Freedom in Interpretation – Practising the Piano

…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 them, some of Glenn Gould’s performances of the standard repertoire were often very eccentric and whacky but they were never boring. There was a kind of internal logic in the playing that took the listener on the journey from one note to the next that made sense, even if you wouldn’t want to emulate that in your own playing of the piece. I am reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s eloquent disclaimer before he conducted Gould in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.

I am conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith. And his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it too.

Here is Bernstein’s speech and the first movement of the concerto performance. 

I love it when a student has strong views on a piece. My job is to try to help them realise their vision of the music, perhaps challenging them when something doesn’t seem to be working but one thing I will never do is tell anyone how a piece should be played by imposing my own views. I would like to share with you two personal stories from my work as a teacher that I think shed light on the importance of cultivating personal conviction and freedom in interpretation.

Dual Interpretation (or is that Duel?)

Many years ago I taught a very talented student whom I inherited from a tradition where the teacher told the pupil exactly what to do. The pupil was not supposed to question this, nor was she supposed to think for herself. While I have some sympathy for this approach (only some, mind!) in the early years, there comes a time when playing is meaningless without personal input. I would often get exasperated in lessons, the student sitting there dutifully and passively doing everything I said. After some months I was at the end of my tether with this, and I decided to use one lesson to stir things up a bit. She brought in a piece (I forget what it was actually) and I decided to spend the first half hour of the lesson working out and building up an interpretation of a section in fine detail. In the second half of the lesson, we went back over the same section and I gave her an opposite approach. Both approaches were organic in that one thing led to the next and made logical sense and yet they were chalk and cheese. At the end of the lesson the student asked me which way she was supposed to do and I simply shrugged my shoulders and asked her to make her own mind up, or come back next week with another version. She left looking confused and bewildered, which (on that occasion) was what needed to happen.

Sun-drenched Debussy

The next story concerns a South African student from my university department who was due to play Debussy’s Feux d’artifices in a masterclass given by a very distinguished French pianist, an authority on this music and deservedly so. As we we driving to the hall, I happened to make a comment about the brilliant light of the late afternoon sun as it bathed the mountainside, noting that we don’t have such piercing light where I come from. When we got to the hall, his fabulous playing of the Debussy was dismantled phrase by phrase and made to conform to the light spectrum Debussy (and this celebrated pianist) would have known. He was compelled to take this interpretation lock, stock and barrel and this struck me as tantamount to vandalism. Why was this young African musician not allowed to play with the type of light he was used to, that had resonance for him and his audience? Rather than improve and enhance the playing, this class was (in my book) an object lesson in how not to teach.

Listen to ten different pianists playing the same piece, and you will hear ten different performances. Here are three – of Liszt’s La leggierezza concert study played by Benno Moiseiwitsch, Simon Barere and Eileen Joyce. Which one do I prefer? All of them!

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