February 13, 2008 at 4:58 AMGreetings,
Quite a few years ago I had an experience which crystallized my thoughts on a rather tricky tropic related to violin playing and teaching. I was at a teacher training seminar for Alexander Teachers and a student wanted to be worked with while playing some blues on the harmonica. He is quite an experienced player and performer and he gave us a good rendition which we duly applauded. Then the teacher worked on his primary control (head, neck and back relationship). Suddenly his playing took on the most haunting depth of sadness one could imagine. The other ten of us were sitting there in stunned silence when the player blurted out angrily `What have you done. You took away my sadness. I hated that.` I have had similar experiences with my own playing, a sense of playing in a rather cool manner but then finding the audience has been very deeply touched whereas the same work played a moment before elicited a polite but rather less emotional response. What is actually happening is we are taking out the habitual superficial emotional states that reflect the maelstrom of modern living and reconnecting with the origin of music and genuine communication with others. But it feels very wrong initially, as the emotions embrace homeostasis as deeply as the muscles. Same thing in fact.
These experiences while working in Alexander seminars and classes do have a genuine counterpart in the day to day grind of er, mainstream pedagogy. If you are an avid reader of the literature of the string world such as The Strad, you will notice every now and again a very interesting piece of advice cropping up from coaches and teachers: we are not here to be moved- we are here –to elicit an emotional response in another person.- Or as the great cellist and AT teacher Vivienne Mackie but it in her blunt fashion, `there is nothing more boring than watching people cry.`
I believe absolutely and totally that players who kid themselves they need to draw on and express their own emotions as something to project at other people, an extremely common affliction, are doomed to at best slow progress and an utter failure to realize their potential. And it is teachers at fault when they talk about `play this like you are angry, this is a happy melody. Think of a dying relative and play this passage with great sadness.` What actually happens at these times? Usually very little good to be honest. It is pretty easy for example, to get somebody to conjure up their own egocentric emotions of anger and kidding ourselves its good teaching or good thinking about the instrument. However, since the mind and body are one entity one draws up all the physical tension concomitant with that rage and negativity resulting in a superficial appearance of anger which in reality is more a manifestation of the students frustration at not getting a genuinely good sound out of the instrument with the teachers egomaniacal believe they have `helped` the student express herself better.
Just this one example is a flagrant contradiction of the basic premise that if one wants to express things with more volume and articulation then greater relaxation is generally needed overall. Tension and emotional stress are contracted states non-conducive to playing –that elicits an emotional response in others.-!
What then, is expressive playing and how does one get there? Not saying there are any really easy answers but the start point is what is written on the page. This might sound banal but an awful lot of players cannot be bothered to think about the meaning of even the most basic instructional words that a composer may have written at the beginning of a piece and even if they have they may be unable to put it in any rational framework because they are ignorant of the composers milieu and oeuvre. It’s all relative! And we haven’t even got to the notes themselves. A rhythm may need to be played exactly correctly to get the effect the composer wanted (I am thinking of the opening of Tzigane right now. If the exact rests Ravel wrote are adhered to it sounds very much closer to an improvisation than a rushed /cut rendition by a violinist trying to play `with the heart and soul of a gypsy.`) Or it may need to be changed slightly according to conventions of the time (cf double dotting) or it may require some artistic license to create a very specific nuance but these things can be thought about and defined very objectively. I recently sat through an excruciating series of day long masterclasses in which the supposedly cream of Japan’s youth hacked through the Tchaikovsky concerto (more than any other work). The visiting teacher/soloist spent a great deal of time on pretty much the first two bars with just about everyone. There was certainly a lot of emoting and heavy breathing going on, but not one of these kids could actually play in time to start with , or control the bow sufficiently to play without unwanted miniscule dynamics and sloppy bow changes. It could have all been summed up as learn to listen to yourself but it really does often take something like the Alexander Technique to break through our habitual beliefs that we –are- listening to ourselves when we are actually fantasizing, something that has an exact counterpart in the Bhuddist purpose of learning to be present in the actual world rather than the one you wish existed. Hence the shock of the tape recorder for many….
The thoughtful and objective work needs to be continued on all the different kinds of kinds of accents, articulations of left and right hand and so on. I have far more respect for a teacher/player who has noted the difference in length between the ascending and descending colle/spiccato arpeggios in the first movement of the Spring than one who talks about `a pastoral mood and try and imagine Beethoven’s anger at deafness at this point yadder yadder.` Indeed, unless one is consciously experimenting and articulating what one is experimenting with then practice is doomed to ill remembered repetitions of an effect one stumbled on the day before which suited the whim of the moment.
It’s interesting that the really great teachers one can read interviews of have tended to avoid this constant use of ones emotions to create an effective performance in the practice room. Good teachers generally use language very precisely and often encourage students to analyze in the same manner. Talk about colors and where they are situated on the instrument, a more energetic sound with more shoulder, a darker sound nearer the bridge, a thinner sound, a more muted sound, a more intense vibrato on this note to bring it out. And so on.
They talk in terms of bow division/speed and sound point, the specific means to get a dynamic the composer wrote, or an unwritten one you intend to do because it corresponds to what the emotion within the music demands of you to represent at a given moment. But that decision to insert a specific dynamic is not because you believe the music is `happy or sad or angry` at this point.` Its because the music is asking you to look behind its notes and see what is lurking. What is –not- lurking is ones superficial, ever shifting psyche. It may be intended to elicit some kind of emotion in others but the player is the medium which searches out these things, considers carefully how to express them and then acts as a conduit to get that message to other people who will probably react but in some cases won’t. In the latter instance it is probably because the violinist has once more slipped into the trap of not shouting `listen to what I have found to say about this music, but rather `Listen to what I am using this music to say about me.` Were this to be the case the best performers would simply be the ones with the greatest and most unstable range of emotional experiences and capacity for anger and self pity. A mental institution might be a good place to search for such students…
Would you agree?
Now I have a different question, Buri, of momentous importance. You always make sense, conceptually. But how come in your blogs, you use the English alphabet, but in many of your responses in various threads you use prune-o-glyphics?
Just teasing! ;-)
What I feel can be really harmful is thinking: "well, this piece is supposed to be sad. But I'm not feeling sad. OK - let me pull up painful memories of someone close to me dying, or a bad breakup, etc." That's the sort of thing I'd definitely stay away from.
Vegh said, "The more you move up there, the less the audience feels in here (pointing to his heart)"
Yes. But how does one identify genuine emotion? How much of it is necessary? What is irrelevant? What if it really is in conflict with the overall concept of the work?
>I remember there are times when I felt emotional, and subsequently found a personal interpretation of the piece in front of me that suited my mood (this is particularly true for the likes of Brahms and Beethoven). While I was certainly projecting my feelings into the music, arguably I was also uncovering a new reading (that the composer might have approved of)
It was almost impossible to express the whole massive field of what I was trying to say in the space of one blog.;) First of all one always feels emotional at any given moment I suppose. Other wise one is probably dead. Indeed, I am a very strong advocate of preceding every practice session with some emotional stimulation even if it boring technical work. Scales practiced with attention to mood are far more useful than those without in the long run.
Then when one plays –any- music presumably one is listening and this surely provokes an emotional response at some level which is going to feed into the music. My main point I think is that you had to do very specific technical things (at a more or less unconscious level depending on your currnet skill) in order to allow the emotions inherent in the music to resonate in you and the main focus of your intention is allowing that to unfold in performance. I don`t think you were projecting your emotions-the music contains that and will trigger it in you, but because you are unique how it manifests will be unique.
As I write this I am thinking that part of the fakeness of expression that many players habitually use is tied up a great deal in words. A great teacher tells you this passage is angry so one stores this verbal instruction and talks oneself into a bad mood and tryst to play that way etc. However, I use the word `many` intentionally because as I said in my post- I have seen so many top class players change into true artists when brought into the present and just letting the music unfold. The sadness will be there, you will recognize it in the end but it’s the real thing. The rest is what you get from crying over a decent movie. Very cathartic but more celluloid than reality.
Just a couple of examples because I’m now going round in circles;)
The other day my piano trio played through the last movement of Schumann’s Fantasistucke for the first time. The movements are all utterly sublime but midway though this one violin, cello and piano are exploding together the most-fantastic- chords and melody one could wish for. That little section has no repeat marks but by sheer empathy we all stopped, grinned nodded and returned to the beginning of those three lines and played them again, and again. I lost count -probably about 6 times. Then we stopped and had a really fun discussion about whether it was more like the Schumann piano concerto or my contention that it was directly influence day the unison passages in the Brahms double concerto. The three of us were as high as a kite on that passage while we played. At no time could we say that we were consciously being dynamic, demonic, happy or over the moon. We were just listening and responding to allow the best possible sound and phrasing to flow together as one. That’s all it took for one of the great musical moments of my life. There was nothing more.
Or, recently a student came to me with a somewhat lackadaisical sounding opening of the Saint seans concerto. During the time we worked on it we addressed intonation, equalizing bow strokes and bow speed, sp and vibrato and where the music was going as a phrase. To get the student to sound bigger we worked a little on the sound projecting out in all directions to vibrate all four walls of the room. The player got where they wanted to be. That was all. What are the fundamentals of a passage? How are you misusing the body to block the power of Saint seans, music from entering you from heaven or hell depending on your perspective? How does it relate to the whole work in terms of proportion?
Not much left for me;)
Raphel my brain has gone. Maybe this works in with what you are saying. I`ve gotta rea dyour stuff again....
Would you know of any organisations here where I could ask about teachers in my area?
Great post, Buri, and it made me sit up and pay more attention to what I was saying in lessons again.
As regards people pithily condensing your writings though, remember that it was you who picked the plums, then you who lovingly dried them and juiced them. So after all the work you did, is it really all that remarkable that somebody finally figured out how to pour the juice into a glass and drink it?
I'll take this glass over ice please...
This was a brilliant blog and so well responded to.
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