We all have composers or styles of music we struggle with. Beethoven was mine. I’m going to use my struggle with Beethoven to show you how you can conquer that area of music you never thought you could play.
I was never going to play Beethoven correctly. I played for all kinds of people and no one (and I really mean no one) liked the way I played Beethoven. I would listen to tons of recordings. The same ones I’m sure you have. Cleveland, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Berlin, etc… I would practice and record myself. I did everything, everyone tells you to do. But to no avail. Needless to say I was pretty discouraged.
I would listen to teachers, professionals, and other students talk about Beethoven’s works in a way that would make you believe if only we could harness their power we could cure the world of cancer and HIV in an afternoon. They talked as if you need two Phd’s in order to be allowed to perform his music. Beethoven, to me, was a unicorn. Perhaps climbing Mt Everest. That was how impossible the task felt. Despite my inadequacy in performing Beethoven, I really did love the music.
Step 1: Study the music
The notes on the page are our first clue into how we should approach any piece of music. With Beethoven, my confidence grew as my knowledge of music theory grew. I was never drawn to music theory in a scholarly way, I found it beneficial in a very practical, functional way. This was very important in my quest to play Beethoven. After some very basic studying I found I could understand the forms. I understood how he would move from this key to that key. I understood all the basic components of the music. It was genius. His writing was the perfect combination of basic music theory and unbelievable expression. I understood all of this, I just couldn’t put it together.
Step 2: Understand the time period and style
Understanding the historical context and performance practice is very important for any composer but especially a warhorse composer like Beethoven. I knew this at the time but needed to figure out how to apply it. All the recordings I talked about helped me understand appropriate tempos and how to stylize rhythms. They also helped with quality of sound and articulation. Even within all of those great recordings there is a range of appropriate choices. Figuring out how to take this basic knowledge of music history and theory and apply it was a struggle. It was around this time that I learned two very important lessons.
Step 3: Don’t overly complicate the music
The first lesson was: don’t overly complicate what you are trying to do musically. The music may BE complicated, but it doesn’t help to complicate IT. That statement can really apply to all music. Let’s face it, Beethoven carries a lot of baggage. He wrote some of the most popular music in the history of western society. That comes with some serious performance practice and an enormous amount of opinions. The problem I was running into was I was trying to play it just like they do in Cleveland at the same time as how they play it in Berlin. Oh, and I was also trying to play it like Vic Firth in Boston. But what I found most difficult was trying to do all of that at the same time as trying to please the teacher standing in front of me. All. of. this. is. impossible. Once I realized this. My life got a lot better.
Step 4: Take all the knowledge you have available and then play it the way YOU think it should be played
The second lesson I learned was from Will Hudgins. I studied with Will at NEC in Boston. We had and still have a great relationship and I can’t say enough about him as a teacher. He could sense my insecurity in playing Beethoven but also other composers as well. Finally, he just said “Play it how you hear it. How you hear it in your head.” What a concept??? I did have my own opinions on how I thought it should sound but I had blocked them away because surely all of these other professionals have better opinions. As I began to play I could feel the weight of trying to please everyone in the history of the world being lifted off my shoulders. I took all of my studying and knowledge I had gained, boiled it in my brain, and then made my own decisions. I also began to enjoy playing it more.
Step 5: Write down adjectives and descriptive phrases to help you focus your playing
These were two very big lessons to learn. I still, however, had to figure out how I wanted to play Beethoven. Around this time I started to journal my practice sessions and take lots of notes from lessons to apply to the practice room. What I found myself doing was writing down a lot of adjectives as my opinions grew stronger. I would write down words like:
“light” “aggressive” “humorous”
“on the backside of the beat” “with weight” “tight”
“regal” “pointed” “grand”
I cannot over emphasize enough how helpful this is. Take an audition list with 50 excerpts and multiply that by 10 adjectives per excerpt. That’s 500 descriptions for the audition!!! That’s a lot of helpful information! It is also a lot to remember, so journaling will help tremendously.
Here are my notes for Beethoven 7 for an audition, cough cough, about 10 years ago. The iPod reference dates me…
All of these are one word and short phrase descriptions of how I wanted to sound. What I realized I was doing was breaking down something that was very complex (Beethoven) and boiling it down to lots of simple elements. There is no changing something that is complex that has the baggage of Beethoven but I can try to be as simplistic about how I describe it to myself. I can describe a passage as “having some weight, but soft, with a crisp articulation, with very square, un-stylized rhythms.” In this scenario I’ve painted a very specific picture of how I want the passage to sound by using lots of adjectives or descriptive phrases. They are also very clear descriptions that I understand, rather than “it should sound sad.”
I know a lot of students feel this way about various styles of music. It is very easy to be intimidated by certain styles or composer’s works. Trust me, I’ve been there! A healthy amount of respect is certainly due to these areas you feel intimidated by, but NO music should feel un-performable. This is music after all. Not brain surgery. There can always be room for improvement, but how will you improve if you don’t start somewhere? By using this very simple idea in your journaling, you can make the unapproachable, approachable.