“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pianists in Performance: What Should I Think About?

     Have you ever experienced in performance what I call mind
chatter? This is an interruption in the logical flow of musical thought. It can occur without even noticing; the focus of the playing seems intact, but there is some peripheral distraction. This is akin to being in a theater thoroughly entranced by a film, yet at the same time aware that someone has come in and sat down next to you.
     This concept came up the other day during a lesson in which the student found herself caught somewhere between reading the score and playing from memory. I pointed out that memorizing was the surest way to make the music a part of her psyche. It does not matter in performance whether the score is present or not. But if it is present, the player has to know when and where to look, where on the page is the passage in question. This, then, becomes part of the thought process. 
     The great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, a musician who many thought had a direct line of communication with Bach in the great beyond, was once being interviewed by some eager young
Wanda Landowska
admirer. "Oh, Madame Landowska, when you play I feel the presence of Bach himself. The music speaks to me in such a special way. Tell me, please, what do you think about when you perform?" To which the great lady replied, "The notes, dear, the notes."

     Well, yes, first the notes. But probably not in isolation. The notes are connected to an idea of their relationship to one another and to some concept of how smaller ideas add up to the whole of the piece. When we sit down to play, we must start with the big ideas. In speed, it is impossible to conceive of individual notes. It is better to be like the orator who speaks off the cuff, who embraces his audience with his full attention and speaks warmly and enthusiastically of the big ideas he finds compelling, rather than the public speaker who, not really wanting to be there, reads with precision from a printed speech. Of course, in addition to being inspiring, we pianists are required to be precise, too.
     Once when performing the fugue in Beethoven's Op. 110 sonata, I became aware, suddenly, that in addition to feeling the mounting excitement of the passage, I heard an inner voice chanting, "come on, Beethoven." This was a sort of cheering section, encouraging me on to victory. This had never happened before, but I suspect it had to do with an underlying apprehension of playing a fugue from memory, even though I had already done it many times. I'm happy to report that we were victorious, Beethoven and I.
     I think it comes down to this, and every performer is different, just as each occasion can inspire different results. Whatever we can latch on to that keeps us in the groove, that keeps us focused on the expression of the music, that is fair game; whatever works. But beware the voice that asks what's for supper. Slap him down and get back to the matters in hand.

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