That’s “my” music!

How often a listener returning from a recital by an important performer remains unsatisfied. Not because of the imperfection of the artist’s playing but because of lack of penetration into the composer’s ideas – ideas that the amateur has cultivated lovingly and at length, developing his own special plan of interpretation in his own modest efforts at playing alone. How unwavering sometimes is an amateur’s conviction that he alone has found ideas and expressive possibilities in the piece that surpass everything he has heard in concert performance…….An amateur does not completely trust the professional. He treats each new public interpretation of his favorite work with jealousy, accusing the performer of superficial, insufficient love, and lack of selflessness in his chosen pursuits.

Samuil Feinberg

If you’re an amateur pianist like me, and you have a decent amount of repertoire in your fingers and brain, you probably hear the music you are learning, or have learnt, fairly regularly in concert, on the radio or on disc. Hearing other people, whether professional musicians or amateurs, playing the music you know well can be inspiring and instructive, shining a new light on the music, offering insights and ideas, and helping us shape our own interpretations of that music.

As a young person hearing a piece I was learning played in concert by A Famous Pianist lent a special tingle of recognition, for these were the same notes and sounds my fingers were exploring and creating. There was also a sense of adventure: not only was the music elevated by being performed in the rarefied surroundings of the concert hall (as opposed to the dining room of my parents’ home, where my piano lived), the familiar was revealed in new or intriguing ways. Yet even at quite a young age, I felt a rather jealous possessiveness about the music I was learning: because it was “my” music.

When we learn music, we develop a sense of ‘ownership’, and making it one’s “own piece” is something that musicians strive for. A strong sense of ownership connects one to the music, and enables musicians to create a special communication with the audience.

Ownership also implies a certain possessiveness about the music, and many of us become deeply attached to the music we have learnt and play. Hearing the music in concert or on disc may provoke feelings of pleasure and excitement – that frisson of familiarity – but also dissatisfaction or irritation with another person’s performance and interpretation when it doesn’t quite match up to our own expectations of and attitude to the music.

One such piece for me is Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959. I spent three years learning and studying this sonata in preparation for a Fellowship performance diploma, and I became very familiar with its details, its narrative and its architecture. I also developed a very clear personal vision of the piece and an authoritative interpretative standpoint, which I could defend convincingly when challenged by one of the people who mentored me during the course of my study (and who happened to be something of an expert on Schubert’s piano music). This almost overwhelming sense of ownership was crucial in my mastery of the sonata, and reflected the depth of my study. I was also fiercely possessive of the sonata – it was “my” sonata, and no matter who else played it, it was – and still is – “my” sonata.

As part of my study, I heard the sonata on disc and in concert many times (6 or 7 live performances, as I recall). And every time I heard the sonata live in concert, in addition to seeing every page of the score in my mind’s eye as I listened (possibly related to my synaesthesia, and a not entirely comfortable experience), I found myself bristling at the performer’s treatment of the music. The opening statement of the first movement was too rushed, or too sluggish; the Andantino – the subject of much discussion and whataboutery as to the meaning of this curious movement – was too slow (far too many pianists, in my humble opinion, take it at a funereal tempo); the Scherzo was too fast, or not sufficiently light….and so forth. At each concert, I would find myself fussing over minutiae of the music, rather than simply allowing myself to submit to someone else’s reading of the work. This is not to say that I didn’t gain from hearing these performances: I believe it is important to go to each performance with open ears and mind, and to take something from the performance; for example, when I heard Andràs Schiff play the sonata, a performance which I largely found overly-mannered, I was fascinated by his treatment of the rests and fermatas in the first movement, and this gave me useful food for thought as I continued my work on the sonata.

I’m sure I’m not alone in these feelings; in fact I know I’m not, because when I go to concerts with other amateur pianist friends (most of whom play at a similar advanced level to me), we always have lively conversations about what we’ve heard, the performer’s approach, interpretation, sound, and a whole host of other details.

Another aspect of this sense of possession, and one which Samuil Feinberg touches on in the quote at the head of this article, is the fact that amateurs often develop very strong feelings towards the music they are learning and playing. The word “amateur” comes from the French “to love” and much of the amateur’s activity seems to me to be in the service of love towards the music. Of course, professional musicians may also love the music they are playing (and I know many do) but there also has to be a separation, a standing back from the music, to enable them to work. A deep attachment to a certain piece may cloud one’s vision of it. Additionally, I think we each of us hold a “perfect” version of the music in our head (and heart) against which every performance or recording may be measured.

It frustrates me when the views of amateur pianists are dismissed by professionals or teachers, as if what they have to say about the music carries less value or gravitas because they have not had the training or experience. Many of the amateur pianists I know take their music-making very seriously; not only do they practice assiduously, they read around the music they are learning, do research, and thoroughly immerse themselves in their study. That we have the time to indulge in this kind of activity is one of the great pleasures of being an amateur musician – and if we guard our music with a jealousy bordering on obsessiveness, it is simply a mark of how much we care about that music.

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