Preparing a new piece of music

The most obvious way to form a deeper connection with your music is to learn more about it by studying the history of the piece, how it fits with other masterworks from the same time period and analyze it harmonically and thematically. Having access to scholarly articles about music is particularly important when there are confusing expressive markings, no expressive markings at all, music completed posthumously, conflicting markings, and markings used in unfamiliar ways. I’m thinking of the J.S. Bach solo sonatas in which markings such as slurs seem to refer more to phrasing or note clusters rather than actual bowings. As a college student I attended a lecture during a Beethoven conference about his use of a repeat sign that only had one dot. At the time I thought it was hilarious to hold a lecture on such a laser focused topic. I don’t remember which piano sonata was being discussed but now I can appreciate how it would be confusing for the performer to know what to do. When playing “contemporary” music, musicians have to be flexible, conscientious, and assiduous when examining scores and making decisions about the composer’s intent.

As a young conservatory student, I frequently heard students mimicking their teachers saying things like “don’t be a stupid violinist.” Not exactly a politically correct statement today but the message was to be sure to know who the composer was, the era of music, and the overall structure of the piece. During my time as a professional musician, it has become increasingly important to include education in concert programs and for the musicians to be able to communicate verbally to the audience. I do feel it is important to enlighten your audience. Audience members really appreciate the added dimension it offers to their listening experience. I also think they enjoy hearing musicians sharing their own feelings about the music.

Of course, using google is a really easy way to find out information about your music quickly. However, resources such as wikipedia are not always completely reliable. When using such a resource, I would recommend looking at the references cited and go to the source whenever possible. I find reading program notes to be very helpful. Many symphony orchestras post them on their websites. They are frequently very well written and offer anecdotes that might be harder to come by. The music historian who has written the program notes has already done a lot of the hard work of sifting through composer biographical information and most likely has sat through conferences such as the one I mentioned above. In addition, very often your score will include some scholarly information after the copyright page. I would also recommend a subscription to Grove Music Online and definitely buy a copy of the Harvard Dictionary of Music.

When I am studying a new piece of music, I want to know basic information about the composer: when and where he or she was born, some information about musical background including education and performance experience, where the piece fits on his or her composition timeline, and more information specific to this piece including any anecdotal information available. I will also study the genre of music and how other composers have used this genre. A good example of this would be dance rhythms such as the minuet which has been redefined many times over the past approximately 500 years.

While I am practicing this new piece and working on it technically, I like to go through a process of forming my raw interpretation of the piece. I will play it as it stands alone from any of its historical background. What are my initial impressions and inclinations about it? I will look at it harmonically and thematically. I will study the other voices that are part of the score be it piano, other chamber instruments, or full orchestral. I will work towards hearing the other instruments while I am playing my violin part. Very often you can find harmonic information about your piece when studying historical and musicological resources. Having access to a piano is very helpful as well.

You may have noticed that so far I have not written anything about listening to other recordings. This is a tricky one and relates somewhat to my background as a musician. Once again, when I grew up, recordings of even masterworks were not nearly as readily available as today. Being that my family of origin was not overly interested in or knowledgeable about classical music, we were not avid concert goers. I learned to play music by imagining what I thought it should sound like. I wouldn’t say this was the best approach but I absolutely do have a vivid imagination! My understanding about the function of listening first changed in the 1990’s when I discovered the Suzuki method as a teacher.

Listening to high quality, professional recordings of the repertoire is a pillar of the Suzuki method. Students always listen to pieces before they study them. The point is to listen to pieces enough so that the teacher mostly focuses on new technique presented in a given piece of music. Students learn their pieces by ear rather than by reading from the score. Suzuki teachers love meeting with each other and sharing teaching methods and fun ways to keep students engaged. Including anecdotes about a particular piece’s history is a great way to keep students enthusiastic. This is a beautiful way to learn music but it is basically rote learning. The question is whether it is the most authentic and creative way to learn new repertoire. I tend to think that the gains in terms of ear training and the excitement about playing their instruments far outweighs any potential loss of creativity for students.

For my own practicing, I still hold off listening to a lot of recordings when I study a new piece of music to avoid judgement. This judgement can take the form of not liking the particular interpretation, thinking a particular recording is the definitive or only viable interpretation, and even a deflating feeling that I’m never going to be able to play this piece as well as what I’m hearing in the recording. Instead, I have tried listening to recordings of myself playing the piece. I use the voice memo app on my phone knowing that the quality is not going to be very good. It is good enough for me to hear what changes need to be made to my performance and even provide the loop tape that Suzuki students use to learn their music.

Summer project: Study Partita I, BWV 1002 in B Minor by J.S. Bach. Choose a recording I like, put aside any feelings of not being good enough, and start listening!

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