different from falling in love: unconditional fascination, desire to understand weaknesses or roughnesses, willingness to give a great deal of yourself in order to receive. Mastery of a work of art must be earned. Never be overawed by technical difficulties. A composition may have been written by a musical genius, but even the greatest genius is, first and foremost, a human being, an imaginative human being who wants to share the fruit of his creative upheaval with petty mortals like you and me. It is ours for the taking, with his blessing.
The first step is to get acquainted with the "musical geography" of a new composition; we have to decide how we want it to sound and about what speed it should go. Then familiarize yourself with all the notes and markings that are present. Always listen critically and try to benefit from every mistake. Are you making the music say what you intend it to say?
Here are a few things to watch for:
(1) Don't get discouraged during any part of the learning process. "The darkest hour is that before the dawn." Sometimes it may seem to you that for days, perhaps months, you can't get anywhere with a certain composition, yet you will master it eventually. You may have to give it a rest for a few days. You may have become too closely involved with the composition for clear self-criticism; you may have 'over-practised', grown tense. The chances are that you will be amazed at how well it goes after a brief interval, but, if it doesn't, you weren't ready and you'd have to start all over again. Just don't give up!
(2) Always have your music handy so that while you practise you can refer to it whenever you have the slightest question. Also, use the most authentic edition you can find and be sure to obey all the markings; thus you will never have to doubt the authority of your performance. If someone offers a suggestion, listen with an open mind, but consult the score before you follow it. (This is not required for fingering and pedalling as the composer rarely writes this in the score.) Never choose "tradition" over the indications in the original score. Tradition is a much-abused word; Toscanini defined it as "the last bad performance".
(3) Be careful not to over-accent, or to place an accent where none was written. The accents are like road marks that you need badly on strange territory. Once you are more familiar with a road, you may still want to have the map handy, but you no longer have to slow down to read what the road sign says. After you have travelled the road frequently and come to know it well, you won't even notice the markers and will enjoy the scenery. As you play, watch for your little accents and exaggerations and eliminate them. They won't help you in performance and may damage your interpretation.
(4) Don't exaggerate your teacher's suggestions. However we must not use the same device for different compositions unless it is in character. For example, a Viennese Waltz by Strauss will gain by the now 'traditional' lilting hesitation between the second and third beat, but a Chopin Waltz would be ruined if played in that manner.
(5) Avoid mannerisms. Theatricals went out of fashion with the silent films, in which gestures had to tell the whole story without the spoken word. Mannerisms are not only in bad taste but physically impossible except for artists who are not really engrossed in the music. Besides the natural, effortless abandon that comes with good, relaxed technique is sufficiently spectacular in itself.
Acquiring a Repertoire
In the old days, before the great masters had composed our repertoires, musicians had to write their own music when they performed and taught. Bach wrote most of his inventions for his children; Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt wrote music for themselves or their students. They wrote it, of course, in a way to make the best of the shape of their hands, their special abilities, their favourite devices.
In a similar manner, the musician will choose a repertoire that will exploit his best qualities. Therefore the most important lesson of all is to think for yourself and let experience be your teacher.
The real musicians will be forever seeking new means of projection, looking over new literature, making up experimental programmes. Art has no boundaries and the horizons of accomplishment are always beckoning with new challenges.
Copyright © 2002 [Mostlywind]. All rights reserved.
Revised: December 05, 2011
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