The dangers of poor editions, misleading suggestions and the necessity of personal paths

September 14, 2016, 12:08 PM · Resurrecting Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole for this season made me think of a few important topics I’d like to share.

I had not played Lalo in about 13 years. Although it is considered a standard piece in a student's repertoire, I recalled that it was one of those pieces that had quite a few obstacles that always needed extra attention. Coming back to it now - many years later with much more experience, I was surprised to find out that my muscle memory still had similar issues as before.

As per my own belief - I purposely did not look at my "old score," which had multiple markings. Instead, as I so often do, I bought myself a new one - the most recent Henle edition. To my great surprise, I discovered bowings, fingerings and even many different notes that were not in any of my previous editions!

Coincidentally (or not!) -- a lot of the newly discovered material happened to be in those "obstacle" places. Upon studying those fragments, I was amazed how much easier everything was to play -- with what Lalo actually wrote.

Lalo music
From Lalo's Symphony Espagnole, last movement: misprint of the last note in bar 375 makes it more difficult to get to the top A with a trill; correct Henle version on the bottom.

These revelations made me think of several matters and concerns with print editions of other works, as well some observations about certain aspects of teaching.

Many editions of violin works, if not most, have mistakes, typos and misprints. Some editions are essentially criminal, with incorrect rhythms, misplaced or wrong dynamics, wrong notes and harmonies, etc.

This is where we have to take matters into our own hands and verify our sources. That takes time, but it's worth it. Going the extra mile -- finding different editions of the score and looking at the manuscripts when available -- makes a big difference in preparation and interpretation. It also frequently solves a number of technical issues.

Usually I rely on two editions: Henle and Barenreiter. Even those publishers create new editions of the same piece over time, adding more detail and updating their research.

Philippe and Beethoven

While some might find this process unnecessary and tedious, for me this has became a fun activity, a bit like solving a crossword puzzle.

Something that can aggravate problems further is the well-meaning intentions of good teachers, who sometimes cling to traditional editions and also cover students' music with markings. Such suggestions can prolong the student's work, instead of expediting it.

There are two basic kinds of problems:

  1. Teacher not providing alternative solution despite seeing the struggle of the student.
  2. Student afraid to ask or change in order not to upset the teacher or parent.

We are all built differently, different heights, different strengths, body types, lengths of fingers, arms…. the list goes on. That means that we often need different solutions to technical problems.

During my student years, some of my teachers would give me music that was heavily marked when I started to study a new piece. Sometimes it was music that was passed to them by their own teacher. Other times, it was marked with their own personal methods that they had used successfully for many years.

A lot of it worked and made musical sense; but a lot did not, and it made me struggle for months and sometimes years, not being able to overcome a certain place with that particular fingering or bowing that I inherited from "the great tradition." I was convinced that some repertoire was just not for me.

Furthermore - some of the music was so heavily marked up that was frankly impossible to see what the composer wrote anymore. I’d like to stress the importance of studying the score of a piece, even without your instrument in hand.

Another problem can be the old commentary from long ago. In a lot of my old music I have found many markings such as "sound," "harsh," "memory," "bad stroke." That’s basically a victory lane for paranoia. Your visual memory will most definitely remember it and that particular marking in the music will always remind you of the issues you had 10 years ago.

Quint's Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn, with markings from at least 4 different teachers

I always erase or use white-out with commentary that is no longer relevant. If some of it is precious and has sensitive value (I have those as well) - I would suggest saving that music in your music library and then buying a new, clean score to fill with new, fresh ideas.

In recent years, I have found that solutions to "problem" passages frequently are rather simple. Sometimes dividing a certain bowing or replacing one finger with another does the trick -- as long as it does not detract from the flow of phrasing.

I can’t count the number of times I have given master classes around the world and seen absurd bowings, fingerings and technical suggestions that made a student suffer. In my given 30 minutes, I can only point out that these fingerings did work for Heifetz, Szeryng and Oistrakh, or that these bowings were suggested by Flesch and Galamian for this reason -- but it just does not work for YOU! Try this instead, or this, or this.

Dog ate my Paganini
If your Paganini Concerto No. 2 looks like this, then you DEFINITELY need a new edition!

Another obstacle can be people's preconceived notions about the difficulty of certain pieces, or places. For example, playing for your peers and colleagues is a great way to share knowledge and can be very helpful confidence booster before going into performance, but beware of those that will repeatedly tell you about a certain "famous" difficult place they and "everyone" can’t get. Yes - they can’t, but maybe you can!

Not paying attention to stigma associated with some technical difficulties and sometimes not knowing about them might just be a great thing.

Once I was told this: There is no such thing as problems - only solutions. In most cases it has proved to be true; there are many alternative ways to achieve the same result. Otherwise, we would all sound alike, and we would interpret works exactly the same way.

I encourage fellow musicians to re-examine those difficult places, print editions, old markings, and places of frustration -- those that cause great anxiety and sleepless nights. The solution might be right in front of you! We reserve the right to always ask: "Why can’t we try it this way?" To end, here is a wonderful quote from John Cage: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones."

Philippe Quint

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