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One More Time, With Feeling!

It always surprised me when, as a student violinist, a teacher would call out, “Play with more feeling!”  I would always think to myself, how else would I play? But I would also think, you’re the teacher, give me some hints about what you mean!

I chose music as a career because I knew I was good at the mechanics of music - I learned pieces quickly, played in tune, collaborated well with other musicians, etc. But, these aren’t necessarily reasons to be a career musician. The whole point of becoming a performing musician is to interpret notes in a certain way, to elicit an emotional response from the listener. Whether you’re a soloist, a chamber player, or someone buried in an orchestra, your assignment (in my opinion) is to say something with your music, change someone’s life with simple vibrations of the air around us. Tell a story that keeps an audience spellbound.

Musicians have a lot of tools at their disposal to elicit an emotional response from the listener, while still being true to the composer. In our interpretations, we can (within reason) play around with tempo (slowing down or speeding up), vibrato (more or less intense), length of notes (from short to long), dynamic (soft to loud), articulation (accents), and most importantly, as any good comedian knows, employ that elusive thing called timing.

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching music is counting, which is different from timing. Once my students had a basic grasp of how to count (i.e. number of  beats in a bar), I would introduce practicing with a metronome. They would be required to practice with it at home and in their lessons, and it was always one of the most frustrating parts of their learning curve. Many of them told me their metronome was broken, either to avoid using it, or because they were convinced that their inner sense of keeping a beat was more accurate than a machine’s! (“It keeps slowing down, Ms. Foard…”)

But timing. That’s something that comes much later in a student’s awareness of how to win over an audience, if it comes at all.

There’s a reason classical musicians practice scales and arpeggios (certain notes within a scale) for hours each week. Jazz musicians practice their “licks” (small phrases that all jazz players use) in every key for the same reason: when the moment comes for great timing, you need to be ready. You need to be eloquent with the language you’ve been studying, otherwise your point will not come across as intended, or at all, for that matter.

There are usually two kinds of musicians who show up for audition openings in orchestras: those whose strength is to play all the notes flawlessly, and those who play with exceptional heart, whose timing is masterful. (To play with both attributes would likely elevate a player to soloist status. Although, for the record, there are many soloists who dazzle, but who in my opinion do not touch.) Often, in my experience, the flawless ones would get the gig, partly because conductors don’t necessarily love players who take responsibility for interpretation. In a conductor’s mind, that’s their job, and they need to know they can get a whole section of violins (for instance) to play with a unified concept (theirs).

Not that we want orchestras to sound like machines, and this, in my mind, is the reason AI will likely not be able to easily take a human’s place when it comes to performing music. The fact that there are live people playing together in a unified way will sound very different than if a machine is producing the sound of people playing together. For one thing, every concert has subtle changes. Even if an orchestra plays the same program over the course of three or four days, each performance will be a slight variation of any other performance. That’s because every day in a human being’s life is different, and like any other artist, musicians evolve and try new things. Those differences show up in how the music comes out of them. 

There were times in concerts I played where everything was going just as rehearsed, and suddenly, something otherworldly entered the hall, and remarkable things began to happen. These are the concerts we all live for, because an inexplicable something has taken over, creating magic, frisson, and an unforgettable performance that an audience recognizes immediately as something special. 

Consider this performance in 1957 by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who was the first Western musician to play behind what was referred to as the Iron Curtain. He was unknown in Russia, and his first Moscow solo performance (an all Bach program) had an abysmal not-even-half-full house when it began. By the end of intermission, through word of mouth, the auditorium was full to overflowing, and the rest of his Russian concerts sold out virtually overnight.

Not only did Gould have astonishing technique, but he showed his listeners what Bach meant. That’s hard to do in a country where Bach’s music was largely unknown. (We know this from the reviews and comments written by music students, who were hearing Bach for the first time.) There was such absolute clarity and conviction in Gould’s playing, that a listener can’t possibly miss the lesson, or story, behind the notes. And for people who had never heard Bach, they must have been wondering what else they were missing out on.

This is the result of mastery and timing, which is really what “play with more feeling” is all about. Once we learn a piece of music, we have to decide how to guide our audience through it. Consider this recording by Vladimir Horowitz performing one of his favorite encores by Robert Schumann, “Traumerai”. His wonderful timing, showing his listeners how to wait a microsecond for a resolving phrase, is truly a masterful lesson in timing, and as a result, the definition of love and heartache.

Is this what we would call true artistry, or is it audience manipulation? I believe it’s a little of both, but on the other hand, who cares? If the message intended by the composer lands, then that is all we can reasonably hope for. To deeply understand the full range of human emotion and experience is really the point, to feel at a deeper level, to understand our place on Earth.

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