Going Beyond the Notes – Practising the Piano

It is possible to play a piece of music where everything is “correct” in terms of a literal reading of the notes, speeds and rhythms, dynamics et cetera, but which leaves the listener cold. We might think of such a performance as playing to the letter, rather than the spirit of the music.

Since musical performance is all about communicating meaning (emotions, character and moods, imagery, narrative, and so on), there has to be an additional element beyond mere accuracy. This ferments over time in the performer’s imagination and that goes on to affect the listener as if by osmosis.

If the performer has a strong enough conviction of what they want to say with a piece, they get to focus on this as they play rather than worrying about their own anxiety or details such as the notes and pedalling. The listener will probably not receive exactly the same narrative as the performer’s, but they will experience something that transcends the mere notes. 

Playing With Imagination

Of course, it does help if the composer has left us with a descriptive title. For example, the misty-lensed ambiguity of Schumann’s Des Abends (Of the Evening) might be reinforced by looking at some paintings depicting the twilight hour (easily found on a Google image search), or by reading some poetry about the evening:

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

(A. E. Housman: How Clear, How Lovely Bright)

Debussy’s Minstrels (from Préludes, Book 1) is another case in point. In the early nineteenth century the servants of American plantations put on minstrel shows, the tradition eventually reaching Europe by about 1900. Debussy depicts such a song and dance act in this prelude, with plenty of comic touches. We hear the banjo, castanets, fiddle and tambourine and the mixture of jazz, ragtime and blues elements. There is tap dancing (bar 9), a sentimental song (bar 63), as well as slapstick acrobatics throughout. 

The inspiration for Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse was Watteau’s painting, L’Embarquement pour Cythère (Voyage to Cythera), and a detailed study of the painting can only enhance one’s playing of the piece. In one scene I imagine the voyagers swooning with anticipation on their way to this enchanted paradise, the water lapping gently around the boat.

going beyond the notes with debussy
Watteau: L’Embarquement pour Cythère (Louvre Version)

In the absence of anything overtly programmatic in a piece such as Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118 No. 2, I came up with my own narrative based on the composer’s lifelong friendship with Clara Schumann. I have made this fantasy-analysis as vivid as possible in my imagination so that I can get out of my own way in performance and share the nostalgic feelings I get from this piece with my audience.

Imagination and Baroque Music

Is imagery appropriate in more abstract music, such as J. S. Bach’s? Absolutely! When I play the Goldberg Variations, I have a multitude of different images front of mind. Having seen Jerome Robbins’ ballet several times, some of this is balletic.

For me, Variation 25 describes the Crucifixion, and Variation 26 the Resurrection. I can’t help imagining Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi as I play Variation 28.

going beyond the notes using an image
Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In case you are wondering about the appropriateness of playing Baroque music “emotionally”, The Doctrine of the Affections was an elaborate theory of musical aesthetics that proposed music was capable of arousing specific emotions in the listener. Johann Mattheson writes comprehensively about the affections in Der vollkommene Capellmeister of 1739, noting that large intervals convey joy, small intervals sadness; a fast melody with rough harmonies arouses fury, and so on. 

No matter what music we play, the notes are a mere starting point for a much more meaningful communication. By using imagination and narrative, we can fertilise our performances, going beyond a literal rendition of the notes to captivate and inspire our listeners.

Playing with Freedom – Online Workshop

Sunday 20th March @ 13:30 – 17:00 GMT

Do you often feel there’s something missing from your performances, that they fall short of your musical intentions? In this online workshop, Graham Fitch explores the main factors that hold pianists back, showing how to attain the freedom required to achieve your full potential in performance. 

The workshop is divided into three sessions in which Graham will provide insights and advice on how to adopt a positive mindset free from anxiety, create a vivid artistic image that you focus on as you play and approach technical challenges in healthy natural ways to avoid tension. Click here to find out more or to book your place!

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