Feeling an Interpretation – Practising the Piano

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, it is blatantly obvious that we have to have some basic technical development in the first place. I might have an image of the most beautiful landscape in my mind, better even than Constable or Turner dreamed of, but because I have zero technique with brushes or canvas then this will remain in my imagination, never to be realised.

Too much stress on the mechanics of what we do at the piano, however, can actually be detrimental unless it is connected with right-brained activity. We all know the results of this – dry, boring, meaningless and “correct” playing. To avoid this, we need to keep our imaginations ever-present in the practice room, to maintain a healthy balance between left-brained analytical thinking and right-brained feeling.

I had a wonderful day recently, giving a class at a well-respected private school. I noticed that when the pieces had descriptive titles with plenty of performance directions in the score, the playing was much more with it and lively. Pieces with a more abstract title such as “allemande” or “prelude” tended to elicit greyer performances. I hit upon the idea of using smileys, or emoticons, to describe how the player felt each new harmony in Bach’s C major Prelude from Book 1 of the “48”.  We decided the one with the serrated mouth was good for the diminished sevenths.

This idea came from something I had seen on YouTube, an enchanting clip of the slow movement from Mozart’s A major Concerto, K.488 by Mozart et les fonctions harmoniques, with a harmonic analysis that is ingeniously (and most beautifully) illustrated with stick figure emoticons. This is well worth a look!

In order to keep a piece from getting stale, with layer upon encrusted layer of interpretative make-up, I suggested in a previous post a process that Leon Fleisher once demonstrated in a masterclass – read it here. There is another way of achieving a similar result which is a bit like opening all the windows and letting in some fresh air. If you are struggling to find meaning in a piece, playing it in the style of Mendelssohn, say, and then in the style of Schumann, etc. will be both entertaining and enlightening, and will certainly cause your right brain to summon up associations with those composers and bring these to bear in your playing. It will be enough to act as drain cleaner to a blockage, so that when you go back to the original, certain interpretative preconceptions and ingrained phrasings, colourings and rubatos will have seen the light of day.

I have been known to ask a younger student who has had difficulty feeling the music to strike a pose (or make a statue) that reflects the character of the piece, to try and involve the body. It is uncanny how effective this can be! I will leave you with something that never fails to amuse and amaze me, the wonderful Paganini for Face. It is so clear that the artist here TOTALLY understands all the subtleties of the music and communicates these brilliantly.

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