Balancing Act

All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time…

– Johann Sebastian Bach

A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved.

-Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Sometimes we hear a piece of music played perfectly, no dropped or stuttered notes, all articulation and dynamic markings recreated to the letter, all rhythms dead on – no extraneous or unpleasant sounds. We spend a good amount of practice time trying very hard to achieve this kind of performance, and most of us never do it.

Sometimes we hear a piece of music played with some flubs, maybe even memory slips or what I like to call “creative improvisation,” yet the presentation is given with such life and conviction that the imperfections don’t distract from the effectiveness of the performance.

Playing accurately is important. For a piece of music to be understood by a listener, it must be presented clearly. Rhythmic accuracy, especially, is very important in this matter. However, there is often too heavy a focus on this in our work, with the consequence that we forget that there is this other mysterious element, which is what often attracts us to the art of music in the first place. The goal is to balance the intellectual side of playing with the often-neglected intuitive side.

There is an emotional or internal component to music. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately!), it is impossible to clearly describe, which makes it more difficult to approach than playing the right notes at the right time. Also, the process by which this takes place is too complex and intense to reduce to the belief that a piece of music represents a single type of feeling (happy, sad, etc.), and that this feeling is conveyed exactly from performer to listener, as if the music were some sort of telephone wire. I think that any emotional response evoked within the performer is enough to imbue a performance with a dimension of emotional content, regardless of any display of technical prowess.

As an exercise, take a piece of music that you play and imagine that it is the soundtrack to a movie you are watching in your mind. Who are the characters?  What are they doing?  What do the settings look like, and what of the atmosphere, lighting, pace, etc?  Be as specific as you can and describe as an intense level of detail as you can. Watch the movie over and over in your mind as you play the piece. Keep your focus on how the music feels, and practice this as much as you do getting the right notes at the right time.

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