When we play a piece of music, what is it that we are primarily aiming to achieve? Anyone with an ounce of musical instinct will find this a simple question to answer – we are trying to interpret a work of art in such a way as to make it resonate with the listener. In many cases we aim to make an emotional connection with our audience, and allow them to feel the sentiments that the composer was trying to convey when they put the notes down on paper in the first place. Sometimes we want to make people smile. Sometimes we want to make them weep. But in all cases our main purpose is to take the dry, dead notation in front of us and make it meaningful. In short, we are trying to bring the music to life.
The problem, though, is that this is not always a simple matter. It is often difficult to make that sort of connection with a piece of music when you as a performer are faced with a page of black and white coded instructions telling you when to play this note and when to play that, when you should get louder and when you should get quieter, when you should speed up and when you should slow down. It is all too easy to concentrate so hard on obeying these (often highly specific) instructions that we forget to connect with the real underlying message that is present amongst the dots and lines.
Perhaps part of the problem is in the way we think about classical music. Over the years composers have become more and more pedantic about the way their music is to be performed. Look at a score from three hundred years ago and you will find very little instruction regarding how the piece is to be interpreted. No phrasing or accents, and probably not even any dynamics. Look at a more recent score, though, and you may well find it so detailed as to be near incomprehensible on first inspection. Classical music has become so much more complicated that composers must make their notation specific to the point of being finicky so as to get their message across. Of course, this can leave the performer feeling stifled and unable to deviate from that which is printed before them.
In order to free ourselves from these shackles which prevent us connecting with the music, it may help to take a look at a genre that places considerably less importance on notation. I am talking here about jazz, in which large portions of the music tend to be ‘improvised’, made up by the musicians on the spot and completely unplanned, save for a chord progression that may have been previously worked out for them to follow. Anyone who has ever watched high quality improvised jazz will know what a difference this makes to the music, and how primitive it can make classical notation look in comparison. Because there are no strict boundaries to be adhered to, jazz musicians are able to much more easily immerse themselves in the music. The notes that they play are completely determined by how they feel at that moment, and just about anything is allowed. I even remember seeing, on a recent television documentary, a pianist get up in the middle of a piece and do an impromptu dance around the piano while the rest of the band kept playing. Music doesn’t get much more immersive than that.
And isn’t this, at the end of the day, what we are trying to achieve in classical music as well? O.K., so doing a little dance in the middle of a concerto might be a bit too much, and I don’t suggest launching into an extended ad lib solo halfway through Brahms’ F minor sonata. But we should still aim for that same strong connection that jazz musicians feel when they improvise. Our music may all be predetermined, but that’s not how it should feel to a listener. Every phrase should be as though you have had a thought or an emotion which you immediately feel compelled to express in musical form. After all, that’s how a lot of this music will have started out: as free improvisations by the composer.
What I’m saying, then, is that we should try and play everything as though it is improvised. Even though we may be following specific instructions on a page, we should make it sound as though that is not the case. As though the music is a direct manifestation of our own thoughts and feelings at that place and time. And then, despite the barrier of notation, we may be able to really bring our playing to life.