Tuesday, 8 September 2009


Some time back Lyle Sanford asked in passing if I might write a bit about what I understand of this topic.

And I’ve thought and thought, and it is difficult. Musicality is one of those things that is very hard to describe and very easy to recognise. It is the ability to entrance an audience with your playing, to perform in a way that brings out all the best of the composer’s intentions, that blends sensitively and apparently effortlessly with the other players in the group, that knows when to drop into the background and when to come to the fore, and adds that little personal touch all of your own that makes the performance unique.

But how on earth do you go about describing how to do it? And still more to the point, how do you go about acquiring it? Anybody who wishes to become a professional player is going to have to be able to display abundant musicality – orchestras aren’t in the least bit interested in automata who can reliably hit a top C every time but can’t put feeling into the solo from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony.

So I decided to do a websearch and see what others have said on the subject. There is surprisingly little. I came across a contribution by Hans Pizka. It is about the only thing I found on the web that was concerned with expressing musicality in performance, which is curious given how important it is.

Some of this abilities can be acquired by hard work or simple experience: rhythmical training, ear training, recognizing forms knowing the works very well. Exact memory for music is a good tool also, but requires some analytic memory. Feeling for forms & the interaction between forms can be developed by great experience in the arts, in all arts, which can be acquired by visiting museums, reading encyclopaedias, specially about the classical arts from Egyptian arts to Greece & Rome. So one gets a feeling about esthetic.

That’s a good start. It describes the kinds of things you should be looking to do. Hans of course also described various pre-requisites – a good ear, mastery of the instrument etc. Hans also has the poetic effect well described.

If you listen to certain chords, and it starts running down your back icecold, and your flesh begins to creep, that's where musicality starts. If you listen to music, and you feel like flying in outer space, that's where musicality starts. If you listen to music, and you become angry or sad, that's where musicality starts. And if you are able, to bring others into the moods said above by your playing, well, then you are a musical musician.

Spot on. But Hans doesn’t describe in any great detail how you go about improving your musicality. He’s been a professional player for so many years that it doubtless is entirely natural to him by now. But us lesser mortals do need to think about it a bit more.

So, let me see what I can contribute that might hopefully be of some use.

Unless you are playing entirely solo and unaccompanied (rare for a horn player), you must listen to what is going on around you. Whatever you are playing, in whatever kind of ensemble, you have to fit in. You can’t fit in if you can’t hear or don’t listen to what else is happening. You need a certain amount of ego in order to have the nerve to get up in front of an audience and play, but ultimately that ego has to be dedicated to the music. You are there to serve the music, the music isn’t there to make you look good.

You have to have enough familiarity with the music (and mastery of the instrument) that you aren’t worrying merely about the notes. You need to have mental effort available to think about how you will play a passage, not merely which notes come one after the other.

You have to have an idea in your mind of what you want to achieve. You must have a picture in your mind of how the phrase would sound if all your technical limitations were suddenly to vanish away. Depending on the style of the piece, you may decide that the climax of a crescendo will happen just there, or that those staccato notes will be just so long and accented by that much.

Then there is mimicry. When playing, it will often happen that you repeat a phrase played a few seconds before on another instrument. Match the playing style as best you can.

You can plan for musicality a bit beforehand, (I’ve described examples of that in the articles on the Eroica.) You can mark in breath marks to ensure you don’t run out of air at the vital moment. If you are principal horn of your orchestra and you have the luxury of an assistant, you can pass off passages to the assistant to play alone so that you are rested and ready for the key solos. You can practice slurring and fingerings so that technical limitations don’t get in the way of the music. You can mark in planned crescendos or rubatos, or additional accents or tenutos you intend making.

But all these markings should be regarded as general guidance rather than fixed instruction, because ultimately it is down to the inspiration of the moment and the conditions at the time. Even between an afternoon rehearsal and the evening concert conditions can change. The temperature of the hall may have risen, the acoustic will be different because of all the extra bodies present, and the conductor in his excitement may take the piece at a somewhat different tempo. So you have to instantly adjust how you take a phrase to fit the circumstances.

But how do you decide what adjustments you should make to tempo, dynamics and phrasing in order to sound musical? There I can help less, certainly very little in an article like this which isn’t looking at a specific piece of music. Sit me next to another player who wants help with a passage, and I can make suggestions. Put me in charge of an amateur orchestral horn section and I will get them playing musically together. But I’m not quite sure how I do it. I know what to say in any particular circumstance, but I have no idea specifically where it comes from in any particular case.

But I think it is more general than that. I come from a musical family. My parents were both musical, my father a keen amateur clarinettist, my mother a teacher of violin and piano. All four children of the family learned musical instruments, and my younger sister has gone on to become a professional violinist. I started learning the piano when I was five and the horn when I was eight or nine, and continued with regular lessons until I was 23. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing or listening to music of one kind or another. I’ve absorbed it through my pores and it is deeply ingrained in me now. And I suspect that this is ultimately the secret to musicianship. You have to love the music and immerse yourself in it, and eventually you just know how a piece should be played.

And that learning never ceases. When I was a student, my teacher made me learn the Richard Strauss 2nd Horn Concerto. Technically it is extremely demanding, pushing most students to the limits of their abilities – I know it pushed me to the limits of mine. But its musical idiom is a bit strange and it takes some getting used to, especially the first movement where the horn part appears to wander aimlessly about without ever quite managing to break into an actual tune. As a student, I just didn’t like the piece. I didn’t get it. Of course, my teacher marked in various crescendos and decrescendos and rubatos, and I dutifully got louder and softer and slower in the indicated places. But if I have to be honest, I was faking musicality, I didn’t actually have any kind of conception as to what I was trying to achieve overall.

But since then, I have been exposed to much more music than I had known at the time as a student. I’ve performed in Mahler and Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies, I’ve played through Wagner operas, Tchaikovsky ballets, Dvorak and Richard Strauss tone poems. All of these are part of the musical landscape into which Strauss placed his concerto, and understanding them helped me to understand it. Relatively recently I played both the Strauss Sonatinas for Wind, which he wrote at around the same time as the second horn concerto. The first horn parts of the Strauss Sonatinas are at least as technically challenging as the solo part in the 2nd horn concerto. But playing the pieces in a group, and seeing how the horn part fitted with everything else, I finally began to piece together how the concerto is built, since it is in a similar style. Looking again at the solo horn part, my teacher’s pencil markings make sense to me at last. Now, in the unlikely event that anybody would ask me to, with adequate preparation I think I could put on quite a musical performance of the piece. It’s only taken 30 years since I first looked at the music.

Musicality matures, like a fine wine.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Terrific. Thanks. Will be linking and commenting, but for now want to say that this:

    >>So I decided to do a web search and see what others have said on the subject. There is surprisingly little.<<

    comes as no surprise. Part of being a music therapist is introducing people to the non-mechanical aspects of music making that can so enrich one's life, musical and otherwise. I think that music educators are so used to dealing with "natural" players, they rarely have to verbalize what you're talking about here.