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Samuel Thompson

Rethinking Mozart

January 12, 2008 at 6:22 AM

In November of this year I wrote about a performance of Mozart's A Major Concerto that I heard on the radio, that performance being played by Arabella Steinbacher. In that post, I wrote "now wanting to rework Mozart 5, it is not my intention to copy Ms. Steinbacher's performance."

How is this reworking happening? For starters, the focus for the most part has been on the physical, as I have in recent months been adjusting my left hand - a thank you to Mr. Letcher, as his comments on shifting have been incredibly helpful - with Paganini #4 being the guide. Having to adjust one's placement from a linear placement to that of thirds and then to tenths is most definitely a workout, but the results - and the clarity - are worth the effort.

In the book An Actor Prepares, Constantin Stanislavski speaks of many concepts, two of which seem to apply to what we are all doing. The first: CUT BACK NINETY PERCENT! This is one of the most important concepts that is shared with the students in the acting class, cutting back ninety percent meaning to eliminate everything that is false, mechanical, and not thought through. This is followed by the concept of "Faith and a Sense of Truth", that being to have confidence in a learned and prepared set of physical or physiological sensations that one uses to prepare the work.

All that I can say is that it's working - and while it is difficult shaking a bit of the unconscious and mechanical, this will be a much different Mozart than when I played it in graduate school, and for the many auditions that I have taken since graduating in 1998.

Still, it takes a long time...and I find myself curious as to how one handle's the transition. Does one remove one's self from the stage to concentrate on the "fixing", or does one realize the responsibility ahead of them and keep one's self in the public while changing one's "life and outlook"?

Anxious for your thoughts,

From Megan Chapelas
Posted on January 12, 2008 at 7:02 PM
Interesting thoughts, Sam. I'm in a similar situation, as I got fed up with my Mozart D for auditions this summer, and decided to learn the A major. Having a clean slate was liberating, and it has certainly helped make the piece more natural. I find unlearning, particularly those mechanical aspects you mentioned, quite challenging, especially because those old habits crop up again in audition situations.

But what I actually wanted to comment on was what you said about taking back 90%. I understand this, and have done it - but on stage I find it very difficult to trust. I'm not sure if I'm projecting or giving musical direction. I have a really difficult time knowing and feeling when I've removed artifice or when I'm not projecting beyond three feet in front of me - are you any better at recognizing that? If so, how did it work for you? I worked a bit with a performance psychologist who talked about bringing all the difficulties back into your comfort zone - which meant exactly what the acting coach described. With time and trust, the comfort zone is supposed to grow, if you let it.

As far as the transition goes, I'm afraid I'm not any further along than you are. When you play an audition, you have to present the material - you can't say, 'look, I'm in the middle of a process of discovery'. Still, I think we can only hope to get through the transition in that we accept it, and realize that it does take time.

All said and done, I'm still nervous about my audition next week...

From Megan Chapelas
Posted on January 12, 2008 at 7:13 PM
Oh, I forgot the end: removing yourself from the stage, in my opinion, just makes it that much more difficult to get out there again. Performing is part of the learning process too - an essential part of what you've described. Yes, taking a month off in the summer just to practice might be what you mean, but I don't think we can stop doing auditions - or rather stop preparing for auditions - completely until something sorts itself out.
From Roy Sonne
Posted on January 13, 2008 at 12:56 AM
This is absolutely great! I have been fascinated by Stanislavsky ever since I first read his books when I was in college. In recent years I have renewed my contact with the theater world since my wife has started acting. The way an actor prepares for a role and builds a character, fleshing out the skeleton that is given on the printed page can be a model and an inspiration for us as musicians. An actor, even when doing a small role with very few lines, will build a whole life story of the character. "What has this person done during the last ten years that has led him to this moment right now? What is his/her motivation and prejudices? What does he want now?" Someday I hope to find somebody who is an accomplished actor and also an instrumentalist to help me to develop a similar methodology for musicians.
Also I'm glad that you're rethinking Mozart. I do that periodically. In fact I do it every year or two. Maybe even more often. The only point I would take issue with is that I don't believe it's necessary to reject 90% of what you've done before -- rather you build upon it and modify it. When you play Mozart (or any other composer) you are painting a complex, multi-dimensional picture of his world as seen through your eyes. Everything you have done contributes to the richness of that picture. There is no such thing as starting from scratch. And there is no such thing as eliminating your own personality from your performance. As any actor knows, you must find something inside yourself that resonates with everything you think your character is.
From Roy Sonne
Posted on January 13, 2008 at 1:15 AM
Megan said:
"Performing is part of the learning process too - an essential part of what you've described. Yes, taking a month off in the summer just to practice might be what you mean, but I don't think we can stop doing auditions - or rather stop preparing for auditions - completely until something sorts itself out."
"you can't say, 'look, I'm in the middle of a process of discovery'."

Yes, I absolutely agree. The process of discovery is a lifelong one. We can't wait till we arrive at the final truth because we never will. And we must keep on performing and auditioning. Yes we can take a month during the summer to re-evaluate and modify our playing -- knowing in advance that it will not be final. At some point, as we approach an important concert or audition, we decide: this is it for now, I'm not going to change anything more for this performance. And we all learn how much time we need. Some of us need two weeks or more without any changes. Some of us only need a couple of days. And some of us feel secure enough to do new things in the performance that we never have done before -- new fingerings, new bowings, new musical ideas, new tempos etc. I have done that on occasion. And I've never been sorry. But on other occasions I've been afraid to depart from the way I had practiced it.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on January 13, 2008 at 6:21 AM
Thank you BOTH for your beautiful and thoughtful responses. Your words will resonate with me for a very long time.

As I go through this process - one that we do all undertake - I think the idea of "cutting back 90%" may mean that while we are building on what we have done before, things should still be approached with freshness and thoroughness.

I only say this because after many years of practicing the Scherzo from Schumann #2 I started it again this year as there are auditions on the horizon, and found myself really paying attention to so many physical things - being conscious of everything that I was doing. It was difficult at first, but after about two weeks the "thinking and analyzing" became very easy as I had developed a "sense of faith and truth" in the physical.

Granted, that was in the practice room, not behind a screen...

Anyway...maybe THIS should become a thread as well.

Norman Fischer introduced us to An Actor Prepares at Rice and I am SO thankful for that - have given copies out, have bought new copies for myself as the first copy ended up being worn out...

From Drew Lecher
Posted on January 13, 2008 at 7:24 AM

Megan and Roy have said terrific things.

I would just add that I also believe in the process of never-ending growth and development both technically and artistically. Aside from a controlled, short and focused rest from performing it usually is best and far more practical to keep out there on stage.

Pace your modifications and apply the technical details into the thoroughness of your work in the repertoire. Literally feel the growth in all aspects as you develop the passages — add numerous variations of dynamics with appropriately varied interpretation and always use a number of rhythms, including the shifts.

With Mozart in particular, I always think of play-writes, composers of operas (as Mozart) and novelists who use an incredible array of characters to contribute and make the work — as Roy, mentioned some only have a short line and are gone, but that brief moment contributed amazingly to the story.

Mozart is like this — his phrases constantly change, even in mid-sentence, and it is so challenging and exhilarating to depict all the parts.

You and Megan, and Roy and I, and all have to step into the music and the moment and live it to the fullest — this must be done while practicing, also.

Just do it and enjoy it:-)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 14, 2008 at 2:19 AM
Could one see "rethinking Bach" in the same way? You all are so far ahead of me . . . but coming back to Bach recently, playing the Preludio in E on violin again after having played it as a teen, and learning the cello suites for the first time on viola after a gap in playing of 8 years, I feel like I see something like this happening to me. A lot of extraneous stuff--that 90%--has fallen away leaving the music fresh, almost new.
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on January 14, 2008 at 3:18 AM
I think so...but I'm not going to speak as a 'resident expert' here =). Philosophically, I guess it's safe to say that an open mind and heart, one that's always striving and searching, can look at anything and say "all of these years I've known you and every time I meet you I find out something new..."
From Roy Sonne
Posted on January 14, 2008 at 4:44 AM
Yes! thank you, Drew, for your beautiful thoughts. I think it was Donald Francis Tovey who said that Mozart's heart was always in the theater, and that if you really wanted to understand his instrumental music you should imagine it as music for the stage -- that is to say, the Mozartean stage which always depicts a colorful, detailed and complex 18th century society organized by complex rules, customs and traditions, every character knowing his/her precise place in an ordered, hierarchical society, and within that context there are all sorts of little mini-dramas going on, all sorts of innuendos and shades of meaning -- the chambermaids,for example, in their uniforms, bowing and curtseying very properly while one leans over to the other and says "look at that idiot of a Duke. He's so fat he can't fit into his pants."
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on January 14, 2008 at 5:28 AM
Ahhh...this is why I love coming here...need to read those Tovey books again!
From Roy Sonne
Posted on January 14, 2008 at 6:05 AM
Sam, You're a man after my own heart. You've read Stanislavsky and Tovey too. Perhaps you've even read Henry Pleasants:)
From Drew Lecher
Posted on January 15, 2008 at 1:22 AM
Roy & Sam —
Looks like I have to catch up on my reading…

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