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Making It Your Own: The Interpretation of Music

Liz Lambson

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Published: June 3, 2013 at 7:39 PM [UTC]

As a musical artist, you have the right to perform music however you please! (Photo by Ivan McClellan)
As a musical artist, you have the right to perform music however you please! (Photo by Ivan McClellan)

Here in our new Kennedy Violins location, we've opened a new studio for private lessons with local teachers in the area. Students are coming in with sheets of music and saying, in one way or another, "Show me how to play this."

As the student learns the piece, it begins to take form, becoming something completely unique. But how do you take a sheet of music and bring it to life with your own interpretation?

If you've ever studied the Bach Cello Suites in depth, you probably noticed that there are quite a few opinions and options as far as how to play them stylistically. I've sat in masterclasses observing arguments over bowing patterns and embellishments and whether or not playing a single eighth note as a harmonic is kosher.

So who's right when it comes to all this?

  • bowings
  • fingerings
  • tempo
  • articulation
  • embellishments
  • phrasing
Answer: Everyone.

BUT! At the same time, why would we have opinions in the first place?

As a musician and performer, you are an artist. You are someone who takes a medium (your instrument) and creates something with it. The act of creation is a power and a right you have claim to as an individual artist. You have a style of your own that no one can replicate. With that said, what about influences like . . .

When I'm teaching students, I often tell them to look at the dates at the top of the page next to the composer's name. Then we discuss that musical era and the characteristics of music played at that time.

Maybe you've had a talking to about the difference between a Baroque trill and a Classical trill (Baroque starts on the note above the note and trills down while classical starts on the note on the staff and trills up). Maybe you've studied music history and various composers and their stylistic characteristics. Are these stylistic prescriptions valid?

Answer: Yes.

As a performer of today playing music written hundreds of years ago, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Your performance becomes a combination of two historical moments: then and now. The composer who wrote the piece couldn't escape the influence of his or her surroundings hundreds of years ago or a few days ago.

However, you can't read the composers mind because he's probably dead or lives far away or something. And you also can't escape the current influence of the your modern relationship with music, the current techniques you've learned, or even the modern materials, design, and sound of your instrument. It is almost impossible to remove yourself from the influences of your historical circumstances or your teacher's instruction.

As you approach a piece, maybe you've reflected on what the composer intended the piece to sound like with specific tempo markings, phrasing, and melodic elements. However, while a piece of Bach is distinctly Baroque (i.e. laden with characteristics of the Baroque era), you are certainly entitled to your own interpretation!

Your interpretation of a piece of music might be to

  • play the piece as "historically correct" as possible with absolute dedication to the composer's markings and style of that time period. For example, with that Bach, you might play with little to no vibrato, those Baroque trills, dynamics as marked and little variation in the tempo.

  • play the piece with a complete modern, post-modern, post-post modern, or twisted interpretation with completely unique tempos, instrumentation, phrasing, etc. You could play a piece of Bach on a synthesizer with each note lasting forty-seven seconds each whilst tap-dancing with a Carmen-Miranda-style fruit hat on your head. Your audience might walk away, bored to tears or totally offended, but you can revel in your own genius.

  • do something in between.
And is any way better than the other way? Not really, no. In the end, you are the artist and the performer who can and will take a piece of music and make it completely your own simply by taking it into your own hands. So enjoy the creative process. That's what it's all about!

From Robert Keith
Posted on June 3, 2013 at 11:40 PM
A person can simply learn how to IMPROVISE off the harmony (chords), then the sky is the limit.

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