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The most important aspect of a musical performance

The great John Coltrane always played with tremendous passion

- "The emotional reaction is all that matters."

- "All of the technique doesn't matter... only if the feeling is right." John Coltrane

At our recent ANZCA exams in May we had two students perform their Grade 3 piano pieces with such maturity and a level of emotional engagement; rare for a performer of any age and experience. Well done to both Doreen who is 12 years old and Likha who is 13, they have both managed to achieve a first class honours result on all six of their piano exams. More importantly than their technical prowess they have managed to identify and convey the mood of their pieces. Both Doreen and Likha drew high praise from the examiner for the great feeling with which they interpreted the music.

Many times I have seen musicians perform pieces with a very good level of technical proficiency, but they have left me unmoved with little or no attention to dynamics and or feelings in the music. As Beethoven said;

“To make mistakes is fine, to play without passion is inexcusable.”

It is truly moving when we witness a musician wholly connected with the feeling of the music and emotional intention of the composer. That is the true purpose of music.

Good musicians connect with the music, the composer’s intentions and perform “in the moment”. The audience and the feeling in the room at the time is an important ingredient in a musical performance. Quite often a slightly different interpretation is necessary due to the demands of the present moment, this is especially true of improvised music. The performer may have a great arsenal of tricks and motifs ready to go, only to find that they go off on a completely different tangent that is unplanned and truly spontaneous. Jazz musicians welcome the unexpected, extemporising themes and developing motifs until the original idea is almost unrecognizable.Of course, improvisation should not be considered exclusive to Jazz players.

Blues, rock and pop musicians are among many others who often improvise as part of their craft. Great classical musicians of the past such as Bach and Beethoven were also great improvisers, which is really not surprising given the fertility of their musical minds and inventiveness of their compositions.

Many teachers only look at dynamics and mood as an afterthought once a piece’s melodic, harmonic and rhythmic content have been fully absorbed. I believe this is a mistake, in many cases the student will be playing the piece like a robot for many months and then told to start observing dynamics and mood. This should all be part of the very first moments of learning a piece. What does the title of the piece mean? It is very important to know this BEFORE you start playing the piece. Connect with the mood of a piece from the very first notes you begin to play. To learn a piece from the start through to the end then adding dynamics and mood later is an artificial and ineffective process.

The mood of a piece should be clear and able to be described in words. Listen to any of the three Gymnopedies by Erik Satie, what words would you use to describe the mood of these pieces?

Think about the aforementioned next time before you practice. Don’t play music as an automaton; connect with the emotion of the music, bring yourself into the present moment and listen to the music come alive.

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