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Practicing for Imperfection I

May 22, 2010

The fourth installment of Measured Passion

Practice for Imperfection 1

My mom, her mom and I attended many a home tour together in our time.  We wanted to see what designers would do with a blank slate.  I loved the layers of textures and colors.  Lighting, especially, was always more dramatic and nuanced than in “normal” houses.  The mixes of patterns from one fabric to another, how they can play off of each other, fascinated me.

Interiors are fertile ground for analogies about musical texture and shading.  But it’s more fun to talk about grandma.

Grandma had several standard complaints about show homes that she shared with the tour guides, architects and designers—much to her daughter’s embarrassment.

In a home with high ceilings: “How do you dust up there?”

Aghast at the size of a whirlpool tub: “You need a lifeguard to be in there!”

When we got back to grandma’s house, she would say, “It looks like nobody lives those houses!  At least my house looks lived in.”  It never occurred to me to reply, “But grandma, no one pays to see your house.”

Grandma was on to something, though.

People aren’t generally at home in a trash heap; but people generally don’t live in austerely perfect homes, either.  Similarly, ticket scalpers don’t hang around first grade violin concerts; but people don’t like mechanically flawless music, either.  When canned music is played exactly by a computer, we can tell.  Its perfection rings false.

Depending on the music you’re playing, there’s a certain looseness, an imperfection, that’s desirable, if not expected.  Even in the most uptight classical pieces, it’s the little inflections in amongst the choppy staccatos that reveal a human touch.  Those inflections reach out and touch humans.  If we want to play music that has feeling and personality, we must allow it to be imperfect.

Figuring out what imperfections we want, that is the challenge.

Let’s visit rhythm and tempo first.  I will likely muck up the official musical definitions, but rhythm and tempo are different concepts.

Rhythm is about the regularness of timing in the piece.  How should the measures themselves behave?  Legato or staccato?  Lazily strolling through a park or dancing on a rooftop?  Most of the time, it’s better to be regular with the rhythms.  Start with a rhythm and stick with it throughout a piece.  There might be sections that contrast from one another, but erratic changes in rhythm don’t, in general, translate well in an audience’s mind.  The rhythm of a piece can usually be practiced with a metronome.

Tempo takes a wider view of the piece as a whole.  This is where more emotion and feeling get injected.  I love to play rubato—literally robbing tempo from one area of the song and giving it to another; to ritardando in one section and accelerando to make up for it in the next.  Sometimes it’s marked.  Many times, I just make it up.  Changes in tempo are not easily practiced with a metronome.

To put tempo and rhythm, or any other nuances for that matter, into practice, we need to develop an understanding of the music we’re playing first.  What is it like in the beginning, the middle, and the end?  What is it saying to you?  How does the whole piece make you feel?  What is your favorite part?  What is the most important part?

Your answers to those questions can be used to drive your interpretation.  Subsequently, they drive how you apply rhythm and tempo to it.

The only way to know more is to try it out.  Review a piece you play.  Pick a section that is more emotional for you, personally. What happens if you speed that section up?  What happens if you slow it down?  Which do you like better?

Sometimes I’m listening to harmonies in the song to find the answers.  I love to stretch out the tension of a chord that begs to be resolved.  Just before “O Holy Night” jumps to the high G at the same time it resolves to a C major chord, I slow down because I want to emphasize that jump.  I want to give the harmonies before the jump “room” to sink in—I don’t want them lost in my rush to get to my favorite part.

Finding meaningful analogies for the music can help us create those images for others.

For rhythms, does the song feel like it’s … breathing? … walking? … floating? … wandering? … bobbing? … marching? … skipping? … rushing? … crashing waves on the sand, or gentle lapping at a lakeshore?

For an arching change in tempo, does the piece feel like it’s … a baseball pitcher winding up? … the precarious pause at the top of a roller coaster? … an airplane taking off? … a space shuttle blasting off? … that instant when you’re looking over the top bar of a swing-set? … flowing winds across fields of wheat?

There are no hard and fast rules to live by in seeking imperfection.  It’s all interpretation.  You make the music.   What is it saying to you?  What analogies does it inspire?  The most important voice to listen to is your own.

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