Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Performance and Practise: Problem Composers

In my guitar practise, I frequently meet with pieces by Robert de Visée, court guitarist for Louis XIV of France. These pieces are not any more technically challenging than the others surrounding them, but I have always had difficulties in playing them. The timing seems weird, or the harmonies seem wrong. Or I get the notes right but it sounds like a random collection of notes, with no sense of conveying a musical piece. An example is the Saraband pictured above. I practised this on and off for a three month period before I could even play all the way through it without mistakes, but it still sounded "wrong".

I understand that this is not a unique problem - Alison can not play Mozart, for example, even though she can play technically more demanding pieces from Débussy or Chopin. Even world-reknowned recording artists seem to have their favourite composers to play.

So the question is - what do people do about this problem? I have no musical teacher to help me out. Alison suggested just skipping the composer on the grounds of incompatibility - you don't have to learn everything. This seemed quite practical, but I am stubborn. I refused to consider that a composer could "beat" me.

I found a solution that worked for me.

I was fortunate enough to find a CD in the library that had Julian Bream playing de Visée's entire suite in Dm. I took it out and listened to it. A light went on. I listened to it again and again and just absorbed the composer's spirit (as filtered by Bream). I have probably listened to the piece over 100 times now. The first of my mistakes was that I was subconciously playing it like a J.S. Bach piece. I had to throw that thinking out. Secondly, I realized my tempo was wrong - the piece has a stylized and deliberate tempo. Lastly, I listened to Bream personalize the piece.

Here is a link to the first eight bar theme as recorded by Julian Bream. Go ahead, click and listen.

Bream omits some notes, adds his own grace notes, varies the tempo, and varies his tone - the simple piece comes alive when he plays it. I have now started to incorporate some of his techniques in my playing, and now the piece sounds like it means something. I have applied this thinking/approach to other de Visée pieces, and it has paid off - I no longer fear him.

Practical advice - if you have acomposer you just can't fathom, listen to somebody you admire playing that piece, and dissect their approach and then try to incorporate it. Listen 100 times if you have to, until you "get it"

You will open up new worlds in your repertoire, and learn new performing techniques as well.

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