On Beautiful Music

Today, someone asked me, “As an “artist” what or who inspires you?”

My reply:

“As someone who tries to make music, what inspires me is beautiful things – natural beauty, beautiful music, beautiful writing, and that beauty which can often times be found in brokenness.”

As someone who tries to make music, I encounter beauty every day. However, I learned from my current piano teacher that beauty does not come only from the correct notes of a piece. Maybe those listening would hear the beauty that is in the notes themselves. At the same time, there is something missing – that beauty a musician can herself put into a piece by giving of her soul. Hence the idea that a musician plays her heart through her fingertips. If that beauty is missing, then no matter how technically good the musician is playing the piece, it is not enough.

I was recently reminded of this when reading Bruce Brubaker’s blog PianoMorphosis. Dr. Brubaker is the chair of the piano department at New England Conservatory in Boston. He is not only a superb pianist, but also a superb writer, who knows how to use words in a very artistic and articulate way. I will get a chance to hear him when I attend the Atlantic Music Festival in a month. Anyway, one of his blog posts hit me especially hard. Titled “Poet, be seated at the piano,” the blog post was about what often influenced his decisions to accept people into the conservatory’s piano program: the truth behind some seemingly arbitrary decisions.

He wrote, and I quote,

So what are we looking for? Simply, I’m looking for something. I’m waiting for something to happen — music I can witness with my ears. I prefer music-making that I perceive to be genuine or real. But I’ll even take something that seems overstated, or over-seasoned, instead of playing in which nothing is going on.

It’s fairly frequent to hear quite proficient, even expert piano playing in which “nothing happens.” No musical speech or argument. No questions and answers. No communication.

He wrote in a different blog post,

Do modern classical performers spend too much effort trying to play with surface perfection? I’m not sure what playing “perfectly” would be exactly. It’s true that a lot of work can go into getting all the notes in the “right” places. How important this is and how obsessive we become about it varies. Certainly there is perfect playing that seems far from ideal music-making. And there are vivid, lively performances in which missed notes don’t seem to matter.

Dr. Brubaker is right. Beauty in technical perfection alone is incomplete. However, the musician who plays with passion alone with no attention to correct technique or important details is also incomplete.

I used to play like that. My first piano teacher, who I stayed with for nine years, paid more attention to the passion in my playing; so much that she did not pay mind to my poor technique. After I changed teachers two months before going to college, my new teacher was absolutely horrified. I used to be the kind of person who gets excited about a piece and slaps notes down – not so good. “Hey everyone, I love this piece and I shall show you how much. Oh, but it sounds really bad.” My former attitude used to be that if one had the passion, it didn’t matter if one played badly. In other words, it was permissible to play badly because the “passion” made up for it.

But as I soon learned, passion alone is not everything. One has to learn how to play the piece, and play it well. As my piano teacher once said, we are performers who present this beauty to our audience. If the beauty is not apparent to our audience because of too many missed notes or of many glaring technical imperfections, then despite our fervor we have failed.

When learning a new piece, I have to listen to a particular piano piece, read the music, and try to recreate the beauty innate in the music through playing it well and playing it with passion. Going to concerts where musicians make this beauty apparent to their listeners through their skillful playing and their passion is inspiring to someone who struggles every day to do the same. Through the use of both mastery of technique and mastery of expression, one can begin to create beauty. If I consider myself an artist, I have to keep this in mind every day.

All pictures from flickr under CC license - click pictures for photo credit

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4 thoughts on “On Beautiful Music

  1. I kept smiling while reading this post! It has been a long time since I’ve visited your blog, since I’ve been busy with work and studies, and my family. I’ll follow you more frequently again from now on. 🙂

    In Norwegian folk music we have what we call “blåtoner” (blue notes). They seem to be “wrong”, when you listen with a western educated ear, but they are the ones that make the folk music pieces special.

  2. Pingback: Of Beauty in Visual Art | Never Move On

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