On musical expression and life experience

It’s not a secret that life experience enriches a performer’s musical expression. It’s rare to find a child that can play complex emotional pieces with a depth and gravity of understanding that you would expect from an adult, even if they are equally technically adept. In groups of teenage musicians the rumour is whispered that when you lose your virginity your music teachers will be able to tell because they’ll be able to hear it in your playing. (Personally I doubt the veracity of that rumour – perhaps your teacher will be able to tell when you’re first in love, whether that goes well or badly and when you’ve suffered your first break up or rejection, but I think that’s as far as it goes.) So perhaps now I’m in my 30s I should have expected to be able to play with greater insight and to “get” what the composer was intending in a wider variety of music. Still these things take me by surprise.

As a young musician I was always praised for my expression. My technique has always been a bit shoddy and my sight-reading has never met the standards expected of me but as expression and feeling cannot be easily practiced and technique and sight-reading can, teachers were happy for me to have those strengths and weaknesses. Having come across numerous musicians who can get their fingers and eyes around anything, however fiendish, yet make a soulless and awful noise doing so, I have to agree with my teachers that this is the preferrable option.

Like anyone I was drawn to playing the music I understood best. To me, the most satisfying music was the dark and melancholic, the introspective and the seriously thoughtful. When I needed a change, perhaps something angry and rebellious would balance the mood. Like so many teenage musicians I was drawn to Shostakovich, both chamber and orchestral, and to Russian music in general. The Glazunov Elegy for viola and piano may be one of my all time favourite pieces and is one of the first pieces I think of when I think of the viola.

But there were some pieces I just didn’t get. By my mid/late teens I’d loved the solo Bach works for some time – I’d not yet dared to go near the solo violin works but I was acquainted with a good number of the cello suites on the viola. (Purists, I apologise – I do now own a cello and hack away at some of the simpler ones on the instrument for which they were intended, but you have to understand a viola player needs something pre-20th century to practice). When my violin teacher (who I’m ashamed to say I didn’t have much respect for) turned up with a piece of solo Bach for me to try, I should have been in my element, but I just didn’t get it. Oh the technique was an interesting challenge and I’m very fond of a spot of bariolage but I just couldn’t find any spirit in the music at all. I though Bach was having an off day when he wrote it and I couldn’t see why on earth my teacher would like the piece. The piece in question was the Preludio of the 3rd solo violin Partita.

Yesterday, well over a decade later, I finally “got” this piece. It needs to be played with exuberant joy and humour and I can now see how to do that. I’ve known for a while that my playing is humourless, but I didn’t realise it was much of a problem. This piece was offered to me by a teacher who played happy music well and thought it would be fun for me to learn, but I failed to understand her and I failed to understand Bach. Now I think I can play with joy and humour the piece is still difficult under the fingers, but there’s a point to it. I have reasonable comic timing in life, now I can see how to put it into music. I suspect teachers have been telling me to have fun with pieces like this for year but I never really understood what they meant. If I had fun with it, it was because virtuosity is fun in itself, not because the music was fun; rather than a bubbling fountain of semiquavers rising to the sky I was scrubbing industriously at a dirty floor. I suspect that much music that I found inane will now make a great deal of sense viewed in this new way.

I used to dread playing for non-musicians because they’d ask me to play something, so I’d play something I loved and then when I’d finished they’d say, “Now play something happy,” and I’d stand awkwardly wondering if I knew anything happy to play them and drawing a blank. Perhaps in future I’ll be able to deal with that situation better.

So if musical expression comes directly from life experience, it might just be the case that I’ve got finally got the hang of happiness. It does seem rather fragile and unlikely to be sustainable. I’m rather overprotective of it, but it appears I must have some understanding of it now that I lacked in the past. Perhaps this is a sign that I don’t need to worry about it disappearing as mysteriously as it appeared.

A (wise) friend and colleague suggested recently that I sing happy songs in my head to cheer myself up on difficult days. Throughout my life on difficult days I’ve used the catharsis of desolate music to get me through (Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet anyone?) but perhaps now it’s time for a new approach. I said to someone recently “I’m just not a scherzo kind of girl,” and I think that will only change to a certain degree, but perhaps, just perhaps, I can now consider myself at least a Vivace kind of girl.


Disclaimer: I’m not saying I can play the Preludio, just that I get the spirit and it might be worth practicing it so that one day I can. Shoddy technique, remember? And at least 5 years since I last practiced anything much. So don’t go asking for anything happy just yet, OK?


One thought on “On musical expression and life experience

  1. Liz at Libro says:

    What a lovely piece of writing and thinking – most enjoyable and refreshing. I’ve always liked jolly clarinet music but I’ll admit to getting away with transposing in my head once I had the first note right, rather than doing it properly …

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