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Saturday morning quotes 6.34: New Ears

January 7, 2017

eartrumpetHappy New Ears. Today’s post touches on a theme that is of crucial importance to those who are involved in early music, and discusses how aural skills are essential to intelligent musicianship.

From the beginning of my involvement with early music, I (RA) have been baffled by the the universal dependence upon reading scores in performance for even the simplest piece of music.  Having years of experience as a professional musician, I can say most emphatically that there is an entire world of truly amazing—and sometimes very complex—music happening that is created without the visual distraction of players chained to their music stands reading sheet music.  Reading notated music is an important skill that is sometimes necessary to access the information, but it is only the first step towards making real music.

In historical performance practice the score contains important interpretive information, but this information does not only reside in the score and must be internalized if a musician is serious about quality rather than quantity.  Reliance on sight-reading skills to access a large quantity of music ultimately detracts from the quality of the result.  In my experience, even the best sight-readers simply do not produce excellent results without diligent study and repeated rehearsals.  This unfortunate tendency to favor quantity over quality gives the overall impression of skimming over the top of the score instead of plumbing the depth of emotion inherent in the music.  And from an historical performance perspective, forsaking the depth of the music seriously undermines the composers intent.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.

“Chuse one Lesson thy selfe according to thy capacitie, which giue not ouer by looking ouer others, or straggling from one to another, till thou haue got it reasonably perfect, and doe not onely beginne it by going through it to the end at first sight, but examine each part of it diligently, and stay vpon any one point so long (though thou play it ouer a thousand times) till thou get it in some sort.”

“…It will not little help you to get it without booke : for whilst the minde is busie searching here and there for that which is written, the hand is more vnapt to performe the Note, and all the difficultie the Lvte hath, which for the most part is imputed to the fingers, should rather be attributed to the varietie of the Rules, which are in this respect to be obserued, all which doe rather depend vpon the minde, then on the hand.”

– (John) Dowland, “Necessarie Observations Belonging to the Lute, and Lvte-playing, by John Baptisto Besardo of Visonti”, Varietie of Lute-Lessons, 1610

Sight-reading engages a complex system of neural networks that involve all four cortical lobes of the brain to decipher written notation and process the dots into musical sounds. Sure, if you are only playing or singing a single line of music a prima vista there should be no real impediment to instant music-making.  But serious musicians—and musicologists—involve their concentration in the recognition of notes, vertical harmonies, horizontal contrapuntal devices, rhythms, phrases, and patterns, and then move on to technical realization and interpretive choices.  On a plucked-string instrument, there is also the distracting matter of playing the same note on different strings.  In a nutshell, serious musicians engage their ears.

Sight-reading is an important technical skill but serious concert soloists always memorize their repertory so they can engage their ears and concentrate on excellent performances.  Perhaps this is the line that separates the artist from the musical technician.  Julian Bream seems to have played his solo lute repertory from memory, which surely is a factor that contributes to the depth of his interpretations, which remain unmatched to this day.

  1. “Perhaps this is the line that separates the artist from the musical technician.“ I agree. A musician won’t reach the level of rendering an own interpretation, if he is still preoccupied with the basics. This theme always makes me wonder what a dancer would do, if he was supposed to sight-read while performing. Of course, that won’t work at all. You need to internalize the choreography – as long and complex as it may be – and drop into the music you hear to be able to live and visualize the emotions the piece induces.

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