My latest Oxford Piano Weekend took place in the middle of January and was a happy, fulfilling event. One topic we explored was the importance of curiosity, fascination and exploration in practice. Playing a musical instrument to a high standard is so incredibly demanding that a huge amount of time and energy has to go into the basics of playing, getting notes and rhythms right, for example, building a good technique, and everything that goes with it. Our musical training demands all of this and much more. But unless we’re really vigilant, there is the danger is that we let the focus on technique and our need to get it ‘right’ take us over and become too important, and in the process stifle our natural musical expression.
What if we let ourselves play around with the music to find the freedom we need to be musically expressive? What if we allowed ourselves to be curious and fascinated by the music, and enjoy exploring it? What is this piece all about? What do I feel about it? What is my musical instinct flagging up to me? What if we explored in this wayfirst, finding the necessary techniques needed to express our musical intentions second? In this way, technique and practice become the servant of the music, not the other way around.
On the piano weekend, I wanted to give the participants a more visceral sense of this approach, so I played them a piece that was new to me, that I was sight-reading. I spoke out aloud as I played it and it went something like this: I wonder what tempo this is; I think it’s too fast; that’s better; whoops, that didn’t quite work; ooh, I love that chord; how much pedal do I need in this bar? Where’s it going now? Hmm, interesting harmonies.
Perhaps it stems from my repetiteur and accompanying experience when it is imperative to learn something as fast as possible, but this is my own way into a piece and I value it hugely. I have to play around, I have to get my hands on the piano in order to get an overall sense of what the music is all about. There are always plenty of mistakes at this stage, of course, but I consider an essential part of learning and absorbing the material.
If our musical expression gets locked up because of the pressure to get it all perfect, this is one way we can unlock it. Once our musical instinct is out of the box, we need to trust it. We can question it too of course, but that’s all part of the exploration. We then allow our playing to change and develop, something so natural to the process of learning and playing music.
I’m sure that composer-pianists like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff played their compositions differently each and every time, because they embodied creative freedom.