The first time you play chamber music stays in your memory forever. For me, it was playing duets at the age of eight with a boy named Jody Tallal in suburban Dallas. Very little about that day is vivid, except that no adult felt the necessity to check in on us, even though we played almost non-stop for almost the entire day. Who would worry about two boys who did their homework on time, while other kids our age were jumping off garage roofs? We were simply playing unsupervised violin duets.
That day, no one led the playing. Thank heavens, "The music led itself." (Fun fact - this famous expression has been attributed to Pleyel. It’s been overused ever since, and still doesn’t make sense.) I had no idea how to do an upbeat, but somehow we never lost our spirit. Our energy must have been infectious and rambunctious, because I imagine we charged through it rather clumsily and had numerous collisions. I’m sure I tried to leave after less than an hour, but Jody kept putting the music on the stand. Eight hours later, without a TV break or reading together from the World Book, I was released.
I learned from Jody’s persistence how different two individuals could be when playing chamber music. He became "Joseph," and googling him shows he is now a multi-millionaire, advising doctors how to invest their money. He must have quit music. None of the numerous hobbies mentioned in his bio indicate otherwise.
Thank you, Joseph, for a great memory. If you ever want to play duets again, I’m available this week and next.
A Teachable Moment
Is there a glue that holds together music? Two boys playing duets when they haven’t even gotten out of first position certainly demonstrates the power of momentum and anticipation -- perhaps those are the glue. We had anticipation - that ability to feel where the music was going -- yet didn’t know it. We didn’t need to know it.
But can something so simple and so inherent in music such anticipation and momentum be eliminated?
I watched a chamber group made up of students demonstrate the destructive power of one individual who single-handedly eliminated the anticipation that each player, and the music, depended on.
It doesn’t take much to bring music to a nebulous, wishy-washy standstill. The person in question started dictating the beat, as he heard it, which was not the prevailing beat. (One thing you can count on in music: there’s always a sense of where most of the players are feeling the beat. It doesn’t even have to mean that they’re together, but musicians, like humans in general, seek unanimity.)
Because this group had only one talkative player, it’s no surprise that anything he said went. The more he talked, the worse it got. When the violist had the melody, the opinionated guy reminded her to listen to his eighth notes. The fact that he didn’t play his eighths with the right momentum and drive was irrelevant. He had more notes, more "experience" and more nerve. The young girl was helpless and eager to please.
I saw this take place while observing a coach in a master class, who had asked the students to demonstrate how they lead and talk to each other. After witnessing the mess the leader was creating, the teacher shot him a look and told him he was slowing down his eighths and leading without responsibility. His pedagogical moment was turned on its head. You can change the dynamics and where to place ritards, but messing with the beat and where it’s heading will undermine music’s most essential element.
Players take pride in their sense of rhythm. When a leader dictates the beat without respecting that sense of rhythm as well as the music's innate pulse, it does not enhance or alter the meaning of the music. It just causes trouble.
A New York Minute
Musical theater is a place where feeling that anticipation, momentum and innate movement in music is important to carry the performance forward. But it's not easy.
For example: playing a Stephen Sondheim score. It’s hard enough after five rehearsals, but in the first read-through, it’s normal for the players to be derailed and the music to seem unplayable. It takes two conductors to navigate where the music is heading: one to show where the songs are supposed to be, and the other to drag along the orchestra that doesn’t know what hit it. Unfortunately, the two conductors have to reside in one body.
One of the most memorable lines I ever heard a conductor say came out of a rehearsal for Sondheim. You have to be a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners maestro to pave the way for Sondheim’s fast, nuanced, and multi-layered songs. One of the most powerful Broadway conductors was leading Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Remember that singers of this caliber know exactly where to sing each bar and each beat, no matter if the orchestra is, for all intent and purposes, lost. You can count on chaos at the first rehearsal of a Sondheim celebration.
In this group of stars there was one singer that had the misfortune of being the only singer on stage who was not famous. Unfortunately, she depended on the orchestra to help her, and she made the mistake of listening to what the musicians were actually playing while they were floundering.
This soprano expressed her confusion to the conductor by saying she couldn’t tell where the beat was. His answer may have disturbed her, but it delighted me. He bellowed at her in a voice of god-like command, “There is no beat.” While that probably didn’t assure her, it probably raised her level of performance exponentially very quickly.
It takes great Broadway singers to demonstrate what leading really is. The music is its own complete entity, and the person leading it is simply trying to define it, and keep up with it.
When Carol Burnett sings, it has the same finesse, momentum and clarity as her comedic timing. To study the art of leading, the player shows his respect for the inevitable beauty and life-force of music.Tweet
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