The Technique of Playing Musically

April 7, 2018, 2:13 PM · I attended two master classes which demonstrated extreme examples of the nature of playing musically versus technically. The incomparable pianist Leon Fleischer was speaking in philosophical terms about a Beethoven Sonata, reaching rhetorical heights that mirrored the elegant phrasing of the music itself. I was 22, and as I got dazed and confused in his description of the music, I wondered what his brilliant prose had to do with the actual skill involved in playing it. Alas, it took me several years to realize the musical part of a performance develops out of the skills we learn from an early age, but tend to overlook when we get caught up in hundreds of other details. What Mr. Fleischer offered, in terms of psychological and metaphysical insights, was a lovely, poetic expression. Even though it may have inspired the students, it fell short of describing the technical language we communicate with when we are practicing at home or rehearsing with an ensemble.

The Most Memorable Musical Story

Even Leonard Bernstein needed to learn rehearsal skills when he conducted the New York Philharmonic near the beginning of his career. He was almost as well-known as an orator as he was a conductor and composer. After listening to a very long, flowery, and yes, philosophical explanation of what he wanted, the Principal Oboist Harold Gomberg asked, “Lenny, what do you want: louder, softer, faster or slower?”


This simple but true observation, a remark from one great musician to another, would be cause for dismissal or probation on stages where conductors think of themselves as gods, or at least bosses. Gomberg was a student of Marcel Tabuteau at Curtis, and he had learned the subtle, but exact ways that music can effectively change. Anyone who wants to learn about the practicality of how music can be played more musically should study Tabuteau’s system. It demonstrates the musical possibilities inherent in any phrase. One of Tabuteau’s goals was to help musicians adapt to any request a conductor would make. Music has the elasticity to summon up emotions by simply making quantifiable changes. To learn more, go to I’ve never heard Bernstein’s answer to Gomberg, but I like to imagine him saying, “I just love to talk. Please play however you would like.” His words and his personality were indistinguishable from his music.

Make Less Faces, More Music

The other master class featured a student violinist who was moving in such an extreme, affected way that the artist-teacher felt compelled to address how bad it looked to the audience. He didn’t pull any punches with her, because it was actually a pretty serious problem. As great violinists are usually pretty good mimics, he didn’t hesitate to do an imitation of her. In spite of her hurt feelings, I wonder if she benefitted from his observation. It’s not often that we’re faced with such an obvious mirror of our faults.

You don’t need to make anguished and expressive faces, nor do you need the words of a great philosopher to describe the music. The music speaks for itself, but its simplicity and logic can easily be ignored because it’s hard to put it into words.

Conductors make their living using words to convey what their hands cannot. String players need to have that conversation with themselves, to remind that them what they tend to forget, and to remember techniques that make the music speak and flow.

If you tend to exaggerate dynamics, or leave them out completely, then a little life is squeezed out of the music. If the rhythmic proportion is a little uneven, check your overwrought emotions at the door of your practice room. Patience is a musician’s best friend, for it gives him time to finish a phrase without rushing to the next bar line or change of bow. “Destination Disease” may get you to the end of the piece sooner, but it will compress and distort the music.

Seeing Music as a Topographical Map

Every phrase has elements of life. The sound itself flows with the vibrating string, which should never sound harsh. The amplitude of the string should never be constricted, and the bow should never scrape against the string. The vibrato completely changes the width around the pitch, so when one forgets to use it, the life of the sound is diminished. The difference between when vibrato is used and when it stops is so striking that the audience will hear it, but the oblivious violinist will not even notice it. The greatest difficulty of music is how easy it is to be unaware. If you wait until your teacher reminds you to vibrate or get into the string, it’s too late.

Musical possibilities may seem endless, but for all intent and purposes, they are specifically attuned to the musical context. Conductor shows a well-defined beat, musicians follow a set of unwritten rules which help them stay together, and as long as no “self-appointed heroes” or adrenaline junkies suddenly play out from the herd in a loud, aggressive or joking way, the music follows the course of a flowing river. Natural rules apply. The music reveals itself by the map of the score.

As we practice and look at the music, we see clues of where the music is heading, where it rises to reflect multiple sequences, and when the beats get faster but the tempo stays basically the same. We know the manuscript is as three dimensional as a topographical map, but it never tells us directly. We realize it to be true because a great conductor creates beautiful shapes with his or hands, and a great opera singer moves her body to reflect what the music is making her feel.

When our elementary school conductors said to increase the sound and energy when the pitches got higher, the seeds were planted for some sound wisdom. Some children listened, and others moved their bows faster without even knowing they were doing it. Message received! It’s never too late to remember what you learned in the fourth grade.

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April 8, 2018 at 08:42 PM · Excellent post to think about. Music is an inexact science. Little wonder that the work of Tomita flamed out so fast. It was a perfect rendition of the notes with no life to them.

My teacher used to tell me: "you can never master music, it always has something more to teach you." Now that I'm teaching some young musicians using the same methods I realize that he was correct there are nuances in even the most basic music that come out much later when you re-visit them. We can even learn how to make those miserable exercises musical.

April 8, 2018 at 08:49 PM · Well written.

April 9, 2018 at 04:15 AM · "...what do you want: louder, softer, faster or slower?”

How many of us have wanted to ask that at some point or another?! Love that story!

April 9, 2018 at 02:25 PM · I love the idea of thinking of the manuscript as a topographical map! It's so easy to see it as a one-dimensional sheet of paper, rather than a representation of a million possibilities. Thanks for another great article!

April 10, 2018 at 12:37 PM · George, you're right about the etudes being played more musically. It would be much easier if we didn't have an artificial barrier between musical interpretation and technique. It doesn't take much effort to add vibrato or sustain from note to note.

April 11, 2018 at 12:28 AM · Thank you all for your comments. I’m happy to hear how much others value music and the ways we think about it. I can hear Bernstein laughing about his encounter with Harold Gomberg. He loved orchestras and people, and never seemed to get bitter. The twinkle in his eyes and his great sense of humor probably got him through many rough days. The best lesson for us is to watch him conduct.

April 12, 2018 at 01:39 PM · If I was taught to musicality in my early years of learning violin (back in the 60’s) it went in one ear and out the other! I also like yeh topographical map analogy. Thank you an article with excellent points.

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