The music is behind those dots. You search for it…. I play, so to speak, from the other side of the printed score, looking back

Vladimir Horowitz

The notated musical score is a wonderful thing. Contained within it are myriad markings, signs, symbols and directions which guide us in our recreation and interpretation of the composer’s intentions, bringing the written to life in sound. The ability to recognise, understand, interpret and act upon all those signs and symbols is an integral part of the musician’s skillset, and taking care of all these details is crucial in the learning process.

But the score is also the starting point for exploration. It’s a roadmap, a prompt or reminder, which connects us to the composer’s intentions but which also directs us, if we allow it to, to our own personal vision of the music, supported by our musical knowledge, experience and imagination. It is for these reasons that people seek out specific performers, for they each go beyond the notes, highlighting the unwritten things in their own distinct way.

Students and less experienced players may cling to the written score, adhering to its details with slavish devotion, fearful that making their own interpretative decision about a dynamic marketing or sign will result in something that is “wrong”. A very literal interpretation of the score can also result in a performance which feels restrained or robotic, lacking in requisite breathing space, rubato or depth of expression. Encouraging students to think beyond the notes is one of the great roles of the teacher, and we do this by giving students the knowledge and confidence to see the score not just as a document in black and white but rather a vivid palette of colours and expression.

The ability to unearth the unwritten things in music comes from a very deep knowledge of the score. It’s that old maxim “from discipline comes freedom”, and a detailed understanding of all the notes, dynamics, tempo, articulation and expression markings opens up a lot of the unwritten things. Assured technical control of a piece gives one the confidence to dig below the surface of the music, to get behind and beyond the notes. In addition, a sound understanding of the context of the music, gained through study of other works by the composer/period, an appreciation of historical precedents, and performance practice all contribute to our interpretative depth. Much is also imbibed almost unconsciously from going to concerts and listening to recordings, or from conversations with teachers, colleagues and others. Such a rich source of knowledge, ideas and inspiration fuels the artistic temperament and frees the imagination.

To interpret a score is to recreate an object from its shadow 

– James Boyk, pianist

How to judge an agogic accent, a particular type of articulation, the use of stringendo or rubato, for example, become personal interpretative decisions, founded on one’s own musical knowledge and skill, and the ability to make these actions seem natural and spontaneous, a form of  “sprezzatura”, comes from many hours of detailed, conscientious and mindful practice, at the instrument and away from it. It is only then that we discover the unwritten things are in fact written within our musical selves…..

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Politicians in particular talk a lot about the “weight of history” or of feeling “the hand of history on our shoulders”, especially when faced with a serious national crisis or significant policy decision.

As musicians we feel the weight of history too – through the many exceptional musicians who have gone before us and the fine recordings of the “great works” of the repertoire which serve as benchmarks or models for our own progress. These can affect our approach to our music making and influence the way music is presented to others.

Whether or not you like his playing, the presence of Glenn Gould hangs heavily over anyone playing Bach, and his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, a great work in itself, are held up by many as the absolute zenith of greatness in this repertoire. Similarly, Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt, both fine Bach interpreters, also cast a significant shadow over those of us who choose to play Bach’s music. In Mozart we have Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires, Barenboim in Beethoven, Lupu in Schubert, Pollini in Chopin, Argerich in, well, virtually anything, and Perahia for “all round excellence”….the list is endless as everyone has their personal favourites, and each era seems to bring yet another crop of “greats”.

Maria Joao Pires
Maria Joao Pires

The classical musician’s training is still largely about preserving tradition and the reverential “canonization” of repertoire: we’re taught from a young age that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms et al…. are “great” composers. Revering the music in this way can create problems when learning and playing it: for pianists, as for other musicians, certain works – the Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas, Chopin’s Études, the great piano concertos, for example – have an elevated status on a par with the works of Aristotle, Shakespeare or Dickens. We hold the music in awe and feel a tremendous responsibility towards it. Thus, the musician is like a conservator or gardener, bringing these great works to life.

As a consequence, it can be difficult for us to find our own personal voice: the music itself is not necessarily “more difficult”, but the weight of history, and the long line of renowned musicians who have played these great works, can stifle our creativity, artistry and personal interpretation (it is for this reason that I tend towards lesser-known or contemporary repertoire for performances). In addition, the many recordings of these works, plus a century or more of scholarship, can drown out one’s personal voice. You hear a “perfect” recording or performance and wonder “what can I bring to this music that is new/different?”

I had to stop myself listening to other people play it or there would no hope in hell of me finding my own way with it.

– Jonathan Powell, pianist

There are, however, ways to mitigate this. Listening to great recordings and performances does no harm. They can inspire and inform, highlighting aspects of the score which may not be obvious from our initial study of it, sparking ideas, expanding our perspective and nourishing our perceptions of the music. We can admire the great interpretations of the music we are studying, but should never seek to imitate nor borrow from someone else’s version. Acknowlegding the greatness rather than revering it can be helpful too: after all, if we continually keep the music on unreachably high pedestals, we may never actually play it, thus denying ourselves the opportunity of experiencing something truly wonderful and the feeling of being part of an ongoing process of recreation every time we play or perform the music.

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header image: statue of Glenn Gould in Toronto, Canada

I’ve never felt drawn to the idea of the definitive performance. Music is a performing art which keeps on changing

– Michael Tippett

When I was learning the piano as a child and teenager, I was led to believe there was a “right” or “standard” way to play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy et al. I didn’t really question it at the time, partly because I was not sufficiently musically aware nor experienced enough to challenge my then teachers, but growing musical maturity, regular concert-going, curiosity and personal study have made me constantly question “standard” ways of doing things. It seems to me that such standardisation comes from a number of sources:

  • Tradition
  • Teachers
  • Performers
  • Music competitions
  • Critics, commentators, academics
  • Recordings which create “benchmark” or “definitive” performances or set certain performance practices in stone
  • Audiences

Notated music is by its very nature approximate. The score – a sequence of lines, dots, squiggles and words (usually in a foreign language!) – is the closest concrete thing we have to signal the composer’s intent, but even then it is incomplete and should never be regarded as an “instruction manual for playing the music”, for the composer cannot tell us everything within the scope of the printed score. Consider, for example, the myriad dynamic possibilities within one marking piano, depending on composer, period, genre, key, etc. Add to that our own musical knowledge and contextual awareness, maturity, personal taste, experience (and I don’t just mean musical experience, but also life experience), and we have a wide range of possibilities to explore within the framework of the notated score. In effect, the score should be regarded as the jumping off point for much musical exploration and experimentation. This is the start of a wonderful process called “interpretation” which brings the printed score to life.

It troubles me when I come across teachers who firmly believe that their way/approach/interpretation is the only way, and such a dogmatic approach is both narrow-minded and egocentric. I had an encounter with a teacher some years ago when I was at the initial stages of my study of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. When asked to outline my interpretation of the extraordinary second movement, I was immediately informed that my approach was “wrong”, yet the teacher offered no alternative view. My view did not concur with his, therefore it was simply “wrong”. I found such an inflexible, totalitarian approach rather disrespectful. I was, after all, an intelligent, mature person in my late 40s, not some callow youth in the teacher’s class in conservatoire, and even then, I do not think such a doctrinaire approach is necessary nor even appropriate. It does not encourage or support a student, allow them to develop musically to their full potential nor gain ownership of their music.

Unfortunately, many piano students – both children and adults – lack the confidence and/or musical knowledge/experience to challenge a teacher’s viewpoint and simply suck up what they are told without questioning it. I come across this attitude fairly regularly from adult pianists who attend a lot of piano courses and who play in masterclasses with famous or well-known teacher-pianists. Awestruck in the presence of such greatness, they may take in The Famous Pianist’s comments and statements as “the right way” (the use of pedal, or not, in Bach’s keyboard music, for example) without question. Having the courage of one’s convictions to question a teacher’s view is not always easy: some teachers have very entrenched views, but a good teacher will always be willing to consider an alternative approach and will respect and appreciate the student who asks questions or initiates a debate. Early or intermediate students often lack the musical knowledge or contextual background to give them the confidence to make interpretative decisions about their music, but even the most junior student has an imagination which can be called upon to explore possibilities and experiment within the music, and a good teacher will encourage this. I regularly ask my students “what do you think this music is about?” or “what do you think the composer is trying to say/convey here?“, and remind them that there is no “right way”, that I am keen to hear their thoughts and ideas and help them put them into practice.

Such entrenched views about the “right way” often come to the fore during international music competitions – and one of my personal grouches about competitions is that they seem to promote standardisation in performance because some competitors (and their teachers) feel this is what the judges want. Recall the furore over Lucas Debargue, the “maverick” young French pianist who came fourth in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, probably the most prestigious of all the international piano competitions. His playing was wonderful (in my humble opinion) but according to some commentators and critics his scale fingering in certain passages was “wrong”.  Most of us are taught standard scale and arpeggio fingerings and we largely stick with them, because most of the time they work. But there are occasions when a standard fingering scheme is not appropriate and so we adapt to fit the situation. Lucas Debargue had clearly found a fingering scheme which worked for him (it certainly enabled him to get around the keyboard nimbly and to produce a lovely sound): it may not have been a “standard” scheme, but it certainly wasn’t “wrong”! This is a very good example of how editorial markings in the score, specifically fingering schemes, should not be taken as a one size fits all – and in the case of fingering, size matters! Different sized hands may require or benefit from an adapted fingering scheme. The same rule applies to metronome marks which should be taken as advisory: don’t do what an adult student of mine did at his first lesson with me. He played the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 at a break-neck speed, littered with inaccuracies and errors – in short, it was an unholy muddle. When I questioned his choice of tempo, he informed me that not to adhere to the given metronome mark was “wrong” and would result in him failing his Grade 8 exam. I pointed out that an examiner, and indeed an audience, would far rather hear a slower account of the sonata’s movement which was notationally accurate, fluent and rich in expression.

While on the subject of tempo, a concert pianist acquaintance of mine was performing the Andantino of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata during which a member of the audience hissed “too fast!” at his choice of tempo (approx. quaver equals 90 bpm). Many famous pianists like to take this movement at an almost funereal Adagio and this anecdote is a neat example of how the performances of the great pianists lead audiences to believe there is only one way, or a “right” way, to play this music.

Many of us have pianists and other performers whom we admire. Their particular approach may concur with or confirm our own view of how certain works should be performed and then becomes the benchmark by which we measure other performers’ interpretations, and our own. For some, only So-and-So’s interpretation of Bach, or Mozart, will do, an attitude I find almost as inflexible as that of the overly dogmatic teacher’s. In my own concert-going, I try to select concerts based on repertoire rather than performer (though I admit there are certain pianists who I will always try and hear if they are in London – Maria Joao Pires, Mitsuko Uchida, Murray Perahia, Piotr Anderszewski and Marc-André Hamelin, to name a few). This gives me the opportunity to hear a wide range of interpretations of the same music. Such open-minded listening can be revelatory (and occasionally disappointing), and hearing the same pianist play the same repertoire at an interval of several years can be very interesting indeed – proof that one’s interpretation is not set in stone. Glenn Gould’s two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a notable case in point. Sadly, I am noticing more standardisation in concert performances, particularly from younger artists who offer a tasteful, middle of the road approach which they feel will best appeal to audiences and critics. Once again, I suspect the influence of over-bearing didactic teachers, as well as the wide-availability of very high-quality recordings, and the desire to emulate or imitate more senior or highly-regarded international artists.

In my own approach to my music making, I try always to remain open-minded, inquisitive and alert to new possibilities or alternative ways of doing things. The process of experimentation and exploration in practising is exciting and stimulating, it prevents practising from becoming routine or boring (which can kill one’s pleasure and joy in one’s music), and encourages one to see the bigger picture of the music. I believe this approach should also be supported by regular “listening around” the music one is studying, to gain insights into the composer’s distinct soundworld and to hear other musicians’ approaches (not to imitate, but to give one ideas about aspects such as phrasing articulation, dynamics, breathing space, gesture and presentation). In addition, as my inclination tends towards the intellectual, I also like to read about the music I am working on. Such an open-minded and inquisitive approach gives one a much broader picture of the music and leaves one open to many interpretative possibilities. Gradually, as one gets to know the music intimately, a personal approach will emerge, and provided one is convinced by one’s own approach, others will be convinced too.

We are all individuals, and our personal approach to our music will, if we allow it, bring imagination, vibrancy, authority and integrity to our playing. With such an open-minded approach and trust in our musical self, the score becomes a basic road-map for a vivid and varied journey of discovery.

Returning to Sir Michael’s Tippett’s quotation at the beginning of this article, consider for a moment just how many recordings there are of, say, Beethoven’s piano sonatas or Chopin’s Etudes. No two recordings are the same, and no single recording offers “the right way” to play this wonderful music. And why does this repertoire appear so frequently in concert? Because there is still so much to say about it, so much more to be revealed.

I leave you with Richter and Tirimo, two contrasting approaches to the opening movement of Schubert’s Sonata in G, D894.

I believe that our personal musical tastes should not influence the way we teach, and that we should try not to impose our preferences or prejudices on our students. Our role as teachers should be encourage students to explore as wide a range of music as possible – whether it is purely ‘classical’ music (in fact, a very broad term which encompasses music from the Renaissance to the present day) or a mixture of classical music, jazz, world or pop. This is not to say that I do not enthuse to my students about the kind of music which interests and excites me, and the “what is your favourite composer/piece of music?” conversation takes place regularly in my piano studio. But I wouldn’t dream of dismissing a piece of music a student had, for example, discovered and learnt by themselves just because I didn’t like it or thought it was “bad” music.

As a teacher, it is very interesting to find out what kind of repertoire makes students tick and what music appeals to specific students. For example, I find that boys tend to prefer lively, rhythmic, jazzy music. One of my teenage boy students has developed a real fondness for the music of Kabalevsky, while another, the older brother of this student in fact, is showing remarkable sensitivity towards a piece by Chopin which he is learning for Grade 6 (and I admit I was surprised when he selected this piece to learn). Other students like music with clear melodic lines and opportunities for expressive playing. I encourage my students to develop their musical taste by exploring a variety of repertoire and suggesting music for them to listen to as well (easy to do since many of them like to use YouTube or music streaming services), but I also urge them to learn music which is outside their normal comfort zone to enable them to explore different technical and musical challenges. Of course, if they really dislike a piece there is no point in continuing with it as there is no pleasure or usefulness to be gained from playing music you don’t enjoy.

Interpretation is a far more complex area, and more advanced/mature students and adults often have firm ideas about interpretation, either based on their own musical experience or their listening, knowledge and appreciation of music. Sadly, I have come across teachers who try to impose their own interpretation on students, sometimes to the extant that they seem to want the student to sound like they do: in such instances, this, to me, seems to be nothing more than an exercise in self-aggrandisement. It serves no real pedagogical purpose, nor does it allow the student to develop their own musical voice. (As the pianist Stephen Hough said in one of his blog posts, he would be worried if he listened in on a class of students at a conservatoire to discover that they all sounded identical to their teacher.)

The majority of my students are now intermediate and early advanced level players who are beginning to be able to make their own judgements about interpretation in their pieces based on their ongoing musical development and knowledge. In this case, I feel my role is to guide them into making decisions about interpretation which are stylistically in keeping with the genre and period of the music, faithful to the score, and tasteful. However, I would not dismiss a more romantic reading of the music of Bach or Scarlatti, for example, provided the interpretation offered is both consistent and convincing.

I am fortunate to be working with a teacher who does not impose his interpretation on me, but who sets the bar for me to explain and justify every interpretative decision I make in the music. Nearly all of this is based on detailed examination of the score, rather than preconceived ideas about how the music should sound or any attempt to imitate great/famous performers (which could lead to an insincere and inauthentic version). He allows the music making to be my business and encourages me to take ownership of the music and make it mine (more on taking ownership here). Thus, I feel I am offering a reading which is both personal and also faithful to the score.

Fundamentally, our teaching should be about imparting our musical values rather than our preferences, and encouraging our students to be curious, open-minded and non-judgmental. In addition to offering them a wide variety of repertoire, we should also be encouraging “listening around” the music they are studying to familiarise themselves with, for example, the very distinct soundworld of Chopin, as well as what I call “lateral listening” – a case of “if you like this, why not try?”, which I use a lot with students who enjoy the music of Ludovico Einaudi (I encourage them to sample the minimalist music of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman). Thus students can develop their own individual tastes and opinions about the music they are playing and enjoying.