Taking a Measure of the Music, One Bar at a Time

October 22, 2022, 5:41 PM · If you listen carefully to five recordings of the same piece, you’ll observe that no two moments are alike. The number of combinations has no limit when it comes to juggling music’s recipe. Sonic texture, music’s mood, and rhythmic rubato alter more than just tempo. Balance of voices is changing as well with every phrase.

This may sound like a daunting task for a musician to keep up with all of the changes, but music is designed to follow a very predictable path. However, it’s fascinating to study the amount of possible changes you have at your disposal. You may start with a different pace, color, or attitude, which in turn will cause a ripple effect. The job of the conductor is to convey these parameters in the simplest way possible. The job of the musician is to know the logical outcome of each gesture. Following a musical line is predictable because of the perfection of musical design.

How to Create Changes Without Unraveling

Want to change a dynamic and articulation, two components that will add richness to your interpretation? Change is never easy, but it’s something we all have to contend with. Here are two things to look out for:

1. Before making the change, get your house in order. Make sure your tempo changes are proportional, with eighth and sixteenth notes steady. If your dynamics are clear and controlled before the change, a new dynamic can more easily be integrated. It will stand out in its own clear compartment, in sharp relief to everything around it.

Playing proportionately is a lofty goal, one that makes your overall playing easier and more efficient. The trick is to listen for the dominant sound, rhythm, and pacing of the ensemble, and shadow it from beat to beat. It’s tempting to let loose with your own interpretation, even smother a nice pianissimo with some random virtuosic surge. However, think of the technique involved in restraint, and cherish it above the technique involved in excess and standing out.

2. It’s rare to make a change without some fallout. For instance, adding a warmer, bigger sound may find you running out of bow. Or changing the rubato of a phrase may make you completely forget several fingerings. If those fingerings were practiced carefully, but temporarily forgotten, they will probably come back in the second play-through. That’s the wonderful things about polishing the music – hard work helps integrate the details in your mind, your muscle memory, and your ear. If something’s dislodged, a gentle reminder will pop it back into place.

Making Big Changes to Prepare for Anything

Changing the course of a musical phrase takes an act of will and sheer decisiveness. Yet once you’ve done it, it’s relatively easily to make it work. The laws of music of are predictable, so when a change takes place, it becomes the “new normal”. Lots of rules apply: waiting for beats to finish, being sensitive to the pacing of the group, listening for balance, etc. The most important thing is to keep the older interpretation and the newer one separate in your mind.

Ivan Galamian wrote about “correlation”, a process which sets up the correct mental awareness that will trigger the proper movement. This is a good way to start the lifetime habit of keeping the brain supple. When you spontaneously decide to play a slightly different tempo, you’re setting a musical moment in motion. The mind kicks into gear and starts arranging things in a certain order. No wonder music is often cited as good for the brain. So much beauty can be produced by virtue of change, if only you take a moment to decide on something new.

One bar at a time is a good mantra, since the mind has many rooms to navigate in. This slower pace is perfect for music’s development, because, after careful importing of several musical ideas, the brain consolidates. It produces a new musical product, developed slowly and thoroughly.

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