Competitions for Technical Minds

February 11, 2014
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Or, two + two may not = four

We live in a world where many things are easily measured. The overpowering importance of sports is much more obvious in the USA than in Europe, and its success among the general masses may be heightened by that fact that it is so easily measurable (thus comprehended) by “seconds”, “weight”, “speed”, “points”, and so on. So many parents of our music students are engineers, with the logical mindset that 2 + 2 always = 4, and the idea that musical art does not work this way seems nearly impossible to explain. However, below we will try to indulge these technical minds who simply desire “specs” about what does it take to be considered for a prize in the many youth competitions both here and abroad.

We, professional artists and teachers, hear things differently. And let’s just say it (even though it sounds arrogant) — we hear things better! We hear what you often can’t hear. Many of us have many years of precollege training, 4-5 years of Bachelor training, 2 years of Masters’ training, and 4 years or Doctoral training, with much of it spent on ear-training classes (classes where we sit at the desks — not at a piano) and do exercises only based on our hearing abilities, where our ears are treated like muscles in the gym and challenged year by year by more and more complex tasks. These are classes in which we write down music sang by a choir, string quartet, and so on, strictly by what our ears tell us, from our head to the paper. Classes where we have to do it within time limits — not taking hours, but minutes to do so. So yes, we do have far better hearing abilities than any of the non-professionals and this is why we are who we are, and how we earned our degrees. Not to mention all the years of studying music history, hearing a monumental number of symphonies, concerti, operas, etc., and with the knowledge of theory that filters what we hear.

So — the judge who is having a doctoral degree, and 20 to 30 years of professional education — yes, she/he does have better hearing abilities and knowledge than the average Joe. Experience and education do matter.

As judges ourselves, these are the simplest, most easily scored things that we can share with you that are NECESSARY to even be considered for a prize. These are just the most important points that we believe can be measured or comprehended by someone without all those years of professional education. Beyond this, there are many subtle levels and issues, many debatable. However, these eight points can summarize the main concrete, measurable ones:

  1. Memory. The level of piano playing has gone up, so if you have a memory slip (stop and start in the middle of the piece), you won’t win over someone who didn’t. Sad and nerve-wracking, yes; but this is the reality.
  2. Voicing. There are more and less important melodies in the texture. If you play everything with the same bias, then no one knows what the tune is. Play the tune louder — simply speaking.
  3. Shaping. The music is an art of sculpturing the sound. We work with sound. The sound is our matter. You can’t feel it, but you can hear it. Every phrase must have a plan: sometimes it must be arch-shaped, sometimes it may have to be more flat. This is why you have a teacher to advise you.
  4. Text Accuracy. You must play what the “man” (or “woman”) wrote: be truthful to the score, and don’t change the musical text. Playing incorrect notes, rhythm, dynamics, and rests is a big “no, no”. It’s one of the basic specs!
  5. Its Not a Sport. Faster and louder is not better, as it is most likely not more beautiful. Yes, rock music should be the loudest, but artistic piano playing or violin playing has all the many shades of the musical rainbow. Greater subtlety and range are more desirable.
  6. Clean. The level of piano competitions have gone up so much that there is no longer any room for messiness. Missed tons and tons of notes? Missed even a few in the middle section? Forgivable in concerts, but not forgivable in competitions. Clarity is a must! The hands must play together. This is just basic technique. The vertical harmonies must be played perfectly together. Chords = all the notes must be played together. This is also a basic technique.
  7. Pedaling. This is an art of hearing, not foot timing by being trained “now” or “not now”. We pedal with our ears. We must listen and react the right away to the sound! As a professional once said… “It’s not even that important WHERE you take it, but where to RELEASE it.” Be sensitive to the sound at all times.
  8. Sound! Sound! Sound! Playing with ringing and beautiful sound may cause that the judge may forgive you some “messy” notes… Working on sound is our primary duty as a musician. What is that beautiful sound? It’s the sound of Claudio Arrau, Martha Argerich, and Emil Gilels. It’s the sound you will not hear via you tube. It’s the sound you must experience in live concert, or with great stereo equipment and listening in peace and quiet, not in the car. They say “cats” can hear 15 times better than humans. Try to be more like a cat…

Beyond these, there are numerous levels of subtlety, including issues of stylistic appropriateness, the almost indescribable manner of how one flows from note to note, conveyance of the larger architecture at work, sensitivity to harmony, and all things which one listener may value differently in terms of hierarchy than another. This is why music is SUBJECTIVE…but that’s outside of the eight criticals, or concrete measurable points outlined above.

And, sometimes someone can simply say, “I don’t like this playing!” because it does not resonate with the listener. Can we please everyone? No. Is that even a goal or consideration? It shouldn’t be, otherwise it’s not art, but service. An artist really shouldn’t care if another person likes it or not. An artist must have a strong conviction himself/herself, which may change from year to year, or performance to performance. This is why the public can strongly like or strongly dislike the same pianist…it resonates to some, and to others not. A true musician should just shrug it off when someone doesn’t like his or her performance. We’re not in the business of pleasing the community as a whole.

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