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16 important musical truths I learnt in 2014

This year, my first as a freelance writer and journalist, I've had the privilege to meet some amazing musicians during my assignments for various magazines and websites. Even as an amateur violinist, hearing their insights has changed the way I approach music, or at least made me think carefully, and I hope you find them useful or stimulating. Follow the links for more details, and if you disagree with any of them please add your comments at the end!

1) Playing on the bar line as a group is not as important as musical intention and flow

I heard this twice recently. In his masterclass at the Amsterdam Biënnale Jean-Guihen Queyras explained to one student: ‘You and the pianist shouldn’t be too civilised with one and other – you can be in conflict with the timing. Sometimes it’s important not to be together vertically. We learn rules – that we have to play together, that there are bar lines. But great artists try to push the bar lines, to look for space.’

Similarly, when I interviewed Gary Hoffman, he explained how students often like the flow they find in old recordings but are afraid to emulate it because it means they won't be playing together. He advises them: ‘You have to be willing to make a choice in life and to pay the price. And paying the price for having that kind of freedom and flow is perhaps not being together. It doesn’t bother you because the musical intention and message so overrides it that you don’t notice it and even if you do, it doesn’t bother you.’

2) Sometimes in chamber music rehearsals, the less you say, the better

David Waterman explained this in my interview with him for ChamberStudio: ‘As you get older as a group there’s less talking and more playing, because more happens just through listening, responding and thinking. The less said the better. If you’re playing through a new piece, you might notice things – someone’s phrasing or vibrato – but you wouldn’t say anything. A lot gets cleared up by the person noticing for themselves, which is much better.’

3) Strong eye contact in chamber groups does not necessarily lead to good ensemble

Christoph Richter explained why not in his ChamberStudio interview: ‘Many groups rely too heavily on their eyes for ensemble. If I’m trying to play together with the first violinist and I look at them for a cue, we will not be together. If I try to catch the moment the bow moves on the string by sight I will be too late, or too early because I anticipate it.’

4) When playing late Beethoven quartets it helps to understand the extent of the composer's deafness

When I spoke to Eugene Drucker for Southbank Centre’s blog, the Emerson Quartet’s first violinist explained how the circumstances of the great composer's hearing affected masterpieces such as the Grosse Fuge: ‘He was able to imagine extra musical dimensions. In the musical space that he contemplated, the statements of the subject and counter-subject could unfold without getting in each other’s way, as they would for the rest of us hearing them within the range of a string quartet. Beethoven could imagine extra pockets in the way that string theorists can imagine extra dimensions of the universe beyond the three spacial dimensions we’re used to.’

5) Ultimately, a player’s sound comes from their own imagination, not from their instrument

James Ehnes explained this when I interviewed him for ‘The sound is only ever going to be what the player wants. If the player can’t come up with that sonic ideal then the violin’s never going to make it happen. That’s the mark of a great instrument: when a player looks for a sound, or a million different sounds, sooner or later with a great instrument they’re going to find a way to work it out. It might be difficult and awkward, but it’ll be there. There are some things that are more difficult to do on my violin, but I’ve yet to have an idea in my mind of what sound I’m trying to make that I haven’t sooner or later figured out how to make.’

6) You can tell a lot about a player by trying their instrument

When I interviewed her for, cellist Natalie Clein explained her theory that it’s possible to sense the quality of a player in the instrument they’ve played: 'I can feel if someone good or bad has played my cello even for five minutes. If someone good has played the instrument it feels fresh.'

7) We have to know how to end things

One of the many things I learnt on Burton Kaplan’s Magic Mountain Practice Retreat is that knowing how to end a piece or movement, or even a phrase, is vital and informs how you actually play the whole piece: ‘We’re so preoccupied by "this moment" or "this detail" that people are dumb about how to create closure in a phrase, and it’s not taught. We can do it in language and everyone gets it... The way you create closure is you elongate and increase the expectation of the penultimate, most tense, moment. That makes us need the end so when you produce the end we feel fulfillment, but you need to generate the need for closure. Do it with time and tone – picking the pitches. We like a struggle. We experience the contradiction of expecting one thing and getting another and feel fulfilled at the end.'

8) For violinists, the amount of weight applied in both hands needs to be independent

Vadim Gluzman explained this in his interview, referring to his ‘Auer’ Stradivari but applying the principle to all instruments: ‘We shouldn’t be applying the same weight in both hands – it’s unnecessary and often it damages the quality of sound.’

9) Moving around when you play does not make you a better performer

This view is shared both by Christoph Richter, who told me for his ChamberStudio interview, ‘Players should move naturally – this can be more or less, but nobody should learn choreography…We should be careful that we produce musicians and not show stars,’ and by Gary Hoffman, who explained how he once experimented as a young man: ‘I started making faces and throwing my body around and exaggerating everything. I played as fast as I could, as loud as I could, whacking the instrument, trying to elicit a response…It was an explosion. Like nothing before…I felt horrible. I hated it, so I never did it again.’

10) Intonation is negotiable

When I spoke to him for ChamberStudio, Ralph Kirshbaum explained the importance of intonation, but also how people hear pitch differently: ‘When you’re playing with someone else, how far do you push a tritone in terms of the tension it’s going to create in resolving to the next chord? People hear that differently; they hear leading tones differently…That’s chamber music… You have to make an adjustment. You can’t just sit there and say, “You have to play it the way I play it!”’ 11) The quickest way to improve your chamber group is to work on intonation

Christoph Richter’s top advice for speedy improvement as a group was this: ‘If you’re behind in learning a piece, or playing with people who don’t know each other well, an emergency measure is to give yourself a few hours to work on intonation. The tones of the players melt together and you sound more together... Start a rehearsal session with a Bach chorale. A lot of established groups do this and it’s fantastic for intonation, voice leading, sound, and understanding harmony.'

12) Good teaching can make you play worse

David Waterman explained this phenomenon: ‘Some of the most fundamental, far-reaching teaching does not result in people immediately thinking, “Wow, yes, of course, that’s fantastic.” Very often it makes everyone play worse. It’s so basic that people question everything they’re doing and realise they don’t have the technique. You’ve opened their ears and it sounds worse.’

13) Baroque composers might not actually approve of historical performance practice

Mischa Maisky said at his Amsterdam Cello Biënnale masterclass: ‘If Tourte had invented the modern bow a hundred years earlier, Bach would have been the first to use it. I think Bach is turning in his grave that we’re going back 300 years in our playing.’

14) Understanding how each key has a different colour and different musical and even psychological implications can improve your playing

Christoph Richter described this: ‘If you play in a string quartet it’s important to find a sound as four people in F major, for example, not just a prototype sound.’

This led me to investigate his recommended source, Schubart’s 1784 guide, which includes references such as, ‘B flat major – cheerful love, clear conscience, hope, aspiration for a better world.’

15) Bach is spoken music, rather than sung

Anner Bylsma explained this at the Amsterdam Cello Biënnale, and in a manifesto that he left lying around the venue: ‘It is a “Klangrede”. Separate notes are syllables; slurs are too, but they also give emphasis and sometimes help to avoid undesirable glissandi.’

In conversation, he went further into his views: 'When you play Bach you shouldn’t speak about yourself too much – you should speak about us all. It’s like you’re a minister in a small church. You know and love everyone because that’s your duty (and maybe you do). You speak about mankind and love and fate and god and death – all of these things. But you do not speak about your own headache. You will not say, “I had such a horrible fight with my wife.” Play in a way pertaining to us all.’

16) Talent always shines through

This was the optimistic view taken by pianist Barry Douglas when I interviewed him about music competitions for Gramophone. He explained: 'The audience always knows real talent. You can’t manufacture that. I know audiences get criticised because they like popular music or romantic melodies, but if someone comes and plays a mean Schoenberg, even if the audience doesn’t warm to the particular music, they know it’s great. Somehow they smell it and that’s what counts.'

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