The new year is approaching, and for some of us that means new music! You eagerly retrieve your new book of Chopin Ballades from the bookshelf , plonk yourself before your piano and then… what? The excitement ebbs and you wish you can drown yourself in the sea of black dots right then and there. The question that you most probably shall have is “where do I start?” Do you decide to dive right in, get your hands dirty and courageously sight-read the entire piece? Or do you, an intellectual, bee-line straight for the library and bury yourself under avalanche of scholarly books depicting every nitty-gritty detail about Chopin’s entire life? Well, here are 2 ways that you might want to consider when you do find yourself in a similar tight-spot.
Listen to recordings
We might as well put the technology of the 21st century to good use. Sure there is controversy surrounding whether a musician should expose oneself to YouTube or various online recordings; the most common argument against listening to recordings is that our creativity when interpreting the music ourselves may be narrowed. Personally, I think otherwise. There is absolutely no harm in listening to various interpretation of the music. However, one must keep in mind what to listen out for. Do we catch something that the interpreter does that we like and slyly incorporate it into our own playing? Well many musicians including I myself have guilty done so, but is that what we should be listening out for? The best way to get the most out of a recording is, ironically, not to focus so much on the details. If you are working on a piece completely new and unheard to you, try to listen for the melodies (and ear-catching harmonies if possible) and the general style of the piece. If you can, try identifying the structure of the piece with the score in hand. It is worth mentioning again that when you are listening to the piece for the first time, that is when you are most vulnerable of succumbing to the interpretation of whatever recording you are listening to. Thus try to listen to as many versions of the piece as possible (preferably by legitimate or renowned musicians). Ultimately, you as a responsible musician with integrity should derive at a personal interpretation of the piece with self-discovery. Recordings merely serve as possible styles of interpretation that you can consider in your journey of self-discovery, but certainly not as a ‘one-thing-fits-all’ solution.
This is especially important if you are working on a baroque or classical piece of music. Take the fugues from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier for example. The most important element in a fugue is the idea of polyphony, meaning the multiple voices are independent and should be approached with the same importance. Identify the basic elements of a fugue, that being the subjects, counter-subjects (if any), answers (note if they are real or tonal) etc. Then, notice how the elements are developed throughout the piece; are they repeated in a different key, or are they fragmented? Of course, the cadences or phrase lengths in the piece must be noted so as to provide structural clarity. Often with Bach’s music, one must also consider what instrument it is intended for? Is it the harpsichord, clavichord or the organ? Will your “imagination” affect your way of interpretation such as tone color or touch? These are just some possible questions to consider.
In a classical sonata such as those by Haydn for example, structure is extremely important. Start at the macro level - mark out the exposition, development and recapitulation and work each section individually. In the exposition, what is the subject, or main motif? Where can the 2nd subject (which is usually more lyrical in nature) be found? In Haydn, there are many instances where he fragments the motives and develops these broken up cells, thus we must be able to identify where and how the development of the motives take place. Another important element to consider in classical sonatas, especially those of Haydn’s later sonatas, is orchestration. One must always think of the orchestra when interpreting the piece - imagine what instrument would be playing this phrase and the corresponding tone color, articulation etc.
When you are actually sight-reading the piece for the first time remember to be as careful as possible adhering to all the markings in the score, whether it be the correct pitch, dynamics or articulation.
Here’s to a happy new year and another year of happy music-making!
Lim Shi Han is the 1st prize winner of the 3rd Steinway Youth Piano Competition (Intermediate Category) 2016 and the 1st Nanyang International Piano Competition (Intermediate Category) 2017. She is currently under the tutelage of Ms Lena Ching at the School of Young Talents (SYT), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). She loves writing, reading and above all, music.