Horns and metronomes

It seems to me that students and, even more so, mature amateur pianists are so very earnest to be ‘expressive’ in their interpretations that often they all too easily lose the plot altogether.

Let’s consider for a moment what we pianists have at our disposal for being expressive. There are really only two elements we can vary; either the sound or the timing (or of course both together). But those are essentially the only two tools we have to shape every kind of phrase and emotion we wish to express.

Of the two, shaping the sound dynamic is without question sovereign and should always be explored before fiddling with the time. Stretching and shrinking the pulse should only be a last resort – and only to be resorted to when every other avenue of expressive phrasing still leaves something wanting.

There’s a good reason for this. We all know rhythm is fundamental to nature, to our existence. We can’t get away from it, the rhythm of our breathing, walking, night and day, the seasons, waves in the sea, etc etc. It follows that rhythm is therefore the fundamental essence of music itself. But (one would think it should go without saying) rhythm can only exist against a continuity of tempo. An inconsistent tempo or pulse inevitably makes any rhythm into random noise, meaningless.

Ah, but what about melody I hear you ask. Well what about it? It takes only a moment’s thought to realise melody is dependent, subservient to rhythm, and cannot possibly make any sense without it. And as for harmony, well it’s hardly relevant here. Sure, the harmony can point out the rhythm, even create it, but on it’s own, a triple-tone car horn is hardly music.

So, we agree do we, it is a steady time, a consistent tempo, that provides the background continuity which allows a rhythmic structure to exist, without which we can have no melody, without which harmony is irrelevant, and without which there is nothing that can sensibly be called music. Some thought – now think about it!

Disturb the tempo and you run a very real risk of distorting the essence of a piece. Disturb it enough and you destroy not only the stability of the pulse, but the integrity of the whole work. Of course this does not mean playing with metronomic regularity, but there is all the difference in the world between intelligent phrasing (a subtle hiatus, an urging-on, a holding back, an agogic accent), and whimsically expanding and contracting tempo at will.

Why then, am I often dismayed (and occasionally outraged) by students, amateurs, and let’s not forget quite a few professional ‘virtuosi’, at the liberal attitude they have towards consistency of tempo. I don’t care how ‘big’ your name is – if that’s how you play, believe me, to the audience you sound amateurish, and worse than that, thoughtless and insincere.

You can see why it happens – it’s so easy to do, to show how expressive, how passionate, how profound one is by toying with time. See how I hold back the entry of the next phrase to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of the present one! Hear the depth of my passion as I drive the music forward with ever greater urgency (just in case you hadn’t noticed that this is supposed to be an exciting bit!)

To play like that is so much easier than taking the trouble to employ a technique of fine tone control, an infinitely more honest and sincere form of expressiveness. Being liberal with tempo needs so little effort, so little thought, so little imagination. It turns a composer’s powerful emotional thought into sentimental slush. It’s a lazy, quick way to arrive at an ‘interpretation’. And how unsatisfactory to the listener.

Aye, there’s the rub! For however much you as performer like what you are doing, the listener, instead of being swept along by the music, finds himself all at sea trying to make sense of this disjointed, incoherent, chaotic ‘expressiveness’. Ok, so you may create some attractive, ‘expressive’ moments, but the whole just doesn’t add up. Even a musically illiterate listener will feel an uncomfortable sense of being short-changed, though they may not understand exactly why.

It’s simply not good enough that a performer should so immerse himself in his interpretation that he no longer hears what he is doing. If you want to be a real musician, the kind that is worth listening to, detach at least half your brain while you play and allow it to assume the role of listener. Critical listener.

PS. In my next post, all pianists, composers, musicians and listeners will be assumed to be female 🙂