Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Permission Granted

listen to this.

It's a passage from Cesar Franck's Organ Choral number 2 in b minor. It's beautiful, solemn, evocative of a slowly unfolding drama, makes me want to learn the rest of it!

But it's Wednesday, the day when I address fellow musicians of all stripes, and the reason I brought it to your attention is actually for a picky technical reason. You can't hear it, but you can see the awful transgression staring you right in the face the moment you open the score. Franck doubles the pedal with the left hand! (I should link to a bruising harmonic outburst here but you can take a hint)

If you are wondering what the fuss is all about I should mention that as an organist with practically no organ lessons, even I heard pretty early on that it was a sin to play the pedal and the bass notes in the left hand in unison. The feet and the hands are supposed to be gloriously independent of each other. Whole books have been written for organists to gain--painfully, in some cases--complete independence of the two appendages. Exercises in which the left hand goes one way and the pedal the other are the stuff of nightmares, and good organ technique (in that order). When you play hymns in church you aren't supposed to cheat by playing the bass part with the pedal and the hands simultaneously.

And then Cesar Franck goes and does it in the middle of one of the pillars of the organ literature, written by a guy many regard as the most important organ composer since Bach. I mean....I guess if he does it...but is it really allowed, even then?

That's the point of tonight's effusion. When are rules rules, and if your teacher told you to do something and you see some paragon of the music world violating said rule, what does it mean?

It's an interesting dynamic. One of the most important things a renowned musician can do to get scared students to relax is to remind them in a casual, friendly way that some rules were made to be broken. To give them permission to do things they didn't know they were allowed to do. It loosens them up and unlocks some of the passion and musicality inside that wouldn't come out because the students were afraid of being wrong. I learned this observing several masterclasses in my days at the conservatory. I remember something  Leon Fleisher said about the use of the "soft" pedal in the piano. On a grand piano, the pedal on the left shifts the hammers over to the right and instead of each hammer striking three strings it only strikes one. Its technical name, "una corda" (one string) comes from this. It therefore makes the sound quieter. But it also changes the sound, like a mute. Many pianists are told not to use the pedal just to make things softer for this reason. Fleisher said. "there are many pianists who think that the use of the una corda pedal is cheating, and I go to them for confession every Sunday."

Well, if he uses it....I mean....

There are successful musicians with unorthodox techniques. People who didn't take lessons. People who aren't doing all sorts of things the "right" way. I once had to field an uncomfortable question from a young lady as to why I was looking at my hands when I was supposed to be looking at the music (actually, it was a lead sheet and I had it memorized and was improvising).

Of course, on the other side of this there are the legions of people who make excuses for their unorthodox laziness as easily as they breathe oxygen. The ones who like to remind their parents that Einstein failed math, too. Or, if you are a musician, that Scriabin flunked music theory. Who needs it then?

That's the other side of the question. Which side are most people likely to be on? Can you trust your own judgement anyway?

One thing I would offer up. When it comes to matters of composition and theory, it helps to understand the prohibitions, not just as a series of Thou Shalt Nots, but to realize what they are there for and why most composers have treated them that way. It also helps to understand the larger issues and when breaking one "rule" reinforces another. Brahms actually collected a series of examples of composers who used the forbidden "parallel fifths" in an effort to understand why great composers of his past would do what they did. That's a long way from using an approach like so-and-so broke this rule so I don't need to bother with it. That's using so-and-so's unorthodoxy as a learning tool.

When it comes to performing, results make a difference. If you are Horowitz and your pinkie finger is tucked in the way teachers say it shouldn't be but you are winning competitions and get concerts, maybe you know what you are doing. If everybody says it is wrong and you aren't getting any positive feedback from anybody based on the way you play, maybe they are right.

Still, at the end of the day, it sometimes helps to throw out a rule or two once in a while if it is tripping you up and experience life without sweating the small stuff. It may be important small stuff, actually, but sometimes a little lack of discipline can be liberating and lead to new discoveries.

But don't tell your teacher I said that!

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