Using recordings to learn scores

Jonathan Brett Information, Study, Tips Leave a Comment

Should I listen to recordings when preparing scores? This is a question I am often asked and the short answer is “no” but for those interested to know why I take this position, I decided it is time to elaborate somewhat.

About music in general, anyone who has studied it to any extent at all knows perfectly well that our knowledge can never be sufficient: there is always going to be something more we could have – and maybe should have – known.  On the one hand we must be uncompromising idealists but on the other, working in any way as a musician involves accepting that our knowledge is flawed and that we must do the best we can with what we have.

Such knowledge as we are able to muster at a given time derives from all our senses and experience; experience not just of music but from life itself and the way we are able to use our brains to make connections where others cannot. Former generations of society understood this and that consequently, whatever the possible issues arising from the inevitable decline of physical prowess over time, it is inevitable that older musicians have more understanding about any given bar of music than younger ones. There is always a certain trade-off between knowledge and physical powers, in consequence of which we have the idea of performing musicians having a “golden” period.

So is there a way to “express” the process of knowledge? It is impossible to say, for no one knows how the imagination of a given individual might develop. For some perhaps through what others find obsessive study, for others what for some is excessive reflection. Most probably not from the contents of a bottle though, and quite likely the same applies to the immense stress of overwork and over-exposure on the great stages of the world in front of musicians whose knowledge and experience are vastly greater. Whatever the case though, perhaps the most we can do is to grasp knowledge and experience as much and as fast as possible in the context of our own opportunities and understanding of our own internal workings. But most particularly by studying music itself – slowly and painstakingly, not in a plane on the way to the next gig – and developing our relationship with the work of the composers; that is to say, communing directly with the source in what (even if the composer is dead or absent) becomes a “live” experience. That is in any case one of the great joys of this profession, one that provides endless delight and fascination. Time travel has long been a dream for humankind – at least for those who do not engage with artistic work and therefore do not realise that we have had the possibility for centuries!

Music requiring a conductor inevitably involves multiple musicians; in a performance all of them, as well as the conductor, act as interpreters – or we might say translators – of the original text: that is to say, they stand between the creator and the auditor.  Apart from the fact that it would mean denying ourselves what should be an enormous pleasure – in my mind one of the key reasons for adopting this profession – why on earth (apart from the lack of any viable alternative) would we want to develop a relationship with the music via intermediaries, however good they might be? It is akin to rejecting the love of your life in favour of a mail-order bride.

So, in the more general sense, working with recordings seems highly flawed as a basis for developing knowledge. If we move from the general to the more specific, about a particular piece of music at a particular time, we must surely assume that ideally, whatever the merits or deficiencies of our wider knowledge, everything we need to know about the music should derive only from the information provided by the composer and our own imaginative powers? Anything and everything else can only be a form of pollution of the beautiful purity of this partnership.

How much more interesting life would be if musicians prepared performances only from within their own minds rather than utilising received wisdom! For all there are probably respectable performances of most of the great repertoire works in existence, I firmly believe that there is not one which has truly come close to achieving the full expressive potential of the music: there is always more to be found. And herein lies the crux of the matter for, if we can accept this, then it can must be the score itself which provides the most potential for growth of knowledge, not the interpretation of others.

Why? Because if we feel that the peak of achievement has already been reached, what could be the point of engaging in live performance at all? Why would we give a live performance when a recorded one would be better, or make a recording when the best variant has preceded us? Whatever the context, apart from a premiere, our clear obligation is to look for new expression from old notes; this quest must be the energy source which keeps music alive so we must surely seek to give it its maximum potential rather than serving up the ideas of others as our own. However tempting the shortcut, arguably this is a form of fraud.

Yes, of course there is an argument that we can gain a head-start in knowledge from a great recording and that we need to know about the performing traditions and tendencies we might encounter. But actually this possibility is a relatively new thing – earlier generations had to work from very limited information and it does not seem to have held them back in any way. My conclusion is that whilst it may be useful in informing and developing our own imagination of possibilities to listen to recordings, if you really have the kind of musical imagination necessary to be of much use as a conductor – or indeed any kind of musician – then mostly it is not.

More than this though, listening to recordings has a number of positive dangers:

  1. The inevitable tendency to try to connect conducting motions. This is teaching yourself to move in a way which is reactive rather than provocative and, still worse, likely to create an implicit understanding in the deepest recesses of your mind that it is permissible to wave your hands around when doing so makes no impact of any kind on the sound. This is highly dangerous for a developing conductor.
  2. It is mentally simply too passive: real conducting requires immense mental engagement and one of the issues for inexperienced conductors is engagement – both mental and physical – with things which are not actually constructive. One way to help to get around the difficulty of this is to practise within a more difficult context: to mentally – or physically, or both – make all the sounds come alive whilst also doing all the necessary things with your physique. Then, when you are accustomed to providing all the sounds for yourself whilst also conducting, having others provide them when actually doing so with real musicians makes one element of the task of easier rather than harder. This leaves vital mental energy available with which to process the massive informational overload you are likely to encounter.
  3. You gain only a superficial understanding of the music itself. Conducting requires control of a physical relationship with sound and quite obviously this involves having one. So, sing the music (every note of every line), play the music on any instrument (ditto) and, however weak your keyboard skills, be sure to fight your way through every chord on the piano. Do these things until you can feel the lines of energy flow and the colours of the narrative; however slowly, build a picture of the music in your mind from the ground up. Then, once you can mentally “hold” this information, work with it, play with it, try different options of tempo, phrasing, colour, balance, articulation until you have discovered the options that, for you, really connect the sound output to the limited information provided by the composer in a way that would allow you to defend your every decision as if you were a barrister in a court.

Once you have reached this position – and only then – there can be certainly be a value in comparing your views with those of other interpreters, but anything of apparent interest must be rigorously tested against both the text and against your own judgement. Your intimate knowledge of the score will help identify what for you are the strengths and weaknesses of other interpretations and of course the process may well inform you own approach. However tempting to start from the work of artists you admire, though, remember that learning to be a conductor is about learning to make up your own mind, to trust in your own ideas and creativity: the discipline of always establishing your own position before you learn about that of anyone else will consequently always be useful.

Quite simply, listening to recordings is really an activity for those who are not able to find a more rewarding way to relate to a given piece of music. That is to say, for amateurs and armchair conductors, not real ones. Whilst it is something that performers might want to do out of interest in performing traditions and out of a desire to gain some inspiration from really great performances – from which we can always learn – for any aspiring performer I think it is more likely to be useful to listen to great recordings of works you cannot or will not perform. For conductors this might be perhaps lieder, chamber music, sonatas and so forth, but most definitely not the symphony you need to conduct next month.


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