Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mired in Mozart

A student said the other day, "Working on Mozart makes me feel…" and he pulled his elbows in close to his sides and vividly mimed being constricted in a very tight space. And I could understand where that was coming from. We had been working for several lessons on finding the appropriate classical style for the Mozart concerto, and over and over again we stopped because a note had been crudely ended, or a slur turned upside down with the second note heavier and longer than the first. Or because the vibrato was too heavy for the musical moment, or the release from an appogiatura was too active. And in this sea of details, he didn't feel that he had the freedom to make any music at all. It was just about making the articulation correct, and not actually fun.

I am not basically a stickler about performance practice. I am one of the least scholarly musicians I know, and I have not memorized the correct terms for the various Baroque ornaments and whether they are most appropriate in Italian or German music and from which precise era. I believe in playing what sounds good. But it doesn't sound good to treat Mozart like Strauss or Kalliwoda.

Playing classical music - from the classical era, I mean, not just "serious music" - is in fact somewhat restrictive. There's a sound that you use and a way that you end phrases. You rarely can rock the house with a truly full-throated sound, and there's little tolerance for romantic swooshes of tempo and dynamic. The music was composed according to strict rules, and its style is familiar to even the lay listener. Our concerto is a great piece, and does have some musical complexities to discuss, but first all of the technique and articulation needs to be pristine and appropriate, because anything less sounds immediately sloppy and studentlike.

It's been a long time since I struggled with this Mozart style. I had forgotten how rule-bound it felt to me when I was a student. Now I slip it on like a comfortable costume. Once I'm wearing it, I can still be me. I can still express my opinions through the music, and still have fun. It's like the language in Shakespeare's plays, or in Dickens's novels. It's challenging to get into that mode, but once you're in there you can use the language to say anything you want.

I suspect that the reason my student feels so uncomfortable in Mozart is that I talk too much. I feel obligated as a teacher to have reasons for what I suggest, and to be able to generalize rules so that a student can use them in other situations. But laying out in words every detail of what Classical Style entails is long and boring and well, restrictive. I can do better. A little back and forth playing in our next lesson will solve the issue far more successfully, and be more fun for both of us.

4 comments:

  1. It's been a long time since I struggled with this Mozart style. I had forgotten how rule-bound it felt to me when I was a student. Now I slip it on like a comfortable costume. Once I'm wearing it, I can still be me. I can still express my opinions through the music, and still have fun. It's like the language in Shakespeare's plays, or in Dickens's novels. It's challenging to get into that mode, but once you're in there you can use the language to say anything you want.

    That's such a great way to put it. So often people feel like classical music is restraining or squishes creativity, but I think it's transformative.

    Reminds me of a quote I blogged about a while back:

    [This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the chief shamisen player. I asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Of course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “create” anew.

    full post here:
    http://silpayamanant.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/to-create-or-to-copy/

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  2. Thank you, Jon, and I love that quote! It's always a delicate thing to try to be yourself while playing music written by someone else and interpreted by hundreds or thousands of other people in earlier years, but I am frequently reminded when I hear other oboists (at auditions, say) how much variety is possible in a given work. Even if I think I'm not "doing" a lot, my personal style and approach always come through in comparison to that of other people. I don't mean that mine is better, of course. Just different, and unique as humans are unique.

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  3. Exactly! No two people will ever play anything alike--hell, we all have a hard time playing something the same twice ourselves. If it were so easy to imitate or copy something, we wouldn't have to practice so much, right?

    Love your practice tips at your website--I'd been meaning to do something like that at my website as well so it's good to see another teacher doing it--but yeah, warm-ups, a solid hour or more of slow scales, long tones, slow shifts does me tons better than frantically practicing difficult passages!

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  4. So true, and yet do they do it? Do I, always, actually? Such an easy trap to fall into...

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