About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Technique and Interpretation

Last week I had the opportunity to hear a short recital by a former student of mine. He was preparing to appear on the WFMT radio show Introductions, which features pre-college musicians. He is a percussionist and played marimba on this recital program. He chose a varied program that was very enjoyable.

One of the pieces on his program was the Prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1, which I have been working on, off and on, and which I wrote about earlier. He played it technically very well and also did some lovely phrasing with ritards and dynamics. When we talked with him afterwards I complimented him on how musical that piece was, and he said that the interpretation was the challenge for him. He had learned the notes in about a week, he said, but then his teacher had him listen to numerous recordings and work on making it musical.

I know that technique is different on different instruments -- what's easy for me on horn is hard for you on some other instrument, and vice versa, but - a week! Of course, he spent much more time on everything that comes after you learn the notes and rhythm. That got me thinking about why we choose the music we choose to learn.

The Bach Suite is an excellent technical challenge for me - it's so difficult on horn. It's also been an opportunity for me to listen to recordings of the Suites and think about how to play this very notey music expressively. However, until I have more command of the technique, I can't really do much with the musicality. On the other hand, when I played the Symphony #4 by David Maslanka this past year, the notes were simple. But making musical sense was a big challenge. This extremely demanding work for band begins with a solo for horn alone. It is 29 measures of mid-range playing with easy rhythms and lots of long held notes. (The technical difficulties come a little later.) There aren't many expression markings. I was quite nervous about the whole piece, but mostly those 29 bars, so I got some coaching from a teacher. He didn't know the piece at all, but was a huge help in thinking about ways to use dynamics, articulation, and silence to create an effective introduction to the piece. I was happy, the conductor was happy, and hopefully the audience enjoyed it. I worked as hard on this solo as I am on the Bach, but in a different way.

The point of playing a piece is to make music and to communicate with your audience, and both technique and interpretation are important in achieving that. The balance of challenge between those two elements varies from piece to piece and from performer to performer. I knew this already, but sometimes there's a reminder, like my student and the Bach Suite.

If you'd like to hear the Maslanka symphony, there is a very good YouTube recording by the U.S. Navy Concert Band, conducted by Mallory Thompson. There are lots of great recordings of the Bach Suites, including ones by Yo-Yo Ma, Pablo Casals, and Mstislav Rostropovich.

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