Which Is The Vehicle Here, Performer Or The Music?
(As published in RTHK Fine Music Magazine, January 2019)
I recall being a confused teenager, confined in the solitude of a practice room in a boarding school in countryside England, asking this very question: what is my role in this business of performing music?
Music students spend years taking lessons from their teachers, who see it as their duty to drill their students on the most minute of details in the music, much the same way as I do in the broadcasts of Piano Examinations on air. Students are supposed to obey, follow and execute one instruction after another. Isn’t it the purpose, then, for performers to be the perfect vehicles for composers, to look for what exactly they had wanted, and to express their feelings on their behalf? That would put performers in an inferior position, and that did not sit well with me back then.
What troubled me more in my soul-searching then is that teachers often ask students to be “expressive” with their playing as well. And so, I decided to ask my teacher with an air of sarcasm, “Is a piece of music a vehiclefor us to express my feelings instead of the composer’s?” My question, and more so, the sarcasm, was met with a frown!
Of course, neither extremes could stand the test of a debate, and it is my job to find the happy medium. And over the years gone by, I continued to debate internally and resorted to literature and words of wisdom shared by great musicians. I have finally come up with a definition that leaves me satisfied, and which I’d like to share with you here:
“The ultimate goal of the performer is to communicate what he or she believes and understands the composers had wanted and intended when he or she conceived the music. That understanding will no doubt be a unique one - though never too far apart among the informed musicians - subject to time and place in history, cultural background, education, personal experience and the likes. Such infinite possibilities are indeed the beauty of this art form arising from this ‘marriage’ between composer and performer.”
Developing a sense of understanding of the music is therefore what makes a live performance by a performer interesting and worth our while. Understanding music is indeed a lifelong occupation for us, which encompasses and integrates the different aspects of music – theoretical, historical and aural – into the interpretation of it. And that is the very journey that I hope to take you on over 13 episodes of Piano Examinations. Admittedly, the title of the show is deceptively narrow-focused and boredom-inspiring; the more grandeur and artistic title would be, “Interpreting Great Music from the ABRSM Piano Syllabus.”
Whether you are a tips-seeking exam-taker or a curious music lover, tune in to my show on “interpreting great music”!