I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend in musicians that must be rectified. It is a problem that might not be immediately noticed by the general public but, none-the-less, promises to cheapen our art to the point where live performances will become irrelevant. It can be summed up in three words – “Think for yourself.”
I have been pretty lucky regarding the soloists I have worked with. For the most part there have been no major arguments, or no arguments that couldn’t be overcome by discussing the inner workings of the music that we are slated to perform. Tempo, phrasing, dynamics, etc., those are all areas where two musicians can have a disagreement. Within a good thinking collaboration accommodations can be made that don’t interrupt the flow of rehearsal or, God forbid, a concert.
On vey rare occasions, however, a disagreement arises that threatens this bonhomie. I have learned that in those circumstances it is best to retire to a dressing room and hopefully talk out the differences rather than waste precious rehearsal time in a charged and public atmosphere. But that’s where the troubles can be compounded, and that has me thinking of Bach.
There is a wonderful biography of Sebastian Bach called “Bach: The Learnéd Musician” by Christoph Wolff. Through his masterful story telling Wolff really gives a vivid account of the mind and the man behind this most glorious music. What is absolutely clear is that Bach had the most piercing and lucid mind, one quick to take musical cues and ideas from every aspect of life. Bach was the true definition of homo sapien sapien – the thinking thinking Man.
When I am preparing a score for performance I try to take Bach’s blueprint into account. Everything is relevant to my musical decisions – key signature, time signature, text, orchestration, acoustics, time period in which the piece was written, etc., etc., – these all go into the hopper, and hopefully an informed and excited performance comes out. I will on rare occasions reference a recording just to get a basic sound in my head, but what I rely on most is the musical score and my own research into the composer and the time period in which the piece was written.
Yet on rare occasions I have had a conflict with a young musician (and it is always a young musician who says the following), and I have had them tell me “that’s not the way it is on the recording.”
Honestly, this statement I find utterly flabbergasting. First of all, if your argument to me is that there is a recording that you have heard that does something different than what I am doing, as opposed to your argument being that there is a tempo indication I might have missed or a harmony in the phrase that is important, then what does that tell me about you? It tells me that you don’t have the musical intelligence to make a musical decision on your own. Instead you have decided to cheat your way through getting an understanding of a piece by relying on an aural crutch, one that has no more relevance to the argument than does a doorknob.
Second, “THE recording?” Really? Not only have you already demonstrated that you haven’t the brains to make your own decisions but now you have taken the ONE recording you have downloaded from iTunes as Gospel? At this point I guarantee you that I have lost all respect for you as a musician and as a human being. You are the antithesis of the phrase homo sapien sapien, and you have demonstrated all the trappings of a member of the musical Tea Party – relentlessly parroting utter nonsense not based in fact for your own self-aggrandizement.
I cannot imagine Sebastian Bach, that most Learnéd of Musicians, ever taking this kind of intellectual shortcut. If I have one piece of advice to give to all young musicians it is this – erase your MP3 player. Instead, study the score. Read about the composer, what age the composer lived in, their influences, their ideals about music, and then make up your own mind based on that information. The music you create will be exciting, fresh, and worthy of being listened to in the great halls throughout the world. Otherwise, why bother? I can listen to THE recording in the comfort of my living room without having to spend all that money on a ticket to hear you faithfully recreate it.
Composers, expecially the great ones, were generally not idiots. It behooves you to not treat them as such.