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Laying the Groundwork for Artistic Expression

Leela Breithaupt | January 2018

    Why do we practice? For me, the highest form of artistic expression is connecting with others and making an emotional impact. Part of my practice time is spent researching and preparing how to do this. Truly learning and internalizing music encompasses much more than mastering the mechanics of playing the correct notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, tone production and intonation. Think about why people listen to music. I would argue that most people want to be moved by a performance. In a modern world in which people are simultaneously ultra-connected and yet surprisingly alone, humans crave emotional connection. 
     If musicians want to be relevant in our society, we must ask ourselves how we can move people with our performances. The answer lies in having something to say, broadening the spectrum of practice preparation to increase our capability of artistic expression, and finding ways to connect with each other and the audience. 

Determine the Affect
    If music is about moving people’s emotions, it makes sense to determine the overarching feeling or emotion of each movement. Begin by looking at the most obvious clues – the tempo, articulation, and style markings. Often these words are standard Italian musical terms, but often they are German, French, or another language. For example, even if you think that you know what adagio means, look it up. The musical translation means “in a slow tempo.” If you look one step further, you’ll find that the word adagio comes from the Italian ad agio, which means, “at ease.” The image of “at ease” paints a richer picture than just “slow.” I’ll always remember while studying Schubert’s Variations on Trockne Blumen in Berlin, my teacher, Karlheinz Zoeller, asked me (in German) if I knew what steigern meant. I did not, but he wisely did not translate it for me. Instead he crouched down low next to the piano and then got progressively taller and taller while making climbing motions with his arms and legs. It is sometimes difficult to remember translations, but the image of this formidable flutist demonstrating steigern seared the affect of building in intensity into my memory. 

Learn Historical and Cultural Context
    Musicians are ambassadors of the cultures and time periods of the compositions they perform. Composers are the products of the external and internal influences in their lives. In less than an hour, you could read a synopsis of a composer’s biography and start to figure out what made that composer tick. For example, when preparing the Prokofiev Sonata (composed in 1943), you should learn about how Prokofiev was evacuated to the Caucasus due to the threat of German invasion in the Soviet Union. During this time he was away from the Soviet government’s stifling control of artists, and his relationship with a 25-year-old writer, Mira Mendelson, was in full swing. The idyllic freedom of this period of his life that followed years of living abroad in the U.S., Paris, and Bavaria before returning to the pressures of Soviet Moscow can be heard in the expansion of the opening bars of the sonata. Use all of this valuable information as a spy would and craft a contextually clever plan to influence your audience. 

Play or Read the Full Score
    It always amazes me when I see students’ reactions to being asked to prepare the full score. For many, it is similar to being told to eat vegetables as kids: part annoyance, part shame, part dislike, and part avoidance. As melody instrumentalists, it is easy to get caught up in the demands and expression of our own parts. That is fine, but please do not stop there. Composers do not think up the melody part, and then, as an afterthought, come up with a nice sounding accompaniment. Whatever the genre or time period, respect the music and the composer by learning how each part fits in the whole piece. Write notes in your part to keep your mind and ear trained on the interplay between the parts. For example, in Jolivet’s Chant de Linos, write the rhythm of the haunting viola melody at rehearsal letter R into your part, even if you are playing from the flute and piano score. When you are aware of the countermelody, then you don’t just happen to be rhythmically together, but you embody the strength that comes from the pushing and pulling between the parts.

Phrasing and Structure
    I like to use all of the available theoretical knowledge that I have at my fingertips to get a good roadmap of the piece or movement. Musicians should use different tools to do an informal analysis based on what suits the composition. For example, in Baroque music, structural tone melodic analysis is often illuminating. This does not have to be a full blown Schenckerian analysis, but just enough to notice if there is an overarching pattern of structural tone movement embedded in the more complex phrase. Use informal harmonic analysis to notice modulations, deceptive cadences, episodes and forms such as a returning melody in rondeau from ABACA. If there are deceptive cadences, note them in your part with a VI under the melody note so that you can express the clever sudden twist in harmonic expectations. Gather all of the structural pillars that hold up the work of art so your performance will have an unambiguous clarity within which to play.

    Musicians spend an enormous amount of practice time mastering tools so they can execute the requirements of the music. For me, the most important part of practicing is what happens next: how to get from mastering skills to conveying emotions and connecting with listeners. We create art for a reason. I keep this foremost in my mind and relish incorporating research, theory, history, and cultural context to hone my individual artistry.