A followup — more constructive, maybe — to my multicomment-inspiring post on the East Coast Chamber Orchestra. (And Janine Jansen.)
Call this another in my “solutions” series.
So let’s say we agree that many classical performances need to be reinvigorated. Not because they’re awful, not because they’re not committed and vigorous, but because there’s something somewhat impersonal about them. That would have many causes; the emphasis on precision, and the emphasis (in music schools) on playing in proper style (so that classical music becomes a forest of “don’t”s, instead of a picnic of wonderful things to do). And the emphasis, in music schools, on analysis, which implies that the power of the music lies in technical details of form and harmony.
And, finally, the idea that classical musicians exist to serve the composer, and that their own individuality is submerged in a search for the composer’s intentions.
Which isn’t to say that great performances didn’t happen under all these conditions. In the ’50s and’50s, I’d say, this approach was truly invigorating, as a reaction to what seemed like the uninformed romanticism of the decades before World War II.
But now we’re in another time. Conditions have changed, people think differently. So here are some thoughts on how to make classical performances more personal.
Study acting. A pianist friend of mine did this. He took a couple of years’ worth of acting classes. When you study acting, you learn (among other things) how to bring your emotions to the front of your being. You have to do that, if you’re going to make emotional moments in plays come alive. Some of them jump to life in an instant. Your emotions have to do that, too. And they have to show.
Take movement classes. Free your body. Your feelings will follow. In rehearsals, or when you’re practicing, try to dance the music for a while, instead of playing it. Imagine a chamber group doing this! Or an entire orchestra. Or the cast of an opera. You don’t even have to take classes, if you really throw yourself into this. The idea isn’t to move like a dancer. It’s to bring what the music is doing alive in another way, so you gather more feeling and energy to put back in the music.
Work with a stage director. Not on stage movement, or acting. (Though many classical musicians could use some training in how to handle their bodies onstage.) But you might work with a stage director to work out the flow of feelings in your performance. Are you bringing out, as you play, everything you feel? Directors deal with that question, when they rehearse with actors. There’s no reason they couldn’t do the same with musicians. And not just with soloists. Above all with ensembles. Imagine what might shake loose if musicians had to talk about their interaction, had to work on the emotional tone and content of it, the way actors do.
Tell stories. Talk through the music. Recreate the pieces you’re playing as stories. Talk through them out loud. Don’t worry about literary quality. You’re not doing this for anyone else. You’re just getting inside the music in another, potentially very vivid way. Especially if you get carried away a little, and started to speak with excitement and feeling. Then you go back to the music. Are you playing everything you spoke so excitedly about? Imagine, again, a chamber group doing this, reimagining a string quartet as a journey four people take together. And narrating, with real commitment, every stage of the voyage. (Acting classes could help with this, I’m sure, and so could a director. But neither is necessary! Musicians, trust yourselves. Find what you need inside yourselves, and use these techniques — games, improvisations, excitements — to bring the inside into view.)
Improvise musically. Imagine a piece you’re playing, doing new things. Play a passage, but don’t continue the way that the score says you should. Make up something new. Improvise the entire piece! Divide it into sections, in as much detail as you like. Describe what happens in each section. Webern did that, when he sketched some of his works. He’d plan a section that described wildflowers on a mountainside, let’s say, and then another about what the top of the mountain felt like. Do something like that with pieces you play. Then improvise something new, something entirely your own, that goes through each stage of the journey. You just might bring alive, to yourself, the flow of the piece, its progress, even its meaning. And then you can put what you found into your performance of the notes the composer actually wrote.
Compose. One thing this is about is owning the music you play. And how could you own a piece more, than by writing it yourself? Don’t think you can’t compose. In classical music, we’ve put up barriers, imagined that composing is some special talent, which only a few people have. It wasn’t looked at that way in past centuries, and isn’t looked at that way in pop music now, or in jazz. If you play, if you feel music, if you think about music, if you know music, you can compose. Do it just for yourself, if you’re not sure you’re confident. But try writing a piece, and then playing — as seriously as you’d play Beethoven — what you write. Do this enough, and you might find yourself with a new, gut understanding of both expression, and musical structure. Then go back to your normal repertoire, and work your way into the music from a composer’s point of view. You may see it differently.
Play everything wrong! Here’s something I read on pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski’s blog. She’s quoting Byron Janis:
Julius Seligmann, president of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, attended a recital where the composer played his new “Mazurka in B flat, Opus 7 no. 1″ as an encore. According to Seligmann, it met with such great success that Chopin decided to play it again, this time with such a radically different interpretation–tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed–that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka, and it rewarded him with a prolonged, vociferous ovation. It seems he had facetiously decided to show why he had no need to republish a score–the magic of interpretation would do it for him. He would often say, “I never play the same way twice.”
Take that to heart! In rehearsal, at least, do what Chopin did, with the pieces you’re playing. Play the fast parts slowly, and the slow parts fast. Play the loud parts softly. Ignore fermatas. Change the rhythm. Change tempo drastically. Stick in violent accents on notes that don’t normally have them. Shake the music loose, in other words, from everything you’ve ever thought it might be. And then put it back together again. See what happens.
Catherine links to a marvelous essay by Janis, called “In Praise of Infidelity.” In which I found these words, which just set me aflame. They summarize everything I’m saying here: “Before the heart can remember, the mind must forget.”
These ideas are just a beginning. I’d love to have yours!