Beyond the Bar Lines

The holiday is over, and my students return next week for the start of the spring term – which means I must get organised! As I start to plan the upcoming term, with the usual emphasis on finessing pieces for exams later in the spring, and encouraging students to think “musically”, a quote from the pianist Artur Schnabel comes to mind, that bar lines – like children – should be seen and not heard.

When I introduce the way music is constructed and written to novice students, I explain that bar lines are there to “keep the music tidy”, and that each ‘measure’ of music is separated by a bar line. This immediately sets them up as notional hurdles to keep the unruly sheep of notes tethered in the right place. Quite soon after, students meet phrase marks, and are then presented with a conflict: bar lines forces the eye read music vertically, while phrase marks ask the eye to read horizontally.

Many novice students play music bar by bar,  literally “vertical” playing, since seeing the notes contained within each bar as a single entity that must not be allowed to stray along the stave seems to force the hand and fingers to adopt a piston-like up and down action, which can result in very chunky, “notey” and overly accented playing. Meanwhile, I try to encourage students to see music in terms of phrases, or “sentences”, as long strings of melody, and urge them to “read ahead” so that they are continually anticipating what is to come. Alongside this, I ask students to think about the movement of their hands, and to play with more relaxed, elliptical movements (“polishing” was one of the words I used with Bella to help her achieve a lovely fluidity in her Bach Prelude). This is one of the great conflicts of playing the piano: the mechanical action of the instrument requires an up-down movement to produce a sound, but to produce beautiful sound – which is what we all strive for, whether the quietest pianissimo or the most forceful fortissimo – one must free arms, hands and fingers to play with looser, more parallel movements, and learn how to distribute weight through the fingers or to allow the arms and back to draw weight away from the fingers.

With practice, one learns to read the music horizontally, and good keyboard geography will enable a student to stop checking their hand/finger position every bar. And so, from reading line by line, one goes on to take in the whole page in a single glance. I tell my adult students that reading music is like driving: one must look at the road ahead to anticipate hazards, speed markings, and stop signs. Anticipation is crucial, for it allows one to play fluently, and seeing beyond the bar lines helps to avoid placing unnecessary emphasis on the first beat of every bar. When looking at new music, I now ask all my students, children or adults, to point out phrase marks, tempo, dynamic and articulation markings, and any other signs or symbols which they need to be aware of in their journey through the score. Thus, the music becomes a map – and the job of the pianist is to navigate and interpret it.

Of course, it would be far easier, in many ways, if bar lines did not exist. Without these hurdles and dividers, our eyes would automatically take in the score horizontally and read along the stave rather than up and down it, and we would be able to achieve more nuanced phrasing and fluent playing. As it is, the majority of music we encounter will be divided into measures, and so we must train our eyes to see past the bar lines, to read the score as a whole rather than in small sections, and to strive for a coherent, fluid and well-shaped reading,

With all this in mind, I really should be practising…….