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musical interpretation classical guitar

How Much Liberty Should You Take with Musical Interpretation?

When you play a piece of music, how much should you let your own personality come through? Or should you play only what’s on the sheet music? Is one answer always right?

You’ll find people in the “music world” are often quite polarized on this subject. Some academics consider any little swell or fade that’s not in the score (jargon alert: “score” = sheet music) to be an absolute abomination.

On the other end of the spectrum, you may encounter players who learn the notes of a piece, then proceed to play it however they “feel” it at the time. They may disregard the musical period, style, or intent of the composer. (While this may be interesting, is it still the same piece?)

You’ll also find players who unwittingly tint everything they play with the their primary “sound”. For example, I’ve heard a fine Brazilian guitarist manage to unintentionally make anything he played (such as Bach) sound Brazilian.

Composer vs. Performer

To become a great composer takes thousands of hours of practice. Not practice playing, but practice composing.

And with all this composition practice, when does one practice their instrument? Eventually, one comes to the fore, and the other gets less attention.  (As a guitar example, Leo Brouwer started as a player, but transitioned to primarily a composer as time passed.)

Of course, there are the great anomalies of history – world-class performers who subsequently dedicated themselves to composing. These include the great pianist/composers Franz Liszt, Sergei Rachmaninov, Frederic Chopin, W.A.Mozart, and others.

But the great majority of the time, one is either a composer or a performer. Not both. Not at the highest levels anyway.

If you consider the top performers of recent history (Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Arthur Rubinstein, Vlad Horowitz, Joshua Bell, etc), they’ve dedicated most of their time to performing, and compose only minimally.

And the converse is true for composers: they put their best energy and attention into composing, not performing.

Note: Sure, you can find exceptions to the rule (such as Duke Ellington or Philip Glass; and Andrew York, Marco Pereira or Roland Dyens in the guitar world), but these only serve to prove the rule. And most of these still weight their time towards one or the other.

The Role and Duties of the Composer

The basic role and duty of a composer is to construct and deliver a piece of music that succeeds in its aim.

The composer’s aim could be

  • To give listeners an emotional experience (I like these the best, personally)
  • To explore a musical theory or perform a compositional exercise (early atonal 20th century music would be one example)
  • To provide a venue for the development of some skill (etudes and pedagogical works)
  • A combination of the above (Bach fugues could be considered all three)
  • Or some other motivation.

Whatever the aim, the goal of the composer is to fulfill it.

And the composer also has responsibility to the performer. The music has to be playable (no impossible fingerings or stretches).

The Role and Duties of the Performer (Musical Interpretation)

As a performer, your (yes, you – even if you’re still a beginner) your responsibility is to play the notes on the page, in the rhythm and style given, while communicating the composer’s intent – musical and emotional – to the listener. (more on this later.)

So a performer has to balance his/her responsibility to the composer (what’s on the page) with his/her responsibility to the listener (a meaningful experience).

If the only consideration were the notes on the page, a computer would be perfect performer. But a performer also needs to give listeners a human experience. Something meaningful, genuine and real.

Listeners trust a performer to give them this experience. Listeners invest time and attention (and perhaps money) in search of a musical experience.

This means the performer needs to (1) choose the right music to play for the specific situation, and (2) play it in such a way as to give some unique (and hopefully entertaining and meaningful) experience.

A Partnership is Born

To have a beautiful piece played beautifully requires both a good composition and a good performer.

Give the best composition to an amateur musician, and the best results will be but amateur (however enjoyable for the musician). Likewise, there is only so much a great performer can do with a weak composition.

The key to a stunning performance of a great work is for the music and the performer to work together to effectively communicate an emotional idea.

This takes a solid composition as well as a performer who can lead an audience to feel the desired emotion(s).

But is one half of this partnership more important than the other? And when there’s a disagreement, who should prevail?

Communication is the Response You Get. Or… The Customer is Always Right

Communication is the response you get. It doesn’t matter what you say. What matters is what is heard.

Question: As a performer, if I play you a gentle, peaceful piece of music but do so with a pained and gruesome expression, will you have the experience the composer intended?
Answer: Not likely.  Not if you can see me, at any rate.

Question: As a performer, if I surprise you with a 20-minute piece of music that’s dissonant (ugly-sounding, more or less) and edgy, but don’t give you any warning or framework in which to understand the music, have I respected your time and attention?
Answer: Not so much.

It doesn’t matter what you say.  It matters what’s heard.

Question: As a performer, if I play a piece of music exactly as it’s written on the page, but without personally understanding and demonstrating the musical and emotional content of the piece, have I played well?
Answer: Not on your life. (Even if you hold a prestigious teaching position or a full concert docket. If it’s bland, it’s just bland.)

The biggest factor upon which we can base success is the experience of the audience/listener. Both the composer and performer are foremost in service to the listener. (Assuming we’re talking about professional performers playing concert/recital repertoire. Informal sharing, student recitals and academic brain-fests are a different matter.  But still…)

The performer provides the gateway between the composer and the listener.  So if the audience gets lost, bored, or disinterested, it’s 100% the performers fault, not the composer’s, and certainly not the audience’s.

If the audience gets lost, bored, or disinterested, it’s 100% the performers fault, not the composer’s, and certainly not the audience’s.

Stay True to the Intent of the Composer

As a performer you may be better able to communicate musical ideas than the composer. If this is the case, you’ll be tempted to change dynamics (swells and fades), rubato (slowing down or speeding up), or tempo (speed).

For example, cellist Yo Yo Ma is better equipped than virtually any composer on the planet to play a cello part beautifully. He has the experience and abilities to take what the composer has written, and play it more beautifully than even the composer could have imagined. Sure, he plays what’s on the page, but brings his artistry to it as well.

This is important:  If you make changes, it must be to better communicate the musical intent of the composer. If you disagree with the composer’s sentiment, find different music to play. But if you can make the composer’s idea more understandable to the listener, then your changes are in service to the music.

If you change anything, it must be to better communicate the composer’s intent.

I Like Big Buts: First fully master what’s on the page, and understand why the composer made those choices. Until then, you’re not equipped or qualified to make any changes.

How to Prepare Yourself to Honor the Composer and Please Your Listeners

To put yourself in the best position to do justice to the music and play so that it sounds good to listeners, you have to build a collection of skills.

In your technical practice (scales, patterns, exercises, etc.), focus on playing in perfect rhythm. Connect notes seamlessly. Master the art of smoothly getting louder and softer.

When you ingrain the habits of listening to every note, and how each note connects to the next, you will automatically be more able to notice the small details and play them more beautifully.

Also, learning the concept of the long line and some basic “rules” of beautiful playing (such as not accenting the high note) will help.

Lastly, listening to great players will expose you to examples of effective communication. Personally, I find the great pianists of the 20th century are experts at interpretation, as are the musicians named above. Sadly, I can’t point to any one guitarist who exemplifies expressive playing as consistently as the great artists of other instruments. (“Why” is a topic for another day.)

What Happens in the Practice Room Stays in the Practice Room

It’s generally frowned upon to make massive stylistic changes in performance. However, in the practice room it’s great fun and can be very helpful.

Practice is completely different than performance. The goals and considerations are completely different. So what you do in practice is not necessarily the same as what you do in performance.

For instance, in practice you can:

  • Play slow passages very fast.
  • Play quiet passages loud.
  • Change the feel (i.e. swing it)
  • Play passages that slow down in steady rhythm
  • Add beats of space to give yourself extra time to prepare.

However,  some habits you’ll want to keep consistent in both practice and performance:

  • Always play with steady rhythm.
  • Always keep a focused attention.
  • Always know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Conclusion

  1. Always start with what is written and master that first (especially if you don’t understand it).
  2. Only make musical changes to a piece to better communicate the composer’s intent.
  3. Perpetually work to build skills that allow you to play fluidly and in control.
  4. Always feel free to play creatively with your pieces in practice, but when you perform them, honor the composer and the core musical ideas.

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4 Responses to How Much Liberty Should You Take with Musical Interpretation?

  1. Sergio August 21, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

    Hi Allen,

    Like I mentioned in another reply, I am working on Lagrima by Tarrega. I have heard quite a few people playing it on youtube and I find that my two favorite interpretations are by Anabel Montesinos and, even more, by Tatyana Rhyzkova. The funny thing is that if you read the comments on both some people complain that they play it too slowly and loose the intention of the piece.

    On Wikipedia we learn that it was written when the author was away from his home and feeling melancholic so people encouraged him to write a piece about his feelings. With this in mind, I find that these two interpretations really tell a story about sadness and longing, which is completely lost when played at the “required” 92 bpm and I think these interpretations just feel soulless and, like you put it, bland.

    I wonder if Tarrega, were he alive, would complain about a beautiful interpretation just because it was played a little slower.

    Personally I plan to reach the indicated 92 bpm playing each and every single note cleanly as a technical milestone and then aim to emulate Tatyana’s dynamics.

    Thank you for your wisdom.

    • Allen August 21, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

      Hi Sergio,
      Wonderful observations!
      As time goes on, I find myself playing slow pieces faster. The reason is this: if you set a slightly faster (such as the 92) baseline tempo, you can take more time when you use rubato (stretching time). If you start out slow, it’s difficult to stretch much without it sagging.
      I think you’re right on the mark with your intention to get it up to the suggested tempo, then do what you will.

      Thanks much,
      Allen

  2. Paulette October 22, 2016 at 5:59 am #

    As a beginner how do I determine the meaning or intent of the piece? How can I play more expressively if I don’t know what I’m trying to express?

    • Allen October 22, 2016 at 6:59 am #

      Hi Paulette,
      As a beginner, you have to focus on the basics first: the notes, the rhythms, and any musical cues or instructions you’re given in the sheet music.

      One of the biggest musical mistakes beginners make is moving on to the next piece before the last one is fully realized. Staying with it until you can play through the piece, at the given speed and with all the given musical suggestions, will teach you more than the next piece would. It just takes a bit of attention management (keeping interested).

      As time goes on, you’ll pick up little tricks and ways of playing specific patterns etc. in more beautiful ways (listening to the greats helps this, too). You can then bring these to the music.

      I should probably clarify: Understanding the composer’s intent and playing expressively are processes that we arrive at in layers, like an onion. This is one of the joys of studying music: we continue to understand in new and different ways over time. It’s discovery and exploration, as much as structured learning. And we arrive at new understandings through the processes of refining the basics (technique, rhythm, dynamics, etc.) You can also see this article on practicing to play expressively, and the whole category on “playing beautifully”. For all of us, it’s a work in process.

      I hope that makes a little sense. Thanks for the question!
      Cheers,
      Allen

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