noun

Music

noun: fermata; plural noun: fermatas

  • a pause of unspecified length on a note or rest.
  • a sign indicating a prolonged note or rest.

“It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” – Miles Davis

John Cage’s 4’33” may be the most infamous example of the use of silence in music (or rather the use of silence to create music), but composers have always recognised the power of silence and musical silence is as meaningful as interruptions and pauses in the language we speak. And because music is also a language, we recognise and understand the significance of those silences in music – a momentary breath, a witty or rhetorical stop-start, a pregnant, portentous pause, false cadences, an interruption to the flow of music which has you guessing before the composer strikes off in another direction. All these devices add meaning, drama, humour and emotion to the music. They also sharpen our attention and keep us listening, for the ear is constantly asking “what comes next?”.

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Fermata marking in music

A fermata marking above a note is generally understood to mean a longer pause – i.e. longer than the note value. Exactly how long to wait is at the discretion of the performer and there is a fine line to tread between creating dramatic, meaningful silence or suggesting that you might have forgotten what comes next in the music!

There is an even greater fermata at work at present, thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic. It has created an unprecedented, in peacetime at least, rupture to normal daily and cultural life. Concert halls and opera houses are closed, those places which until a few weeks ago resounded with music, and silence – not just the silences between the notes but that special hush of anticipation before the music begins or that magical concentrated, almost inexplicable silence which occurs during a particularly intense performance when it seems as if the audience is listening, and breathing, as one, or that special quiet at the end of a particularly arresting performance before the applause comes.

For those of us who love live music, the closure of the venues and its effect on our cultural life, has come as a huge blow, and not just in the absence of live music but also the social aspect of attending concerts. I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang at the Barbican in March; both concerts were cancelled, and I do not anticipate returning to the London venues which I love (especially Wigmore Hall) until the autumn now, at the earliest. Summer music and opera festivals are now being postponed or cancelled (sadly, it seems highly likely that the BBC Proms will be cancelled), and one wonders how venues will cope when they are eventually permitted to reopen while audiences must continue to observe social/physical distancing. Auditoriums are not really designed to observe a 1- or 2-metre apart rule, and in older halls such as London’s Wigmore, audiences sit hugger mugger in tightly-packed rows. How will venues square this tricky circle? Will they perhaps sell only every other seat to ensure some distance between people? And how will orchestras, ensembles and choirs, for example, observe appropriate physical distancing on stage?

And there’s another conundrum for the venue managers – managing the social spaces where people meet and congregate before and during a performance, spaces which are often crowded, especially at a sold-out concert or the opening night at the Royal Opera House. It will be a challenge for sure – but I have a feeling that when the venues begin to reopen, music lovers and keen concert-goers like me will flock back to them. And some of us may take a gamble with our health in doing so.

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Wigmore Hall, London

In the meantime, while coronavirus has forced the closure of the places where musicians and audiences come together to share in the experience of live music-making, it has not silenced the musicians who are determined to play on, their music broadcast via YouTube, Zoom and similar platforms, often with interesting and innovative results, and, it would appear, large audiences. Classic FM reports that a recent “living room” concert by their Artist-in-Residence violinist Maxim Vengerov has been viewed by more than 20,000 people, with 1,500 peak live viewers – more than can fit comfortably into a medium-sized concert hall. Such performances also bring the musicians closer to their audiences and break down the traditional barriers and notions of elitism associated with classical music and the rituals of its performance and presentation. Audiences see musicians at work in their own homes and discover that away from the formality of the concert stage, these people are normal – they live in normal homes, not Lisztian salons, wear normal clothes, have kids and pets. By the same token, musicians can forge stronger connections with audiences by bringing their music to the living rooms of their fans and supporters. If these online viewers translate into paying concert-goers when the venues eventually reopen, this could signal a marvellous resurgence for classical music and perhaps even encourage new audiences, a perennial issue for the artform. So maybe the coronavirus could have a positive impact on the way music is presented and enjoyed – we can but hope….

As a postscript, readers may be amused to learn that an alternative Italian word for fermata is corona…. And fermata is also the Italian word for bus stop.

 

 

Advice from pianist Beth Levin

1. brew coffee

2. consider learning new repertoire

3. visualize a recital you would have given before the venues closed – imagine 4, 5, 6 encores! well with a little luck it might have gone that way!

4. imagine the dress you would have worn – consider it with different earrings

5. go to your music stacks, pick anything and start sight-reading (hopefully it won’t be Islamey!)

6. listen to a recording of yourself in recital to remind yourself that yes, you know how to play

7. brew more coffee

8. consider learning new repertoire

9. daydream about a tour of China when this is all over

10. brew more coffee

 


Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”

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Guest post by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson

Remember how, almost as soon as the Second World War ended, Britain passed on Churchill and elected a Labour government that created the National Health Service? We’re not at war, whatever governments like to say. But it’s possible that we may come out of this coronavirus crisis with a changed sense of what really matters.

Musicians—venues closed, audiences staying home—are responding with generosity and humanity, playing online from home for anyone who wants to listen. This is a wonderful thing. We seem to be rediscovering music-making as something you do in homes, for friends, intimately, in performances that don’t have to be completely perfect and whose value lies in their spontaneity and intensity: they communicate, they comfort; their kindness is part of their artistry, their conviction, in fact their truth. These are not shows, they are offers; and they are the more valued for that.

In these exchanges, musicians and listeners are meeting directly, through their own arrangements; unmediated by managers, planners, venues, fixers; undistracted and unmonitored by critics. The longer this lasts the more thought will be put into the way pieces may be played when such constraining figures are absent. The chance to try a score differently, to see what happens if…: these may begin to foster enough creativity to make this hiatus something more than just a weird interruption in the status quo. Yes, we want venues to open, we want the audiences coming to them, we really need that income; but will we want to go all the way back to artistic business as usual?

How can we retain these values—intimacy, generosity, direct communication, the exchange of fresh ideas and sympathetic attention—how can we retain them in concert life? Let’s have a conversation about it now, while we have the chance. What do we really wish professional musical life to be like?

Let’s talk. We won’t all agree (let’s hope not). But to get us started I suggest three desiderata. More time to work together in preparing performances. Fewer pressures constraining how we make music from scores. More direct communication with listeners.

For the last of these, we’re learning every day at the moment the value of being in direct touch. Wouldn’t it be great to have more concerts planned and publicised online, held in less formal venues, announced at shorter notice?

The first and the second—more preparation, fewer pressures to conform—are bound together. There are so many other ways of getting these scores to work, and more time allows us to discover them. The rewards of making great music in persuasive performances that have never been heard before are intense: real joy in performing once more. It’s just not true that there is broadly one perfect performance, the one that everyone is trying and failing to give, the way the piece is ‘supposed’ to go. That’s the myth that holds us in thrall to teachers, managers, recording companies, producers, critics. ‘I know what the composer wants’ (note the self-serving present tense). ‘Play it as I tell you if you want work.’ That’s what we have to refuse when all this is over.

I’ve made a detailed online case for this, aimed at young professional performers. It’s free at challengingperformance.com/the-book if you want to think about these questions further. Or we can start with a conversation. But let’s use this time really well so that, when it’s past, we don’t make do with business as usual.


Daniel Leech-Wilkinson is a musicologist, and Emeritus Professor of Music at King’s College, London

Twitter @danleechw @ChalPerformance

challengingperformance.com

The coronavirus is forcing us to practice social distancing and self-isolation. As I joked on Twitter the other day, musicians, and especially pianists, have been self-isolating for years!

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practise more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practise room for the solitude of the concert platform.

However, despite the need for frequent sequestration to get the work done, regular interaction with colleagues and students alleviates the loneliness and reminds us of the life beyond the keyboard and the importance of forging musical partnerships, professionally and socially. And in concert-giving, there is also the important connection and interaction with audiences.

With coronavirus sweeping the world, the concert halls and conservatoires are closed and we are being told to exercise social distancing and self-isolation to protect ourselves and our families and friends from this virus. Around my social networks in the days since the UK government ordered that we “stay at home”, many of my musician friends and colleagues have been posting details of how they intended to cope with this new way of making and sharing music. Some are excited about the prospect of weeks, maybe months, of enforced isolation as an opportunity to learn new repertoire, ready for when the concert halls and venues reopen and the music can be shared with live audiences once more. Others are exploring ways to give concerts online via platforms like YouTube. Unfortunately, neither of these activities make money and the sad truth of the musician’s working life is that it is very fragile. Most musicians are self-employed and many live almost hand-to-mouth, meagre concert fees (only the most internally-renowned musicians can command large fees) often supplemented by teaching which offers regular income.

Without concert bookings, many musicians feel marooned as the main focus of their daily lives is removed in one fell swoop. It’s all very well saying you’re going to learn the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto or the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, but without concert bookings it’s very hard to feel motivated.

“You’ve got more time to practice now!” people outside the profession might declare, and while this may be true, it’s not very helpful as musicians face the prospect of months without work, no fees, and the attendant anxiety which this brings.

For the amateur musician, by contrast, this is a time for extra, guilt-free practising; but for the professional musician it is rather more problematic. “I’ve really only dabbled at the keyboard” wrote one of my clients, a concert pianist, in an email a couple of days ago. The week before all this kicked off, he and I were discussing the next round of promotion for his concerts, which will, in all probability, be cancelled. And without concerts, the professional musician loses a significant motivation to keep working.

I think it’s important to exercise some self-care and not feel guilty about not working (by which I mean practising) as much during these strange, surreal and uncertain days, and especially not to compare oneself to others who may be busy with livesteam concerts, videocasting and daily broadcasts of Bach…. This time may serve to remind musicians how their lives are often lived at full tilt, and so perhaps this is an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect?

In the meantime, stay safe and well.

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The concert halls are closed but the music goes on, and many musicians are turning to video-casts and livestreamed concerts to share their music with others. Here are a couple you might like to subscribe:

Fenella Humphreys, violin

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_JlM05leyWyMXxUjiZBn6w


Carducci String Quartet

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNe2mg8zBdHR6OPzIbKm1qg/feed


If you are livestreaming concerts and would like to be featured on this site, please contact The Cross-Eyed Pianist

I would like to offer what support I can via this blog and my social media networks to musician friends and colleagues, music teachers and others in the profession who are going to find the next months very challenging indeed.

Here is what I would like to do:

  1. Share details of forthcoming CD releases, and other material.
  2. Share videos and audio clips
  3. Share articles and other resources which others in our community may find helpful and supportive
  4. Stay connected with the musical community via my social networks

Separately, over on my piano teaching blog, I’m launching a forum called Coffee Shop Conversations. This was inspired by a friend of mine, an adult amateur pianist to whom I give occasional piano lessons and who always has plenty of queries for me surrounding repertoire, practising, piano exams and more.

Please feel free to contact me here or via Twitter to submit material for inclusion.

More support for musicians from my friend and fellow blogger Adrian ‘Specs’ here

Meanwhile, stay well everyone and let’s keep in touch.

img_2281Fran The Cross-Eyed Pianist