Musical breakthroughs usually take us by surprise. They have a curious way of happening when we're tired, discouraged, sick, or distracted. The common thread in all these situations is the element of "no resistance."
Unfortunately, we can't schedule or predict breakthroughs. Even virtuosos don't reply on them. What that occasional breakthrough does for us is to demonstrate the nature of musicianship, how our technique and our spirit can merge, giving life to sound. It's a chance to know that our emotional energy can pour into the music rather than into self-consciousness & that our movements can be natural and spontaneous rather than controlled and mechanical.
As in any arts, one purpose of our involvement in music - at whatever level - is to find this balance between our playing apparatus and our passions. If we're preoccupied by technical concerns, we may find our work dry. "Sometimes," said one oboe player, "the more I practice, the less I care. That's when I know I've lost the heart of the music and I need to rethink my approach." In seeking a balance between technique and spirit, 3 concepts are especially helpful: making contact with music, making peace with our mistakes, & making honest musical decision.
1) Making Contact with Music
Musicianship - this balance of feeling and technique - is not an "advanced" subject. It is not something you have to wait for until you have mastered everything else. Every time you make contact with music, every time you make a link between the technical act of making music & the personal act of enjoying music, using music, or responding to music , you are building your musicianship. It's easy to be so involved with "getting it right" that we forget that music is a normal human activity. It's perfectly natural to whistle while you work, dance cheek to cheek, sing in the shower, and make a joyful noise.
Some of your best training in musicianship happens when you are not playing. Every movement that enters your awareness refines your understanding of rhythm; everything you see with awareness refines your understanding of shape and form. Sometimes the most valuable thing we can do for our musical development is to spend time doing something else - dance, creative writing, photography, drawing, or painting.
If you have been concentrating on technique and other individual skills of music making, you can feel confident that the moment will come when you engage your feelings, too. You may have to invite that moment. You may, for example, decide to stop paying attention to how you move your muscles when you make a crescendo (growing louder) or an accelerando (growing faster). Instead, you'll begin to feel the real important of that crescendo or the meaning of that accelerando. It isn't the kind of "important" or "meaning" that you express in words. You feel the sense of the music, and you trust your body to express it. That's the connection between feeling and technique. It's the difference between, on the one hand, running to catch a bus and, on the other hand, thinking about how to move your muscles if you wanted to run to catch a bus. When your attention is focused on a genuine motive, your actions follow naturally. As Eric Stumacher says,"When we feel an aesthetic impulse, our bodies find a way to get it done."
2) Making Peace with Mistakes
In seeking our own personal balance between technique & emotion, it's helpful to remember that something can be beautiful and also be imperfect. Perfection is closed system to which nothing more can be added. Imperfection is a kind of openness that continues to seek & grow.
Mistakes in music are a bit like minor stumbles when we're walking. If we stumble a bit in real life, we just stay on our feet and carry on. But when we stumble musically, we sometimes act like cartoon characters. We fall on our face in the dust and lie there cursing and seeing stars. Don't over-dramatize musical stumbles. Use our practice to correct mistakes, but when you play, just play. The music wants to keep going; it doesn't care if you make a mistake. One of the skills of really good musicianship is the ability to cover mistakes - to go right on as if nothing happened, without even missing a beat. If we are feeling the music and trusting our technique, a mistake cannot stop us because the music will carry us on.
3) Making Musical Decisions: Interpretation
As you study & learn a piece of music, you are entitled to make it your own, to interpret the music in your own way. You don't have to play it the way you hear it on a record or the way suggested by an editor or even the way your teacher tells you to. Every good piece of music, like every good play or poem, welcomes the performer's contributions.
Interpretation begins and ends, of course, with the music - the melody line, the rhythmic design, the lyrics, the style, the printed score if we have one. Like an actor interpreting a script, we first follow the directions we are given. We seek to be true to the composer's intentions as far as we can know them & to the music as it stands. Much interpretation is nothing more than a clear statement of what already exists in the music. It is not something laid on from the outside but rather something insisted on by the music itself.
Your interpretation may differ from someone else's. If you live with a piece of music for very long, you will likely change your own interpretation through times as your musical skills mature. But as long as you are guided by the music, by good taste, & by honesty, your interpretations are valid. The how of musical interpretation is a question that can occupy a lifetime.
Here are a few general guidelines:
i) Let your tone quality be expressive.
The act of listening to, experimenting with, & developing your tone quality are all very important. It is in the act of interpretation that this work bears fruit. Tonal intensity is of special importance in expressive playing. Be careful not to let soft passages get flimsy.
ii) Let your dynamic range & your tempo be expressive.
Dynamic range refers here to sound levels, from loud to soft. For interpretive purposes, it may be more helpful to use the words BIG & SMALL, thinking in terms of shape rather than effort. It's best to be careful whenever music tends to an extreme. For example, there is an upper limit to how fast a listener can perceive the notes in a fast passage. Played too fast, a passage becomes a blur. Played a bit more slowly, the passage sparkles. It's important to be in control of extremes of dynamics & tempo so that your big sound is rich, your soft sound is delicate, your fast tempos glisten, & your slow temps press on.
Changes in dynamics & tempo within a piece of music are often gradual, subtle changes. When we play by ear, we tend to handle such changes with more finesse than we sometimes do when we read. When we see something written down - a crescendo on the page, for example, or a ritard - we need to feel a meaningful change in the musical line, & to do this, it helps to think the present level first. For example, if you're playing softly and you see a crescendo coming up, think "small" & then grow. If you think "loud" you are likely to move too fast & so lose the musical character. Your body, remember, responds with exquisite precision to your musical ideas.
Resist thinking of accents, dynamics, & tempo as something to be stirred in after the piece is "done", like poppy seeds on top of bread. The interpretive content of music is the leavening in the loaf - it is what will make it rise - & it needs to be stirred in at the beginning.
iii) Let your phrasing be expressive.
Musicians spends whole lifetimes studying & refining their phrasing. We can only touch lightly on this rich subject here, & we'll do that by comparing musical phrasing to language. A phrase in music is much like a sentence in speech or prose. If we neglect phrasing, in the musical sense, when we talk, our speech is flat, lifeless, a kind of robot-like imitation of human speech. If we neglect phrasing when we make music, our music is flat, lifeless, a kind of robot-like imitation of music.
For all musicians, skillful phrasing means careful attention to the relative important of each note in a phrase. Our speech is full of musical-phrase-like qualities, patterns of stressed & unstressed syllables, of rising & falling intensities. Our musical phrasing can often be enhanced by making up words to a musical phrase, by improvising a movement that seems to express the phrase, by conducting the phrase, or by finding an image that seem to fit it.
Of all musicians, singers tend to have the best natural phrasing since their musical line is usually supported by words & since their tone comes entirely from within them, with no mechanical object to intervene. Among instrumentalists, wind, percussion, & bowed string players come closest to singers in natural opportunities to phrase - wind players because they co-ordinate their breath with the musical line, & the percussion & bowed strings because their tone production is so closely tied to large gestures. Phrasing is the biggest challenge on keyboards & fretted (plucked or strummed) strings. For instrumentalists, the experience of singing in a vocal group under a proficient conductor is usually a liberal education in phrasing.
iv) Let the rhythm guide your expression.
Like time itself, musical rhythm is multilayer-ed. Just as in a clock & calendar time we have years, seasons, moon cycles, months, days, minutes, & seconds, so in music we have pieces, movements, sections, phrases, bars, beats, subdivisions, & frequencies. Each of these rhythmic entities provides clues for interpretation. A good place to begin is to feel the quality of the rhythmic pulse. Does the sound you're after want to sink down into the beat, as in a dirge or slow ballad, or does it want to spring up & away from the beat, as in a jig or scherzo?
v) Let your interpretation come from the inside out.
If technique has been developed with care, interpretation can be accomplished in the mind & in the heart. We don't have to tell our fingers or our breath to make an accent or play a smooth legato. If the technique for doing it is in hand, we need only think an accent or legato, & our body will follow.