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.


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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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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