Notes to Performers and Judges

March 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

We need to eventually end the modern habit of treating music performance as a kind of sporting event. This relatively recent competition culture (and worse, overspecialization culture) is compromising the incredibly inspiring art of concert giving.

When listening to different performances on the radio there is an abundance of “error-free” performances combined with a terrible lack of imaginative playing. Would it not be possible to have the balance tipped in the other direction – to hear many varied recordings with enormously imaginative playing but with the errors left in? Where are the recordings where pianists leave in errors . . or if not then at least inspiring deviations from the mass of other recordings and ‘established’ interpretations . . and why do musicians need to feel and act as slaves? The attention to playing accurately and in an established manner is a hindrance to the pianist’s great art, dampening their ability to think from first principles to bring authenticity and conviction to their playing, reducing opportunity to apply improvisatory elements and drowning out the imaginative, visceral spirit and capacity for original decisions; such omissions all together are the diametric opposite of what it means to be an artist. Who frankly cares about wrong notes when they are surrounded by a torrent of other more alarming, inspired surprises in the interpretation? – only others with the same fearful copycat instinct care – but sometimes unknown to the performer, most of the audience is more developed than the performer in these set of expectations.

Competition culture and overspecialization have been forcing it this way; many recordings are difficult to distinguish from the work of admirably skillful robots. Among many things strangely absent now from teaching, the student should be expected to play variations of anything being studied (keeping the spirit of the composition and demonstrating how many elements of the work are arbitrary); attempts to improve the works (including very great works) should not come across as a radical concept; compositions by music students to be played to each other (instrumentalists that is – not composing students); study of counterpoint should be interpreted as improvisations using counterpoint – not notes written on paper nor sight-readings of Bach; we are just getting started now to seeing some truly inspiring concert performances down the track.

To talk about piano competitions, let us have some of these competitions replaced with competitions in counterpoint – I cannot overstate how the pleasure and affection would rise for the audience witnessing concerts that come about from this quite different culture. If this is asking for too much then the performance of finished works can continue but at the very least the judges should purely isolate (a) communication, (b) imagination of interpretation and innovations within playing and (c) technical brilliance; and then give a score to each but calculate along the lines of 3a + 2b + c. Robots would move to the bottom of the list.

Now, it is said in defense of this obsession over technical brilliance (and even more dangerous, ‘correctness’, the central and most direct path killing imagination) that the addition of errors in a performance will at least not actually improve the musical effect, thus that errors should anyway be avoided. This does sound reasonable. But I am afraid that I disagree wholeheartedly; my repudiation is brief: Concentration upon the attempt itself to avoid mistakes in performance compromises the opportunity to bring greater musical effect. While playing, if your thoughts are on trying to play correctly rather than imaginatively and convincingly then you are simply concentrating on the wrong subject, taking much less from the music than you could, failing to inspire the composer (if alive) and most importantly cheating the audience with boredom.

For the performer: Wrong notes should not be avoided while playing, nor should they a major talking point in teaching, allowing all concentration upon the imaginative communication of ideas. For the performer and producer: As for what is left on recordings, asymmetries, idiosyncratic technical slips and other imperfections in particular should be left on future recordings, sometimes even jubilantly, when the overall coherency from each small subconscious decision and the brilliance of communication are advanced as a whole.


§ 3 Responses to Notes to Performers and Judges

  • Teo says:

    You have a point there. We get so caught up in trying to make a piece sound the way it’s “supposed” to be played that we do not realize we’re becoming more like machines, reproducing scores perfectly but without real emotion and feeling behind it. “Beethoven meant this to be played that way” ok but perhaps you have your own idea of how a phrase could sound? This should be encouraged. And yes, I would love if I could stop caring about hitting wrong notes every now and again, it would be very liberating.

  • Katey says:

    I totally agree – having brilliant technical proficiency certainly becomes the mental task at hand when competing in competitions. I think two kinds of practice should be had when preparing: firstly, slow technical practice to learn the notes, and then, secondly, giving the performer liberty to interpret and express the music itself. When your fingers are sound within the choreographed fingerwork these movements become second nature to actually expressing something through the music – which after all, IS actually the point.
    The reason why concert pianism is a dying art is because the individuality and freedom of expression has been extracted and instead replaced with ‘interpretive historical fact’ of what one should and should not do. Yes convention is important, but at what price? There was a reason that Beethoven and Mozart were master improvisers – because not everything was left to dots on the page and ‘convention’!!

  • Katey says:

    (and master concert performers might I add aswell)

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