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Flexibility in Interpretation – Practising the Piano

You only have to listen to the same piece played by different pianists to appreciate there is no such thing as the one “correct” way to play it. Tempo and timings, pedalling, style, phrasing – the list of variables goes on and on.

Here is an example of such diversity, Liszt’s La leggierezza study as recorded by Carlo Vidusso, Earl Wild and Georges Cziffra. Each performer plays the piece in his own unique way.

There are some pianists who agonise over each and every detail of their interpretation in the studio, sweating blood until they have crystallised their vision of the music and got it just right. Their one true version remains steadfast, a statue permanently carved in sound.

Here is Clifford Curzon‘s working copy of No. 5 from Schubert’s Moment Musicaux, completely covered with his annotations.

(with thanks to John Humphreys)
(with thanks to John Humphreys)

You can listen to his performance here, from 11:40:

Shura Cherkassky, on the other hand, said he never played a work twice in the same way. He didn’t know how he was going to play even as he walked out onto the stage; it was as though he were improvising his interpretation in public. He had the necessary technical control that gave him absolute freedom of expression, and this is one of the reasons his live performances were always so exciting and unpredictable.

A paradox exists in musical interpretation. If we haven’t made any decisions about what we want to do, we have no idea what is going to come out in our performance. It might be wonderful or it might be terrible, but it will certainly be unpredictable.

If our performance decisions are too rigid, our playing risks sounding stiff, staid and boring. We set ourselves an impossible task, since the rigidly planned approach does not take into account the particular qualities of the piano we find ourselves needing to adapt to and control, the performance space, and not least our mood on the day. I once gave a recital in a cathedral and, because my train was delayed, the audience was seated by the time I arrived. I had no chance whatever to try the piano, and the first note I played on it was the first note of my recital. Because of the acoustical properties of the building, I hardly needed to touch the pedal and everything had to be slowed down considerably for the music to sound clearly enough in the reverberation.

The Flexible Interpretation

An amazing performance won’t come out of thin air; it can emerge only after painstaking and creative work in the practice room as we explore all the possibilities the music has to offer. Each time we practise, it is a voyage of discovery.

At a slower tempo, we will need to do things differently from a faster one. If we push the music forward in one spot, we will probably need to pull it back in another. Where is the climax of the phrase? If we’re not sure, we try shaping one way then another until we find out what works. How much of that inner part do we want to bring out? Go with each experiment and follow it through to its logical conclusion before trying it a different way, allowing our imagination and inner ear to guide us.

Leon Fleisher sums this up perfectly:

Technique is the ability to produce what you want; the presupposition is that you want something. So before going to the piano and practising, training your muscles – which is a waste of time because it’s not in the muscles, it’s in the brain, it’s in the inner ear. You have to hear before you play, if you play before you hear what you’re going for it’s an accident and everything is built then on an accident. So, want something, hear it, experiment. Do outrageous things when you’re in the privacy of your studio, what a luxury!

The great conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler had this to say on over-preparing and freedom in performance:

I am told that the more you rehearse, the better you play. This is wrong. We often try to reduce the unforeseen to a controllable level, to prevent a sudden impulse that escapes our ability to control, yet also responds to an obscure desire. Let’s allow improvisation to have its place and play its role. I think that the true interpreter is the one who improvises. We have mechanized the art of conducting to an awful degree, in the quest of perfection rather than of dream. As soon as rubato is obtained and calculated scientifically, it ceases to be true. Music making is something else than searching to achieve an accomplishment. But striving to attain it is beautiful. Some of Michelangelo’s sculptures are perfect, others are just outlined and the latter ones move me more than the first perfect ones because here I find the essence of desire, of the wakening dream. That’s what really moves me: fixing without freezing in cement, allowing chance its opportunity.

If you have got stuck in a rut with a particular piece and want to explore new and different interpretative possibilities, an idea I wrote about in last week’s post might help.

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Flexibility in Pulse – Practising the Piano

I heard Chopin’s beautiful Waltz in A minor in a class the other day. The basic feeling, tempo, balance between the hands and the pedalling were extremely good, and there were some lovely sounds. But I was struck by how straightjacketed the performance felt to me from a rhythmical perspective. When I asked if he had been using a metronome, he told me he had been practising on a digital piano with a waltz backing track. Doing this regularly had completely ironed out any sense of natural phrasing and timing, and the sort of gentle ebb-and-flow rubato this piece needs to bring it to life in performance.

When I was a boy, fascinated with music and how it all worked, I once tried to synchronise the new metronome I was given for Christmas with an LP recording – just to check whether whoever was playing was doing so in time, since this was stressed as being very important by my teacher. I had a few LP vinyl records at that stage, but no matter which recording I used I was unable to get the metronome to line up with the beats from the record for more than a bar or so. Naturally I assumed it was my metronome that was faulty, and thought of asking for it to be fixed, or swapped for one that worked properly. I didn’t know at the time that no artistic performance of any piece of music could be bound to a fixed beat, rigidly applied.

You’re probably thinking – sure, Romantic period music would obviously make no sense when played against a metronome but anything Baroque would synch up, wouldn’t it? Certainly so strict-looking a page of semiquavers as we find in Bach’s C minor Prelude from Book 1? You’ll discover that even this will not tally with a metronome.

Have a listen to Glenn Gould’s recording of this Prelude and discover for yourself what happens. The playing starts at what my metronome logs at crotchet = 81 but very soon it drags against the beat. Fast forward a bit and now he seems to be playing at 79, before shooting up to 84. He is not together with the metronome for more than a bar. Test this out against similar, motoric pieces from the period (all the recordings of the Two-Part Invention in F that I listened to contained similar fluctuations).

To purchase my study edition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor with the stepladder approach to practising, click here

What does this tell us? Not even motoric music from a style period often erroneously thought of as “metronomic” can be imprisoned and completely controlled by an external, mechanical, inflexible beat. Try setting your metronome against other recordings of this piece, or indeed any other piece, and see what you discover.

Metronomic Precision?

Am I suggesting we dispense with practising with the metronome, and the idea of a regular pulse and play our pieces as we feel?

One of the fundamental skills we teach on the Piano Teachers’ Course UK is the importance of establishing a basic pulse before every single activity in a piano lesson, having trainee teachers counting their pupil in (who after a while learn to count themselves in). There are very few activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a rhythmic pulse, and we cannot assume the beginner pianist will find this by themselves without regular encouragement and practice. By taking a moment to set the pulse before everything we play, even the humblest scale or exercise, we develop our inner conductor (as well as our inner dancer) and we’re in the groove from the very first note.

Scales, technical work and many phrases in many pieces can be played beautifully with metronomic precision. The problem begins at phrase ends, or other breathing places where the rigidity of the pulse needs to bend to produce music that is human, as opposed to robotic. There are some spots where we might need to imperceptibly restrain a downbeat (placing it slightly late to add rhythmic emphasis), and other spots where we might want to be a tad on the early side of the beat. In general, the backwards-forwards ebb and flow that is natural to virtually all music will inevitably contradict a metronome.

The metronome is a tool and, like other practice tools, it is there to be used. Problems arise when slavish adherence to its robotic beat irons out the natural beauty of music never intended to be played this way. It is true that some occasional work with a metronome at a variety of different practice tempi can certainly help secure control in a tricky technical passage.

Think carefully before you get out your metronome – what exactly are you hoping to achieve by using it in your practice session today? If you are playing beautifully and find to your dismay you are not together with the metronome, I hope this article has allayed your fears.