I was in my senior year of my undergraduate studies, during my apprentice teaching semester. I shared an off-campus apartment with two other men, one a music major the other a psychology major. One day, after I had been practicing my clarinet, the music major said to me, “I don’t like listening to people practice.” Naturally I asked him why this was and he said that it was because when the people he knew practiced, they paid little attention to tone, and most of their attention to practicing notes. I asked him if that was true of me too, and he said that it was.
All these 39 years later, I have recently remembered those words and reflected on them. I have realized that the practice sessions I enjoy the most are the ones in which I am being most expressive; the ones in which I lose myself in the music and “play my heart out.” On the other hand, my least favorite practice sessions are those that are aptly described by my former room mate’s words; the ones in which I am merely practicing notes, drilling myself over and over until I play a passage with the correct notes. Of course, this kind of attention to right notes is necessary, but it is a temporary departure from what should be the main point of playing a musical instrument in the first place, which is to express something of the human heart and spirit.
Suzuki, the famed violin pedagogue, often spoke of the intimacy between heart, soul and music. To him, music was as essential to life and human compassion as the air we breathe. How unfortunate that some teachers have cherry picked playing by ear from the totality of Suzuki’s philosophy and method, forgetting or laying aside the development of beauty of tone and expressiveness in favor of playing dry renditions of Twinkle ad nauseam. Ever since the National Core Arts Standards were released with the pervasive presence of expressive intent throughout them, I have found it both energizing and challenging to frame every musical experience in the context of expressiveness. Yet that is exactly the point of art in general and music in particular–to express something personal from one musician to other musicians and beyond them to audiences. It has also caused me to call into question the premise that performances of classical music must be “authentic.” If a musician’s primary mission is to convey someone else’s expressive intent, then musicians are left with an enterprise that is marginally relevant to them at best. Whether the mandate is to reproduce a composer’s intent, or to follow strict instructions from a conductor, preparing performances to present to an audience without the creative freedom to convey personal meaning is rendering music study largely superficial, and limiting the true power and benefit of musical study.
If someone tells me about something about which they have strong feelings, those feelings are conveyed to me in body language, voice inflection, as well as the words themselves. Their feelings then interact with my own feelings born out of my own experience and interests, and are given an additional meaning that is personal and somewhat unique to me. If the person is telling me about a life event they have celebrated and are happy and excited about, anybody hearing them talk about it will get that the feelings being expressed are happiness and excitement, but my version of those emotions are different from others’ based on how I personally feel when I am happy or excited over a similar life event. The same is true with music. Whereas musicians may universally agree that Beethoven was expressing anger, or Haydn was expressing humor, individual musicians or non-musicians will relate to that anger or human in unique ways, influenced by life experiences only they have responded to in unique ways. So it is here, in the mixing of life experiences and music that we as music educators much grant our students the freedom to interpret music they hear and perform in our rehearsals and classrooms in personal ways even when those ways are different from how we would dictate an interpretation to them were we to assume the role of traditional maestro.
In granting this freedom, we must prepare our students to create such interpretations by giving them ample experiences with music of the same idiom as that which they are preparing for performance or are listening to for responding to music activities. They must develop a “feel” for the music of Beethoven so that they can relate their own lives to what Beethoven invested into his music. The same is true of any composer of any idiom or time period. Interpretation is the melding of two contexts: that of the creator and that of the performer. The later must understand the former, but be left the latitude to understand the former in his or her own cultural and personal contexts. The more the students have a “feel” for a composer’s music, the more they will be able to understand it based on how they feel when they play, sing or hear it.
When this is applied to practicing or rehearsing, more attention is often given to details. For example, when students are focused on beauty of tone, they are concentrating on the expressiveness of perhaps only a single note, or a single phrase of music. This point is famously made in this moment from the movie Amadeus.
Salieri’s attention to that first sustained note is exactly the focus on expressive detail that is necessary for music to be understood as an expressive power. For Salieri, the miracle of this music is not in the specific pitches or even in the literal dynamics, but in the way in which these things are used for expressive effect. It should not be necessary for children to wait until they are in college or even high school to experience this level of musical sensitivity. The vibrant imaginations of children are perfect for exploring music in all of its expressiveness, much more for than for exploring the names of lines and spaces and the memorizing of vocabulary lists. These too must be included in our music instruction, but they should not become the primary focus.