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Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Music Is Not The Music

The Music Is Not The Music?!

My wondrous piano teacher at the Conservatory of Music at University of Missouri - Kansas City, Joanne Baker, taught me many things. Chief among them was to disregard musical scores while playing them.


Yes. You see, all of her students played their pieces from memory during their lessons. All the time. From the very first lesson. No opening up a Beethoven Sonatas book to Op. 109, placing it on the piano, glancing at it to see the key signature (E major) and perhaps to gather your thoughts before entering into Beethoven’s world via the keyboard and your ten fingers. For Jo-Jo (my pet name for her that I shared with only a few other students), learning “the music” happened before the piano lesson. The point of the lesson was to make something OF the musical score, which she would place onto her music stand, coloured pencils in hand, ready to make her markings (all lovingly dated, which now are a sort of nostalgic trip — on November 20, 1990 I neglected Brahms’ bass lines and kept missing the same notes in the same passages, all the while earning exclamation points here and there…)

Initially, this process was maddening. Then one day we had a conversation about it. Jo-Jo lived before hashtags and memes, but if I could put a tag on that conversation (and practically any other interaction with her) it would be: Jo-Jo Convo = Mind Blown.

This insistence on memorization from Day One annoyed me during my first semester studying in her studio. I spent my days ingesting musical scores as quickly as possible so I’d have something to work on in our lessons, at the expense, I strongly felt, of the musical score’s details. A typical lesson might move along the lines of Me playing a movement of a sonata by Haydn, then Jo-Jo would hobble over to the second piano in her studio (she walked with a cane but was incredibly agile for her age) and sit down. She’d say something along the lines of “so, you played the first motive like this”, then she’d play it exactly how I had played it. Pause. Then she’d look at me and say, “is that how you meant to play it?”. Then she’d smile, sweetly. Like a cat playing with a mouse. “Well”, I’d say, “I guess.” Then she’d say something along the lines of, “well, is that what Haydn wrote?”, and smile sweetly again. Ugh. This was EXHAUSTING.

But this was an invaluable process. It taught me to memorize the SCORE, not just the notes. We had to know — as soon as we knew the notes — when the crescendo started, if there were dots or carrots over notes, if there were slurs tossed in. We also had to know if they were editor markings or composer markings. And, ultimately, her process taught me to really, truly listen to how I was playing the piano and the music, instead of looking into a score to see the notes and markings and be distracted visually. For you see, to really be able to transport our listeners into the worlds created by those geniuses, we need to really concentrate on everything BUT the black dots on the white pages. So why practice doing exactly that during our once a week lessons, and THEN at some point in the future have it “memorized”?

Why indeed. But that didn’t stop me from asking her about it. She had a few things to say in response to me questioning her process. Three of those ideas really stuck with me. I don’t have what she said verbatim in my mind anymore, as I’ve morphed her ideas into my own. The following is my attempt to write about these three notions as I remember them, (the final one being the MIND BLOWN one, fyi.)

Where The Eyes and Ears Meet
Sitting at the piano while playing through any score, causes your head to be up and looking at the music in front of you. Not necessarily conducive to listening. In fact, if the brain is focused on looking at those thousands of notes and the hundreds of musical markings in something like a Chopin Ballade, can the brain also really be focused on listening to those notes and remembering all those markings? Researchers tell us that humans actually can’t multitask. Jo-Jo insisted this to be true as well. She wanted us focused on every sound that was being created by our ten fingers, our wrists and arms, our feet on the pedals, and how our inherent musicality and our intellectual choices influenced those sounds. When one focuses just on sound, without the distraction of the information passing through our eyes and visual cortex, there is a whole other level achieved. Why not practice this way all the time to prepare for your eventual performance of it? I’ve written extensively about “seeing with your ears and hearing with your eyes.” This is where that concept initially came from.

Knowledge Is Memory
How can we just play through a score over and over and over and over and over and over (you can only really get this picture if you’ve practiced the piano for tens of thousands of hours) without trying to actually learn the score. It is so easy to just “play” through a piece, thinking you are practicing it. Yes, there are hard sections that get practiced - big octave passages, fast sections, double trills - and easy sections that are just so pleasant to practice, but all too often pianists are playing through a score without actually committing its details to memory until they actually have to do so. To memorize a piece, from the very first moment, the very first note, is a whole different ball game. I learned to memorize instantaneously, measure by measure. Once this happened (one day, all of a sudden, it became possible after months of struggling), I was able to learn - really learn - at a crazy fast rate. I learned the entire Brahms F minor sonata in about ten days. Mind you, I was never a diligent practicer either. I brought in the first movement after looking at it the day before the lesson. My fingers knew how to play, I just needed the knowledge residing in those black dots on those white pages to be in my mind. Jo-Jo’s genius was also telling me to do this backwards by starting at the end of a piece and memorizing measures backwards. I still do this today when time is tough. As you move forward into a piece, it’s like you’re following a well-trod path in a forest of millions of trees. The further in you go, the clearer the path. 

The Music (Musical Score) Is Not the Music
Jo-Jo wasn’t all that impressed with Urtext scores, critical editions, or editions by some famous so-and-so. She was more interested in interpreting the scores. She told me that those who looked into scores to find the music were “forever deluding themselves”. She hated correctness for correctness’ sake. Music seemed much more apparent to her, particularly the great masterpieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, etc. She didn’t understand how anyone could just play the notes and think they’d done something special. “Anyone can play these notes, but only a few of us can make music out these notes” was something I remember her saying. She compared musical scores to churches. “No one goes into a church thinking that God is the actual church. You walk into a church to discover God.” Then she added, “A musical score is not the music. You enter the structure of the musical score to discover the music, to discover the composer’s intentions, wishes, dreams.” Everyone, in her view, entered a church and saw different things, felt different emotions, and found God in different places and times. The same was true for pianists, we entered into a score to gain knowledge and then we moved beyond it to find the music in the music. That’s why Horowitz and Ax are very different pianists, they aren’t the same people but they went searching for the Truth and then put their version of the Truth onto a stage for others to experience. 

Lessons with Jo-Jo were best kind of lessons. Each was an adventure. An act of Discovery. Like we were sailing uncharted waters in familiar ships to find new lands and peoples, to be dumbfounded at the undiscovered countries waiting for us in the works of the great masters. 

At our last lesson, Jo-Jo smiled at me, took my hands in hers, (I can still see her eyes so clearly in my memory!) and told me, “You make so much music out of so many missed notes. Change that last part and you’ll have something real to share.”

But ironically, I never changed that last part, really, but it's led to my success in opera. 

Working in opera is all about missed notes. Rehearsal pianists have to learn to drop tons of them because they are playing only a ten finger version of a score meant to be played by a 50 piece orchestra. That’s mostly impossible unless you drop a bunch of notes practically every measure. When you coach a singer, you should be focused on what they are doing, not on the notes you are playing. Good coaches know when to play all the notes and when to give outlines of the score, what the singer might actually hear coming up from the pit, for instance. As a conductor, it’s about focusing on moments within the present moment; during any given moment a conductor might be focused on a singer’s breath, cueing a chorus entrance, looking over towards the oboe to see if he’s ready to enter at a tricky point, or collaborating with the concert mistress on a final pianissimo ending to an act while watching her bow. Hundreds of thousands of notes dropped in order to concentrate on just a few notes each and every millisecond.

Joanne Baker is no longer on this Earth. But she lives on in all of her students and their music making. She definitely is present in almost every single coaching and lecture I give or rehearsal I might lead. She was an architect of musical sound and she showed me the secret garden where such a vast and rich array of structures to walk into and find the music resounding off the walls. I’ll never be able to thank her now, but I try to thank her through my work with my students, the music I try to make with others, and in my writings on music. She, along with Robert Larsen (my über-mentor), Berneil Hanson (my first piano teacher in Council Bluffs), and R. H. Fanders (my Humanities teacher at T.J.H.S.), give credence to the adage that sprang from Galileo Galilei’s mind: “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”