composition

Being a virtuoso has a lot to do with something that is near magical, sometimes some techniques and compositions come from a place that can hardly be copied, that’s why is so easy to know when someone is being replaced in a band, someone that really made it shine, and the new person filling the spot feels like an imitation.

There are two interesting subjects that can arise when bringing up the subject of virtuosism, first there is the virtuoso as a composer and original perfomer and then there is the question of, is another virtuoso good enough to satisfy the hearing of a person that enjoyed the orginal composer?

Of course there is also another imporant part of this virtuoso dilemma that should be taken into account, which is the question of, is there virtuosism in performance only, or is it present in composition as well?

Virtuoso Performance

When it comes to performance, it’s just about playing, a musician can be a virtuoso without having the need for composing. Technique alone can make someone a virtuoso.

In concerts, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something I feel is increasingly hard for performers when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one “perfect” rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude; that one should never aspire to have the “last word” on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time. Yet for some musicians the constant revisiting of certain works (the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example), or playing them on different instruments (fortepiano, for example) suggests an overly reverential or literal attitude to the composer’s “intentions” as they perceive them, and a wish/need to make a final statement on this music and set it in stone. Such performances, for me at least, may come across not as virtuosic but rather as academic, mannered or overly precious.

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Composition

virtuoso

The concept of virtusism is generally more tied to the performance itself, and by 19th century standards which is when this notion came to be, it referred mostly to a masculine artist that was able to perform complex pieces of music with fast and precise playing.

While this may be true, what about the composition itself? Well in the 19th century the virtuoso was the composer many times, but there were cases in which the composer would rather someone else play it. How is it that something can be thought but not performed as the composer intended it to be played?

What do we actually mean by compositional virtuosity? – A compositional sense of technical virtuosic display or mastery in the context of that art or practice in a similar or parallel sense to that of the performer. As a composer, I am not trying to steal limelight from the performer, but I am aware that the composer as an artist also must possess appropriate technique, stamina, technical agility etc. in order to be a master of their art. This is better perceived in the finished artefact (either score or performance) rather than in the process (in as much as one can separate the process from the finished result of course).

This was presented by Peter Fribbins at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium.

So in a way one must be a virtuoso in both categories in order to be able to compose something that only a virtuoso can play. However there is another factor that can’t really be measured by how polished the technique is or how fast the musician can be, sometimes it’s something else.

There is the example of one of the two greatest pianists/composers of all time Chopin and Lizst who actually shared quite a lot during their prime. Chopin said: ” I would love myself to acquire from him[Liszt]  the manner in which he plays my etudes.”

Why Lizst, shouldn’t Chopin be better at his own composition? Or is he a better composer by aknowledging the fact that someone else is better suited for the performance, not because of virtusism but Lizst personality and approach to music.

So yes virtusism is present in composition but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also present in performance. While there are no concrete answers, thinking about this may be useful when teaching or as something to just reflect upon.

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Delivering a message is one of the most important accomplishments in music, because it’s not just about saying something, through music you create something that is not just understood, it’s about something that can be felt, and in some ways establish a connection between the composer and the listener.

In the end this is one of the most honest goals of a musician, to be able to make something that will reach a good amount of people not for the popularity or the money, but just to be listened, after so many hours of isolation in practice, of trial and error, it all comes down to being listened and felt by other people, and this is no easy task.

Music is personal most of the times, when you sit down by yourself and start playing something, writing, composing, you are translating a specific feeling into sounds and melodies, and a lot of the frustration that comes from not being able to nail the song that you wish to make, comes from difficulties with this translation.

There are a few things that one must take into account when thinking about making music and achieving this goal.

Personality

Everyone is different, every approach to music is inherently different if done correctly however it’s easy to fall into a specific pre-made sound, because there is a feeling that so much has been done already, and some even go as far as to say that everything has already been done, but music is not really that finite, there are endless resources, combinations, inspirations and every musician out there has its own color.

Finding yourself is not easy but the only way to deliver the message you want, is to first find your own sound, which can take years. A good way to think about it, is as if you’re tuning your music sensibility to slowly get to a perfect note where it becomes a second nature to use creativity to make the most of strong human feelings.

Mind and Heart

As with every message, there is an emitter and a receiver, and while it’s a very logical thing, it can be easily forgotten, but sometimes you may understand something you are saying because you are the one doing all the thinking, and sometimes the person listening needs some extra thinking to make them be in sync with what you are trying to say.

This is a very difficult part during composition, because the message has to stay the same, it just needs some kind of filter to make it something that that the ones listening will understand.

Message of Connection

It’s all about a human connection, music gathers every feeling and makes it a celebration of what it is to be human, even at times when electronic music and technology make us be tangled in wires, music will always be a very human thing, sometimes a very complex one, sometimes a very simple one, but always a way to connect with people, with sadness, anger, happiness, or make people connect with each other through dancing and fun.

Music is another language, it’s a universal language that everyone can find to be a bridge between cultures and political barriers, sometimes music, is a common ground, or sometimes it can be used as a very bad influence, but regardless of the message, there is no denying that music has a lot power due to the reach and appeal it can have, besides, when are we not listening to music? Life has become a movie in some ways, and music is there to be the soundtrack of our lives. Will you be making music to send a message?

 

 

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  • How can I get my piano students to play musically?
  • Will they ever learn to truly perform rather than just play?
  • How can I help them to become more confident music readers?

These are some of the challenges that Alison Mathews has addressed in her new book “Doodles” published by Editions Musica Ferrum.

Aimed at beginners to around grade 3 (ABRSM), this chunky book contains 128 little pieces of 4-8 bars (measures) arranged in four difficulty levels.

Now the interesting part! Rather than name each piece, Mathews has provided a small picture, often an emoji, hence the title “Doodles,” which is meant to inspire a mood in the music student. She has also given lots of interesting directions like, “playfully – fish are chasing in the coral” or “fast and furious – what else could you do to make it sound stormy?” I love how at the centre of these short activities the emphasis is on performance. The pupil just simply can’t resist but will soon be inspired to create their own pieces. Watch out John Williams, we will all be writing shark music at this rate!

An interesting feature is the use of the same pieces at each level but with increased difficulty and technique. This a great way to help a student see how to develop a composition. I can see my pupils having lots of fun improvising with these pieces and using them as the basis of their own compositions. Young pupils love engaging their imagination, so this book will inspire them not only to be better readers of music but more importantly, to play with feeling and understanding.

Lots of different playing techniques are explored through the pieces and are an intrinsic part of each song. Legato, staccato, dynamics, tremolandi and glissandi are all represented. I’ve even picked up a tip for helping young pupils to play a glissando without hurting their fingers by using a roll of sellotape!

My only criticism is that there are no key signatures used. I’m very keen on introducing a sense of key very early in development but this is a “minor” grumble compared with the fantastic way that musicality is being taught here. Maybe this is an issue that could be addressed in later editions or subsequent volumes.

For its ability to inspire musicality in such a fun and engaging way, this book gets a big thumbs up from me.

To purchase the book, click here.

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