How to Reconcile with Stylistic Choices

April 15, 2020, 7:56 PM · Hello, as someone who is simultaneously a teacher and a student, I have come across some interesting disagreements between my students and me, as well as my teacher and me. To preface it a little bit, I respect my teacher and my students, and my students respect me--and from respect comes trust. I am okay that my teacher's interpretation of certain pieces differ from my personal taste, and I am also fine that my students will sometimes play things differently (as long as they are not blatantly incorrect, by which I mean outright incorrect reading of what is on the page or poor posture). For reference, I have noticed that my student's personal preferences differ as we started our journey through Mozart's e-minor sonata, and I have (only internally) disagreed with my teacher's interpretations since we had begun delving into Bach.

When I study pieces, both with instructions and without, I like to listen to different recordings from different artists, and I would even sometimes compare how one artist's interpretation has changed over time. As an avid shopaholic, I also purchase different editions of the same piece and study the differences and juxtapose it to the Urtext (if available). What I have noticed, both in terms of Bach and Mozart, is that people play things vastly differently. For instance, Hilary Hahn's reading of Mozart e-minor is significantly different from that of KyungWha Chung, former often going for crisp, detache sound while the latter producing more grounded, legato sound. Midori's Bach employs minimal vibrato while Milstein seems to prefer a fuller vibrato. Even across editions of sheet music, differences emerge, from something as little as bowing to something as big as dynamic disagreements (often where the composer was not entirely clear). What I have gathered and concluded over the years was that there really is no "wrong" way to play anything, which may well be an opinion, but that is my current opinion, at the very least.

But then what do you do as an instructor when your student's interpretation differs from yours? I have thus far elected to let their interpretation take flight, reinforcing their imagination--as long as they are deliberate in doing it, and as long as they can clearly articulate why they want it that way. This choice, of course, comes from my gentle nudging to have them listen to multiple recordings and a little bit of background research of the piece itself and the composer, not at mere whims. Am I naïve and irresponsible in doing so? Should I be guiding them all the way through, imparting them what I have gathered over the years to be my preferred way of playing? (This sentence seems awfully charged, but here it is.)

What do I do as a student? So far I have elected to follow my instructor because I trust them all the way through, and I respect them as an artist, but having stepped into such a personal territory as Bach, do I continue following or do I voice my dissent? My current thought process is to learn the way they play it, and modify what I do not like much later, when I am at liberty to play it (perhaps at a personal recital) whatever the way. But as a student, I am inclined to say that since I am in the learning position, I should absorb as much as they give and follow through and through, even if it means I later decide I don't like it. But what if the disagreement is so drastic that you no longer enjoy playing the piece? Though I dread the day this happens, I feel as though this is a real concern, both for my sake and for my students.

To summarize:
Do you let your student exercise artistic liberty, or do you keep it strictly on your ground?
If you disagree with your instructor on an interpretive way, is it important to voice it?

What do you think?

Replies (23)

April 15, 2020, 9:29 PM · I've always asked my teacher how they goes their opinion about that choice and just said, what if I tried it this way? I've only been with them since high school, but they were accepting of my choices but also willing to point out when they didn't work or weren't true to the composer's intentions. We had many conversations on interpretation and style, and asking questions and discussing choices is a good way to start developing your own style in a sensible way.
Edited: April 15, 2020, 9:40 PM · I think it's always worth a conversation -- if that's what you want to spend your lesson time on. That's what I've learned -- I can push back against a half dozen stylistic preferences throughout my pieces, but then if that takes ten minutes, I lose that time somewhere else. Also I've noticed that my teacher has really good taste, so I'm inclined to at least try it his way and to try to see his perspective. After all I'm there to learn, not to prove myself. Especially with solo Bach, which I don't have the musical maturity to fathom, and will only in the end be able to play a few movements therefrom, it's good to know that I'm getting advice from someone who learned them all very thoroughly during his own education. That immediately makes his view much more informed than mine can be just from listening to recordings.

I was playing a piece for the first time -- one that I selected for myself because I'm building a recital -- and he stopped me in the faster section. He said, "You are trying to have a scherzando idea there. But I wouldn't do that. Try more grounded strokes." Feeling defeated, I sought ammunition in recordings only to discover that his approach was adopted uniformly therein, even though he was not familiar with the piece.

Curious to know what you're working on with your teacher at the moment. Which concerto, for example?

April 15, 2020, 11:56 PM · I think that for students old enough to think for themselves (or who exhibit an artistic sensibility that is instinctive when young), the teacher should point out when something doesn't work. If it's for factual reasons (uncharacteristic of the period, a violation of the composer's intent, etc.) that should be pointed out. If it doesn't work convincingly as an interpretation, that should be explained. The student benefits from being helped to figure out what does work, without having their own ideas shoved aside in favor of the teacher's. The different students of the same teacher should still sound like individuals, despite usually bearing some hallmarks of the teacher's own style.
April 16, 2020, 5:11 AM · With regard to Paul's comment about a conversation taking away from something else in a lesson, everything we do in a lesson takes time away from something else, so that's not a valid issue in my opinion. Often having a conversation where something gets resolved leaves a student feeling more positive than if the conversation were avoided so there was more playing time in the lesson.
Interpretations are just that -- one person's opinion about how something should go, and not a hard, cold fact. I've always been bothered by Pablo Casals's supposed remark to a student "You play Bach your way and I'll play it his way." As if someone 250 years later could ever really know what the composer meant or wanted!

The only time interpretation (other than blatant error) becomes really important in my opinion is at an audition, when it all becomes a matter of a "guess what's on the auditioner's mind" game. Many valid interpretations at an audition get rejected because the auditioners were looking for something else. And unfortunately many who audition but don't win leave feeling they are failures when in fact they may be great musicians who just didn't have the tone or interpretation the auditioners wanted.

So by all means, in my opinion, start the conversation with either a teacher or a student, ask them why they feel their interpretation is a good one. Also ask them if they might consider a different interpretation and present it to them.

Interpretations of the classics have always evolved during the years since the compositions were first written, sometimes with more vibrato sometimes with less, sometimes with egregious portamento, sometimes with crisp separation of the pitches, and all were valid in their times and for their audiences.

I've alway been bothered by teachers who teach with the attitude "It's my way or the highway." Music is an art and not a science and if there is no room for varying interpretations then a piece has lost any relevance.

In my sometimes not-so-humble opinion.

April 16, 2020, 6:59 AM · I guess my comment was based on a presumption that Chase's teacher was the inflexible sort in terms of style and interpretation but a very solid teacher in every other respect. What do you do when you have a teacher like that? That's what I was trying to answer. Maybe it wasn't the question. I read the OP twice but I'm still not sure I get what he is asking.
Edited: April 16, 2020, 8:52 AM · I think it comes down to the purpose of playing the instrument. If a student is planning to go to conservatory, they should be prepared to play in the preferences of that specific school and conform to get the proper acceptance of that school. If the student is playing just for their enjoyment and wants to explore interpretations then that is what they should do. It would be up to you to reign them in when they get too far from the composer's intentions or need to work on technique. I think you see this in famous performers has they develop. At first they play it safe and do what experts feel is mostly right. Then once they achieve fame they begin to perform as they feel they should. My parents who were art historians always said, there is no wrong in art.
Edited: April 16, 2020, 7:41 AM · Before closing the book on stylistic choices I think everyone should listen to the interpretations of violinist Ivry Gitlis and of pianist Ivan Moravic. Both of these artists have greatly expanded my view of what one can do with music on the printed page.

I find it helpful to find a mental scenario to fit the music and work up an approach that tells that story (at least in my own mind).

Edited: April 16, 2020, 8:01 AM · "Especially with solo Bach [...] it's good to know that I'm getting advice from someone who learned them all very thoroughly during his own education."

I'd recommend caution with this assumption. There are divergent views on good interpretations, which change over time, and some interpretations are what they are mainly because they've been handed down from teacher to student. These get challenged over time, sometimes to much acclaim, by those breaking the pattern of repetition with "fresh" interpretations, often HIP, but more importantly musical inspiration.

In general, my answer to the OP would be that everyone has their own heart and mind, and if we weren't to play things as we feel them best ourselves, at least some of the time, there would be no point in us playing at all.

Regarding teacher-mandated interpretation or technique, there are additional concerns, because the instruction might be for a specific technical or learning issue. E.g. shifting for the sake of shifting, or playing it in a way that might have been done by a romantic interpreter to learn about that approach and to be able to do it.

So as a teacher and student, one should distinguish and clarify why a certain approach is being taken over another, and beyond that, there should be flexibility in interpretation when applicable.

However, in many/most cases with students, it's not a question of this interpretation or another, but of essentially no musical meaning when played as notes on paper, so guidance with interpretation, of any form, is much of the teaching. (Which is not to say that that interpretation is likely to be "right" - it's most likely not, but it's a start.)

April 16, 2020, 8:00 AM · Like OP I am both a student and a teacher. Student of viola, teacher of violin.

Do you let your student exercise artistic liberty, or do you keep it strictly on your ground?
For this, it depends on the student. For my younger ones, we stick to the Suzuki or grade exam recordings, and encourage them to perform and interpret a piece in a similar way, however there is always an allowance for preference. I also find encouraging the youngsters to come up with story lines for a piece, really helps in their interpretation of the notes, how they work together. Understanding that minor keys usually mean sadness, major keys mean happiness (loosely anyway), is great in their stories and creative thought development.

I have one older (teenage) student that I have taken more recently, who is currently working towards Grade 8 ARBSM, and we are having a look at Mozart VC 2. Her current assignment is to listen to different professional (this is key) recordings of this concerto, comparing to her edition (Barenreiter), as well as looking at other editions of the work. This is proving a good time for her to really consider her own stylistics playing, how she wants to interpret the work and whose style (e.g. Hilary Hahn or Perlman among many others), she really wants to incorporate into her own playing.

I had one very interesting conversation with her about stylistic interpretation of Allegro
1st movt from Concerto in F, 'L'autunno',( Op. 8 No. 3), currently on the Grade 8 syllabus. I was explaining about vibrato becoming a big part of violin works in the 20th and 19th centuries, however, much before that, particularly baroque music, didn't really have that. She is keen to keep the authenticity of Vivaldi's works, without overdoing vibrato, perhaps not using it at all. Again, I am leaving this up to her. But having the conversation, gets the creative thought processes flowing.

(That being said, I generally prefer to teach beginners to intermediate, however, teaching this teenager has been an absolute delight!)

If you disagree with your instructor on an interpretive way, is it important to voice it?
Speaking as a student of viola, (and an adult), my teacher knows that I am perfectly capable of deciding how I want to interpret something. However, I do rely on their guidance for fingerings, bowing and what not, because generally hers are much easier! We have similar conversations to the ones I mentioned above, it really helps consider which direction I want to take the music in!

April 16, 2020, 9:43 AM · If we are talking about Bach/Mozart, you as student or teacher need to make a decision whether you want to attempt historically informed performance or not. In my son's program, they all learn the works of both Bach and Mozart with a clear ear (and eye) to historical performance, including many of the students playing around with cheap Baroque bow for Bach. But they don't play on period instruments or take off their chin rests. The teachers in that program insist that at least on a first learn they try to learn Bach and Mozart historical style, though of course even within that context there is much that can be altered in interpretation. I think historically informed performance is a valuable lesson to be learned and very worthwhile to attempt. Once they have that foundation, they can choose to be looser (or even stricter in the case of Rachel Barton Pine!) with their historical interpretation.

My younger daughter's teacher (different program) has minimal experience with historically informed performance, and I have struggled a bit with some of her suggestions. My daughter (age 10) doesn't confront her (usually) but I sometimes question things. However, my daughter has heard her brother play Bach and Mozart for years and so that sounds "normal" to her. She usually ends up playing stylistically more similar to her brother than her imitate what you hear most often! Her teacher tends to romanticize Baroque pieces quite a bit but doesn't seem to mind when my daughter plays in a more historically-informed way. It's kind of a weird dynamic, though, because my daughter will say, "That's how my brother plays it," and her teacher doesn't question it since her brother studies with top faculty with a whole lot more experience in these matters.

Now, when it comes to specific interpretation, the general practice we've experienced has been that you can interpret how you want if you can justify it. It's all about understanding of the music. You must have a good reason -- melodically, harmonically, thematically, stylistically -- why you are making your choices. I think it is good to give latitude in this way. If something isn't working, however, then that is the point when you ask the student or teacher to justify or explain their reasoning. If they can't (and you can't either), then try out a variety of different other options.

Also, in many cases, kids end up playing something in a certain way not for an interpretative reason, but for a technical one. That is critical to point out!

April 16, 2020, 10:31 AM · "I am okay that my teacher's interpretation of certain pieces differ from my personal taste"

I think it's fair to ask what the source of your "personal taste" is. Your teacher's may reflect a lifetime of reflection, experimentation, listening, and score study. What is yours based on--listening to Hillary Hahn?
(personally, I find it unfortunate that she has become the Interpretation Queen for so many young people).

Being trained as a musician doesn't mean following this or that interpretation. It means being trained to think like a musician. I know this is the ideal, and that many teachers simply want to tell students what to do and many students want to be told what to do.

April 16, 2020, 6:45 PM · Chase, what are you working on these days with your teacher?
April 16, 2020, 7:13 PM · @Scott

Hilary Hahn occupies a very unique pantheon of interpreters. In part because to make a lot of her interpretations work, the prevailing advice is to "play like Hilary", which is easier said than done. For example I will take her Bach recordings over Milstein's (yeah, I said it, if you want a fight), and her Ysaye 3 over Vengerov's.

That being said, Ray Chen recently did a Youtube recording of practicing Mozart 5, and his belief is very much that a teacher (or a peer in his case) is there to guide a player towards tasteful interpretation, and that being too rigid is not very productive. There are very few things that are "set in stone" (Hilary and Milstein, for example, use vibrato in their Bach recordings). If the player can make it convincing, it is a tasteful interpretation. At an advanced level, it should be more of a collaboration between student and teacher anyway.

Edited: April 17, 2020, 1:48 AM · In a teaching relationship, the question to know the answer to with regard to interpretation is "what is the basis?"

If you as a teacher don't have a solid grounding in the factors behind a specific approach to interpretation, you're not really equipped to push one style vs. another. "So and so plays it that way" is not an adequate basis for narrowing.

On the other hand to the extent that your listening has made you familiar with the existing range of performance approaches, that can inform your sense of whether a student has gone rogue and left orbit in a way that might harm their progress, and you are positioned to help the student place their preference in a context of possibilities.

When a teacher has a strongly developed theory of interpretation, that becomes one of the factors a student has to weigh in choosing whether to work with them. Is it a plus, a minus, or a sideline issue?

April 17, 2020, 2:47 AM · Personally I think Lydia’s post was spot on. I started to discuss interpretation with my teacher fairly early ( having a musical background in other instruments ), and could explain why I did something in a particular way, It was an extremely positive (and occasionally humorous) learning experience.

I also think that adding some introduction to improvisation in Baroque music can make a student a stronger player (after they have a solid grounding in the basics of course).

April 17, 2020, 3:36 PM · For me, the bottom line is that there is no one interpretation of any of this music that is "right" in any relevant sense. The pertinent question is how a particular interpretation works for the individual. If that individual is a student, you may want to suggest alternative interpretations for his/her benefit/consideration. If you are the student, you should be prepared to explain why a particular interpretation works for you and be prepared to listen to your teacher's response and try what s/he suggests. But, I think that is it in terms of your questions.
Edited: April 17, 2020, 7:53 PM · Wow, I did not expect this many replies!

Paul, my teacher and I just started digging into the good stuff in Bach, namely the second fuga.

Scott, finding my own voice was the first thing I was concerned with when I picked up the instrument (probably--definitely--not the thing to focus on when you start, but since violin is my second instrument, and I was able to produce decent enough voices on the piano, I wanted to explore the tone and the characteristics early on!). I often don't agree with all pieces played by a player, and some I find are not to my liking (not to say they are bad, of course!). For instance, I prefer Nathan Milstein's Solo Bach works to Hilary Hahn's Solo Bach Works (Sorry James!), and I find Oistrakh's Beethoven Sonatas to move me more than does James Ehnes' (simplified examples--I do listen to more than just two recordings!) My preferences, which are largely internal and intuitive and often with no technical bases, have gone through some major changes since I started learning the instrument and I expect it to change some more as I delve deeper into the studies. Are my teacher's interpretations more respectable and educated than mine? Absolutely! But I like to haughtily think (hubris incoming?) that I have been traversing through the world of music long enough to form at least a personal opinion.

Thank you everyone for your responses, I think I have a better idea of where to take things both in terms of learning and also in terms of teaching!

EDIT: Paul, I didn't see your second reply! I'm so sorry I was a bit verbose in my original post. But you are correct in assuming rigidity in terms of style and interpretation, but that may well be because we are working on Bach. For every other pieces, he's been accepting of my take on them as long as I was able to back it up with a valid reason and a reference recording.

Edited: April 17, 2020, 11:49 PM · I admire HH for her musical intelligence. She is the master of bow division and control, our own Ansel Adams of sound: such clarity in her contours and patterns, such dynamic range, such a contained intensity in every millimeter of bow. She never emotes for the sake of it, never spends bow accidentally, never wastes any bow stroke. In a way she's a modern day Kreisler, with such a compact, penetrating bowing style, and focused vibrato, but with flawless technique.

P.S. she rolls out of bed to do her daily Flesch, and lets us take a peek at what's under the hood

April 18, 2020, 12:34 AM · I don't think that it should be necessary to produce a reference recording to have an interpretation considered "legitimate". It suggests that the teacher/student is unable to think for themselves.
April 18, 2020, 11:38 AM · Not being a teacher I won't utter any opinion on how teachers are supposed to deal with this issue. Further disclosure: I have not had violin lessons for almost 40 years. I have instead learned from conductors and chamber music coaches, both of whom tend to spend more time on interpretation than most violin teachers.

If I am a student I do think it a good idea to work on playing the way the tacher suggests--even if I am inclined to disagree and would want to do it differently if I had to perform the piece. There is value in trying to adapt to different styles and getting to experience in some depth various ideas. If you get around to ensemble playing you'll need to compromise anyway and either agree on a common solution (in chamber music) or implement the conductor's idea (in orchestras).

April 18, 2020, 12:55 PM · Jeewon,
My beef with HH has more to do our reliance on Youtube in finding various interpretations. She has a large presence there, so it gets her outsized exposure. Just now, I tried searching for various violin concertos. Guess whose name has consistently come up first?

Hillary Hahn. Why is that? Is it because she's the best? I don't think so. There is something else going on, and somehow her management has managed to game Youtube so that she comes up first. So that is what young people will click on. It happens on Google as well, so I guess I'm not surprised.

April 18, 2020, 2:14 PM · I have no doubt HH and/or her management are savvy with social media, given her Instagram presence and association with Two Set. I'd be surprised if artists today are unaware of SEO. But gaming YouTube? It's a strange notion. What search engines do you use? You do realize nearly all search engines track your activity and feed you more of the same, right? You must be searching HH a lot. Try using It serves up results randomly. HH is still there, but so are others, marquee, lesser known and unknown names.

Your beef is with our reliance on YT, but then you blame HH for having a large presence there because of some conspiracy to take over the interpretive minds of young people. She must be trying to corrupt them with her "not the best" performances. Oh the humanity!

I've become acutely aware of some Americans' notions of "the best" creeping up all over the place lately, as in "my soloist is better than yours. No she's not. Yes she is. No she's not. Yes she is." What's the point of trying to identify "the best" in the arts?

HH will always be among those I refer to because of her amazing bow control. It's silly to look for an interpretation you feel is the best, or the soloist you feel is the best, because what is the best? Even if you like one interpretation the most, what are you going to do, copy it? As a teacher, copying, especially mimicking is where I would draw the line.

The reason to study the great artists from all periods is to try to understand how they do what they do, and why. Does it serve the score, in so far as we understand it? Are they just being indulgent? Or innovative?

April 18, 2020, 4:11 PM · HH is absolutely one of the best violinists performing today, personally I wouldn’t say she’s the best but clearly in that top tier category. When an artist is performing at that level, who’s “the best” is almost always a personal opinion. I think there’s great value in looking at various artists’ interpretation of a piece, not just your current favorite artist.

But as Jeewon says, the risk there is for someone to start just copying that style rather than using it as a learning tool or source of inspiration.

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