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A Musician's ABC


James  Boyk

Internationally-Known Recording Artist
Pianist in Residence, California Institute of Technology, 1974-2004


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A is for Aphorism

Talent shows at the beginning and the end. In between, it's all hard work.

The ability to work hard is itself a talent.

A performer is one who works out her destiny onstage.

As an artist, you are both performer and listener. As the performer, be sensitive. As the listener, be obtuse: force the performer to make the feeling clear.

To interpret a score is to recreate an object from its shadow.

A work of art is a machine with an esthetic purpose.

The Unconscious does the work; practice merely directs Its attention.

Talent is what lets you learn despite being taught.

Great art: Emotion to which the mind can give its assent.

When I compare my dreams with his accomplishment, I come out ahead—of course!

Music blossoms from silence.


B is for Boredom, a Creative Force

Displeased with my playing of a passage, I turn off the lights. Sitting at the piano in the dark, I hear the piece mentally, then play it the best I can. When I finish, I think over my playing, then gather my forces and perform it again, this time a different way. I repeat the process until the piece has nothing more to offer me, or I have nothing more to offer it. I am thoroughly bored. I can't stand to play it again.

I play it again, and yet again. I try different things each time, until boredom has forced me to find more in the piece than I realized was there.

Coming to myself from so deep in the work, I find that I'm exhausted.


C is for Crooked Competitions

"Of course you were first prize, my dear. But the jury were instructed not to award the prizes because we don't have the money." This is what harpsichordist Catherine C— was told by the business manager of a major European competition after 1st, 2nd and 3rd were not awarded to anyone and she won the highest remaining prize: Honorable Mention.

In a South American competition, Pianist Bianca T— won first prize: an appearance with orchestra and $5,000. She played the concerto, but never got the $5,000.

In one international competition I entered, three rounds were scheduled. After the second, the organizers announced that another round would be interposed before the finals! They took five contestants into the new third round—which would have been a skimpy number for the finals, given that three prizes had been announced. Then the jury passed only two of the five into the final; and then it split 2nd prize between them, awarding neither 1st nor 3rd. A number of us who had been knocked out of the competition agreed that the best contestant was a young woman from Japan. She made it into the third round but not the finals. I'll never forget her ebullient performance of an Beethoven's Opus 2, No. 3, all joyful eagerness and precision; nor her heart-broken sobbing when she was eliminated. Her teacher was the great Ingrid Haebler, whom jury members were reported to see as a competitor to themselves. Was her elimination honest, or a result of musical politics? Was it an accident that of the two eventual finalists, one was a fine performer, and the other—technically accomplished and utterly unexpressive—the student of a jury member?

(I'm not mentioning the many incidents whose interpretation might be less clear, as when members of the competition audience in Montreal called out the name of one contestant they favored but whom the jury knocked out. Or the contestant who omitted the toughest of David del Tredici's "Fantasy Pieces" from a second-round performance in the same competition, saying cynically of the jury, "They'll never check the score." He was right: despite his violation of the rules, he made it to the next round. Nor am I mentioning the enjoyable moments, like the audience member's coming up to me after I'd played the Opus 111 in Munich and saying in German, "Original Beethoven!" Or, after I played the second round at the same competition, the short twinkly nun, a music teacher visiting from Montreal, saying, "I love you!" In one of three times in my life that I've found the right response on the spot, I replied, "I'm in good company then!" Or, most fun of all, the camaraderie among contestants, especially when we practiced and ate together.)

My ideas about competitions: You don't have to award first prize, or any prize; but you must give away all of the prize money. The contest announcement should be accompanied by a notarized statement from a bank that 100% of the money is in an escrow account and will be distributed only to contestants. If the jury says that no one deserve first prize, then the money for 1st, 2nd and 3rd goes to those who place 2nd, 3rd and 4th. If no one places at all, it goes to the honorable mentions. All the money goes to contestants no matter what. This keeps things financially honest.

To keep things artistically honest, jury members may not be current or former teachers of contestants. This can be tough to arrange, because there are only a few top teachers; so for extra protection, contestants should play behind an (acoustically-transparent) screen, at least until the finals. (Teachers may still recognize their students' playing.)

There's much more to it, such as assuring that pianists have good instruments for practice (a major international competition once supplied me with an upright), but these rules are a beginning.

Contests are great fun, but will always be problematical. Some performers are oriented toward sharing a musical-emotional experience with an audience, not testing themselves against other performers. For them, music is a cooperative endeavor, not a competitive one. These people will not show to best advantage in a competition. Then, too, juries will always tend to pick the contestant with the lowest musical profile. If contestant A plays with a very distinct musical personality—a "high profile"—some members of the jury may like her playing, but it's a certainty that some will dislike it. These people may like the equally high-profile but quite different playing of B, whose work is intensely disliked by the group favoring A. Each group will block the selection of the other's favorite; and they'll compromise on C, whose playing is low-profile and indeed boring, but does not offend either group. This is why so many competition winners have nothing to say, musically. The exceptions—contestants so good that they can't be denied, despite high profiles—are very rare. Rarer still are jury members of the modesty of Artur Rubinstein. Judging contestants in his namesake competition in Israel, he scored every one either 20 (the highest score) or 0. When asked about this, he replied, "Either they can play the piano or they can't," meaning that if they could play, how they played was their business.


D is for Dance

At the beginning of the Ravel Sonatine, why does the repeat of the opening phrase start at a different point in the bar? What's the meaning of the 16th notes interleaving with the 32nds, when in a parallel passage, Ravel writes continuous 32nds? I couldn't solve these problems, so I went outside and walked and walked, singing it every crazy way I could think of—every crazy way that agreed with the score—dancing it in my walking. When I still couldn't figure it out, I went to the park overlooking the beach and continued, dancing, watching the seagulls, trying to find a dance that made sense. Finally, I thought, "A bird on the wing!" and I'd found the answers.

"A bird on the wing" doesn't mean anything to anyone else, but it doesn't need to, so long as the playing makes sense. But maybe, if you listen to my recording of it, you'll hear what I meant.


E is for Efficient Practice

Contrary to what many non-musicians think, practicing means being mindful, not mindless. One way to stay mindful is to ask ourselves from time to time what—specifically—we're trying to accomplish at that moment. This question has many good answers: Trying different fingerings and noting their effects on articulation and phrasing. Dancing the rhythm and trying to capture the dance in our playing. Singing the lines and trying to duplicate the sung inflections in our playing. Analyzing structure or harmony to clarify the meaning of the piece. Finding the places that reveal what the tempos and dynamics must be: the loudest and softest spots; the fastest and slowest. Playing the piece from beginning to end nonstop, to practice giving a performance. These are good answers, and there are many more. Yet so often, when I ask myself what I'm doing, I find that I have no good answer. I've succumbed to mindlessness!


F is for Fear

Maybe I will and maybe I won't.
Maybe I do and maybe I don't.
Maybe I shall and maybe I shan't—
      Maybe I can and maybe I can't.


G is for Goal-oriented

The One True Approach to Technique—do all instrumentalists look for it as we pianists do? We dream of a single set of rules to tell us how to play lateral jumps, trills, and close passagework; cantabile melodies, staccatissimo accompaniments, and plain old two-note slurs.

This is an odd desire! These activities are very different from one another. It would seem obvious that they need different physical approaches. And they do. Piano technique does not—. Let me start again: There is no piano technique, there are only techniques, modules for specific purposes. When we say someone has a fine technique, the form of words misleads us into thinking she has one thing. What she has is a grab-bag.

On the other hand, we all know of "tricks-meisters," teachers with a different trick for every passage; never at a loss for a "rule" that applies. But the rules seem to multiply endlessly, when what we want is Unity. We want the security of Mastering It; or at least the confidence that there's an It to be mastered!

We're looking in the wrong place. We should look for unity not in the means but in the end, where the use of all the modules is integrated into an ongoing musical expression. The unity that will satisfy us is the unity of the line of the piece, the narrative, the argument.

And we will ignore the irony which cognitive science points out: that this unity in the mind's action is itself an illusion; for Mind, too, consists of Modules.


H is for How Music Means

Music means inherently: Rhythm entrains the listener's body in a covert dance; and the feeling liberated by that dance is the meaning of the rhythm. Sometimes rhythms work "rhetorically," like speech rhythms; but in either case, they suspend our time in favor of the music's time. If the rhythm is embodied in pitches, then Melody is present, conveying meaning through sequences of scale degrees, which seem to have universal meaning. Dynamics can show how the feeling shouts with joy or defiance, screams with agony, whispers with tenderness or despair, or speaks in the robust tones of health. Tone color, and its variation with dynamics on a given instrument, can itself heighten or even create meaning.

Music means via structure: Phrases arouse expectations about their immediate successors and about parallel phrases to come. Meaning attaches to both the satisfaction of these expectations and their "fruitful frustration." (And Harmony, which can confirm the feelings of a melody, change its connotation or undercut it, can do the same for structure.)

Music means by context, relative to other music with which it's juxtaposed and to the listener's expectations based on its style and the listener's experience and knowledge.

Music thus fills our attention, engaging our ears by delighting and one might say exploring our sense of hearing; engaging our bodies and feelings in response to rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics and tone color; and engaging our minds through both the musical argument and our expectations based on structure and style. These ways of meaning suspend not only our Time, but the "getting and spending" of our minds and hearts. This suspension—it amounts to a hypnosis—both enables us to attend more deeply to the music's meaning, and is itself a part of that meaning.


I is for Intention

Here's a little pencil-and-paper exercise with profound implications: Draw a staff and write a bar or two of melody. Put a crescendo over a few notes and an accent on one of them, or whatever expression marks you choose. Now try to imagine that a composer could make such marks and not mean the performer to pay attention to them.


J is for Jump

We must play so vividly that the personality embodied in the music simply jumps out of the instrument and shares the stage. This is what I mean by saying the notes must be transparent to the music; and the music, transparent to the emotion. Music certainly does have the power of riveting our attention and actually taking over our senses and our entire being. A friend hearing the triple-stops in Bach's Chaconne in D Minor hallucinated that she saw lightning on each one.


K is for Knowledge

"Before God and as an honest man," said Haydn to Leopold Mozart, "I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition." By using the phrase "what is more," was he rating knowledge above taste? Or was it merely like saying "in addition"? In either event, he rated knowledge highly and did not mention inventive ability or depth. Perhaps Haydn took those for granted, or thought that Wolfgang Mozart's having them was too obvious to need comment. I wonder about these things, as I do about Raymond Chandler's remark that what interested him in writing was "the creation of emotion through dialog and description." Note that he doesn't say narrative.

Haydn's personal generosity is clear, for he had been established as a composer before Mozart had even begun writing. So when he disapproved of portions of his student Beethoven's work—finding the parts we consider most "Beethovenian" exaggerated or tasteless—he must really not have understood what Beethoven was getting at. It wasn't lack of generosity, but a profound difference in personality. In Beethoven's most characteristic work, the Self is front and center; its Journey is the topic. In Haydn, the Self is implicit. This parallels the composers' social situations: Haydn the retainer to a noble family, Beethoven in control of his own economic destiny.

Despite differences, however, the three composers had in common their regard for that "knowledge of composition" that Haydn rated so highly. Beethoven's technical studies were life-long; and when Mozart heard Bach for the first time—long after Bach's death—he said, "At last, someone from whom one may learn." Geniuses aren't just more creative than others; they're better students, too.


L is for Lighting & Laughter

The weirdest concert lighting I've experienced was at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. The transformer supplying electricity to the hall had failed the previous day, and at the last minute the resourceful concert manager found two rickety wooden floor-standing candelabras that held thirteen candles each, and placed one to each side of the artist bench, just beyond elbow-reach. The only candles he could find, from the campus "head shop," were scented with cinnamon. The combination of the radiant heat of twenty-six candles so close to my face, and the heady and somewhat sickening artificial cinnamon scent, was dizzying.

In the middle of the second half, the hall lights came on with a loud "thunk," informing us that the new transformer had been connected. I finished the piece I was playing, stepped to the edge of the stage and asked the audience, "Lights or candles?" As one, they called, "Candles!" so I asked the stage manager to turn off the lights and finished the program, woozily.

That was the concert after which Mr. Sandor Kallai came backstage and complimented me. I knew that he was director of the Meadowbrook Festival, the Detroit Symphony's summer home; so when he complimented me a second time, I figured he meant it, and said I'd love to play at Meadowbrook. "Oh, young man," he said, "I couldn't possibly engage you unless your career were to take a sudden upward leap." In one of three times in my life I've thought of the right thing to say, I said, "Mr. Kallai, your hiring me would constitute a sudden upward leap." He laughed heartily for about two ha's; then cut the laugh off sharply as he turned away.


M is for Mozart


N is for Notation (and interpretatioN)

Math notation tells something that's true; music notation tells something to do. Tells us, that is, in the conventions of its time. Mozart and Bach wrote more explicitly than their contemporaries. Chopin notated carefully; but still, if you didn't grow up dancing mazurkas, you probably won't play them well. The notation's precise, but not that precise. If it were, it would be unplayable; for each of us has an individual character of body rhythm, taste for certain kinds of sounds, predilection for portraying certain scenarios.

We may imagine that if music-making machines existed long ago, a truly precise notation could have developed, and the machines would have created a perfect performance every time. Interpretation would then have only the literal meaning of turning notation into sound. But the great works are too complex for any one performance to reveal all they contain. Schnabel was surely thinking of this when he wrote about "works that can never be played well enough." We can study such works as a scientist studies Nature. The interconnections appear as rich in the one as the other, and a Talmudic injunction applies to both: "To understand the invisible, look closely at the visible."

A typewriter repairman told me that having every adjustment within spec doesn't guarantee the machine will work right. An auto mechanic said the same about tuning an engine; a piano tech, about regulating an action. All these require a correct relationship of elements; some may even need to be out of spec for the machine to function.

A piece of music is a machine, too--with an esthetic purpose--and conveys its meaning partly by relationships among its elements. The notation's fruitful lack of precision allows shaping these in a way that's individual to the performer and responsive to the acoustical setting and the occasion: interpretation with a capital I.

Stravinsky famously said that he didn't want performers to "interpret" but merely to play the right notes in the tempi he'd marked. Equally famously, in his own performances, he took other tempi!


O is for Over-Complicated

My pet peeve is the idea that other people's fields are trivial; a sin of arrogance and ignorance. An eye-opening example was given by a supposedly very smart engineer who by her own admission neither knew nor cared anything about music. She entered a room where I had one of those demonstration piano key-actions you see in piano stores: a single key with its hammer and mechanism mounted on a stand so you can see how it works. The design has evolved over hundreds of years to its current state of responding so subtly that it can seem "transparent" to the pianist's desires. The "cost" of this—the engineering tradeoff—is complexity of design and adjustment. Each note has many parts and a dozen or so adjustments, each part and adjustment with its own purpose. Any frippery was discarded long ago; and today, the action reflects mastery of both materials and design.

The smart person took a glance measurable in milliseconds at the action—the only time in her life she had ever seen such a thing—and at once said dismissively, "Over-complicated for what it does." She didn't realize it was she who had just failed her trial.


P is for Profligate

To master the great works, we must be profligate of time and effort. To imagine the sound, the feeling and the meaning in the finest detail and at the same time with large-scale relations and proportions true and convincing. To find the way to convey our understanding through sound so that the audience cannot fail to be moved as the composer was moved. To work out technique; to dance the rhythms; to sing the lines; to dream the whole; to perform it in concert—all these are part of a process which on rare occasions is so easy that we hardly notice it, but more often requires all we can give. The willingness to be profligate, to spend not merely hours but our lives—this is our virtue.


Q is for Quiet

Sometimes, in practicing, we play louder and louder, more and more coarsely, and wonder why our bodies and ears are getting tired. To avoid this, stop playing and sit quietly. Listen for every sound you can hear, and name each sound out loud (quietly). Mary is practicing down the hall. Bert is running the floor polisher downstairs. The logs are crackling in the fireplace; and the fire is hissing. A bird is singing outside. Someone's walking past the building. The radiator gurgles. Gradually, your hearing gets more and more sensitive. Keep naming sounds ‘til you haven't heard any new ones for a minute or two. Then start playing again, gently. With your ear-sensitivity restored, you can play much softer than before and yet it will be plenty loud. With your body relaxed and attentive, you'll have the poise to play softly with reliability.


R is for the Risk of Rationalism

Understanding, explaining, teaching — these wonderful "verbal-intellectual" activities carry a risk. The risk of forgetting that not everything can be understood in that narrow way. The risk of being unwilling to learn from the totality of our selves. The risk of failing the music, not because we can't do, but because we limit our doing to what can be put into words. If music offered or required no more than that, we wouldn't need music!


S is for Shadows

         'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' —that is all
         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The truth of a score is the beauty the composer heard in his head. We recreate it from the score as we might recreate an object from its shadow. I play the piece a hundred times, when I'm happy, sad, angry, tender, loving, tearful, hateful. Assertive, passive, joyous, depressed, or almost too tired to play. When I'm full of myself; when I feel worthless. When I feel vulgar, and when I feel refined. Most of the time, the feelings don't fit; but when they do, I've learned something forever.

My teacher Henry Harris used to chide me, saying, "I see you playing for people, pal. You're not practicing." In this, he was wrong for once. Playing for people was indeed practicing, because I played differently every time, and learned every time from the reactions of my listeners.


T is for Temperamental

"The temperamental artist": a cliché to make a performer smile. By long experience, we learn what's necessary for our best work. To be fresh when playing, I take a nap. I eat enough beforehand to not be hungry, but not so much I'm slowed by digesting. I request that the tuner work close to concert-time (pianos go out of tune quickly) and stay to "touch up" at intermission. These steps assure my best concert for the audience, and best value-for-money for the presenter.

Instead of a concert-grand, the presenter supplies a seven-foot piano, inadequate for this hall and this program. "We had a pianist from Europe on our faculty last year," says the presenter. "She said this hall was too small for a concert-grand." My expostulations—regarding breach of contract, failure of presenter and idiot pianist to understand acoustics, etc.—remain unspoken. The audience is now in line to get less than full musical enjoyment. The presenter continues, "There's no place here to eat on Sundays, but I can get you an energy bar. And the tuner charges extra on weekends, so the piano was tuned two days ago." I imagine violinists forced to tune two days in advance and forbidden to tune again; clarinetists made to play on 3/4-sized instruments and judged by audiences and reviewers on their ability to make music on them. I imagine concert presenters confined on bread and water 'til they acknowledge the purpose of our mutual endeavor: to give pleasure and emotional satisfaction to the audience.

The performer tries to give his best concert. The presenter ignores realities and legalities; expects the performer to take all in stride; and at the slightest jib, accuses the performer of being "temperamental."

Who is really the temperamental one?


U is for Underground

The flow of a piece of music never stops, though it may slow in a ritardando like a stream passing through a wide pool, or rush as though through rapids in an accelerando. Even during rests, it merely goes underground, then emerges as robust as ever.


V is for Vocation

Adults say to young people, "Only become a musician if you really love it." Of course you love it! What they should say is, "Only become a musician if you cannot be happy doing anything else." This does not mean you'll be happy doing music. It means that when you're unhappy, you'll know you wouldn't have been happier doing something different. And where does the unhappiness come from, when we love the way music makes us feel, and the world to which it transports us? From the fact that the world of music-listening is not the world of music-making, and least of all is it the world of making a living in music.


W is for the Way

"The Way that can be named is not the true Way"; but music lets us say things without naming.


X is for Xylophone

"In France," said the American-born pianist who won a 'triple first' at the Paris Conservatory, "they don't play the piano; they play the xylophone." It wasn't praise, that was sure; but she didn't have good words for pianists of other countries, either. "You play?" she said to me. (The great thing was how she never sounded histrionic but always sincerely astonished.) "Dr. Swoboda says you play well! How can you play? You're a musical hick!" Later, she would say of me, pointing to my head, "There's an ear inside there struggling to get out!" She was always showing off her own ear in remarks like the one about her study of the Boulez Second Piano Sonata. She gave Boulez her highest praise—"His ear is functioning"—then continued, "but do you know, to hear two of the chords, I had to use the piano!" All this wasn't funny at the time; on the other hand, her needling started me on the path of true musical education.


Y is for Yes

"Yes" is the right answer to every opportunity. For one thing, saying yes gives you time to think it over. You can always say no later; but the reverse isn't true. Also, as my first analyst said, "You always regret the things you don't do, not the things you do." I remember this 30 years later because it was one of only about five things she said in four years.


Z is for Zygote

A zygote is "a developing individual" produced from a cell. You and me, that is; the individuals to whom applies the first aphorism under letter A, above.





Copyright © 1997 - 2006 James Boyk

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