At Tanglewood, quite a long time ago, Louis Krasner told me a story. For many years, he was the concertmaster of the Syracuse Symphony. A benefit concert had been arranged. Leopold Stokowski was coming to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The orchestra members speculated — how would Stokowski conduct the iconic opening measures? Slow, with big fermatas? In tempo, à la Toscanini? What would the Maestro do?
According to Krasner, Stokowski arrived, and said…nothing. (A conductor will often give some verbal instructions before beginning such a piece.) Stokowski raised his hand, gave the downbeat and…well…most of the musicians did what they expected. Some of them played “in time.” Some of them played each note separately and waited. It was very much not together — a mess. Now what would Stokowski do? He might stop and explain himself, explain Beethoven, explain what to do next. Instead, Stokowski said only, “Play better.” Again his hand went up, again he started, again cacophony. He kept doing it. Never explaining. Never saying anything more than, “Play better.” But a consensus was reached. Eventually, after many, many starts, the orchestra reached an agreement about what to do — their performance.
Often, in playing music, pragmatism can be very useful. Just do it!
In a recent master class, I heard a student play the first movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata. It was not very good. I wrote some notes on paper as I listened. One aspect of the student’s performance was confusion regarding exactly how many notes to play — to make up the repeated figurations that form four-beat-long measures. Sometimes she played too many, sometimes too few. Of course, I might have said, “Play the right number of notes!” Instead, I told Louis Krasner’s Stokowski story.
And then, I asked the student to play through the whole opening of the piece at an extremely slow tempo — four times too slow. I asked her to listen intently to every note and not to stop. In front of the audience, she practiced the passage in this way without looking at the printed music. I never mentioned the anomalies in her earlier performance. Our spectators, I believe, found the whole thing interminable. I asked her to do it again. And the whole time I was sweating it, wondering if this experiment might work? Eventually, just as time was running out, I asked the student to play the music again at tempo. She began. I was worried. She played exactly the right number of notes in every bar. (A few listeners in the audience applauded.) I almost couldn’t believe what I heard!