Written by Stephen Brivati
Published: January 25, 2007 at 11:29 PM [UTC]
What do you do to get people to play more expressively?
I can understand the frustration of having a student who doesn’t play with feeling, but the truth is, a person without them is dead. It is all in there, for any normal person. Anecdotally, there is a well known pedagogue in London teaching at the Academy who told a friend of mine the following: "When Japanese girls come over they often play flawlessly. But I have to wait a few months for them to have an affair and their hearts to get broken before they really start to play..."
Make of that what you will.
My approach is somewhat different. I believe the whole question of emoting is extremely dodgy and one often sees supposedly quite advanced students and even professionals who confuse physical play acting as emoting and can even trick a listener into believing that their playing is emotional. This, to me, is the strongest manifestation of the false consciousness about our playing that the majority of players tend to build up. What the great players have in spades is genuine awareness of what they are doing.
To clarify this let me recount a couple of experiences I have had in Alexander teacher training classes. One time a trainee took to his beloved harmonic and began a very good rendition of some blues. Not bad at all. The instructor did the usual magic of resetting the primary control and bringing the player into the present. The difference was painful. Man, those blues blew me away. The player stooped and was asked, "What do you think about that?" He was angry and said so. "You took away my sadness." This was crazy to us but that was a genuine response. He had learnt to kid himself though misdirection of self.
The same thing happened to me in a master class with Vivien Mackie quite a few years ago. I played a Mozart concerto to a small audience and it seemed averagely okay. Then she worked on my primary control (neck, head back) and had me simply pay attention to that and imagine giving the music to the audience as a present. I thought the playing was okay but felt very empty which I remarked on to Vivien. She suggested I look at the audience. Some of them were crying (maybe it was that bad…). Vivien commented, "The first time I heard you play, I wondered why you went to music college all those years ago. This time I know. You are an artist.`
What I learnt from this kind of experience repeated over and over again is that when we try and get people to be emotional we are frequently blocking the genuine emotional content which flows through us when we are a vessel for the message. If you like, there is nothing more boring that watching someone cry.
Which still leaves the original problem...
For me the solution is often rather paradoxical sounding. You want more emotion focus on technique. Or rather, focus on nuance through the medium of technique. Nuance consist of dynamics, rhythm and accent. It is well worth reading and rereading Auer's chapter on this in his little book , "Violin Playing as I Teach it." Then work very diligently on producing these, especially dynamics. Teach exactly what a graded crescendo means by example and even through the use of the voice. IE have a student say a word progressively louder than a sound. people know immediately what a crescendo is through this medium! A student's inability to produce dynamics is a technical limitation in the sense that even if they don’t feel them (not usually true) the block is a specific use of the bow speed, sound point, or whatever. The teacher can really focus on these. Incidentally, a very good way to get students to pay attention to and produce dynamics is simply to ask them to play a piece doing the exact opposite of what is written on the page,
Once one has a crescendo or diminuendo in place, the question a student has to address is, "Where is it going?" which leads to a discussions of whether or not an accent (agogig, dynamic or whatever) is necessary and if so, is it to be done with vibrato speed or bow speed or whatever?
Interestingly, because of the time it was written, Auer's book does not reflect contemporary ideas on vibrato. However, it is an essential part of expressiveness and is almost always left to chance. So much so that the student often acquires the believe that vibrato is connected to dynamics. Not really. It has always seemed natural to me to connect vibrato with intensity. Not the same thing at all. Once this is clarified in the students mind one can pose questions about what vibrato speed and width seems to go best on such and such a note. Are you trying to increase of decrease intensity? If you are doing a crescendo here would you increase or decrease the speed and or width?
Very often students lack the technical ability to vary the vibrato and once they have been shown the one can isolate the factor of intensity IE omit dynamics and practice only in terms of vibrato speed an important technical weakness has been revealed that can be worked on quite mechanically through such means as Basics exercises.
These are all highly technical questions, which don’t push a student into the mental corner of thinking they are not emotional enough or are inadequate as a person.
The result of working backwards form end result (nuance ) to expressive (since a piece played with nuance is expressive) is that a student recognizes the nature of being expressive as something they can achieve that is not dependent on their real or imaginary psychological condition which may lead to all manner of complexes.
I believe this for some time that expressiveness in music and our daily emotions (joy, disappointment, sadness, etc.) must be categorically different things. They are related of course, and I suspect that the former describes the later and the later may inform the former, but to equate the two or to reduce one to the other is a result of a conceptual mistake. I mean, how many of us would spend money to feel the real sadness we sometimes experience in our life? Yet many of us do not hesitate to pay big money to listen to music (or watch sad shows for that matter) which often arouse some deeply sad feelings. More interestingly, when one is depressed, playing sad music often eases the pain or at least makes the wrenching quality of pain go away. But if they were the same kind of emotion, you would expect the sadness be deepened or intensified.
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