Music and Feeling: An Inquiry into the Relationship of Notation and Technique by Daniel Durand

Chapter III - Re-Transition

"Well, my grandfather was an Irish sailor with such a tremendous voice that a Neapolitan music master brought him out in opera as a buffo. When he had roared his voice away, he went into the chorus. My father was reared in Italy, and looked more Italian than most genuine natives. He had no voice; so he became first accompanist, then chorus master, and finally trainer for the operatic stage......."

"I suppose your father taught you to sing."

"No. He never gave me a lesson. The fact is, Miss Lind, he was a capital man to teach stage tricks and traditional renderings of old operas; but only the exceptionally powerful voices survived his method of teaching. He would have finished my career as a singer in two months if he had troubled himself to teach me. Never go to Italy to learn singing."

George Bernard Shaw The Irrational Knot

A student of mine was given a contract to sing a comprimario role in a modern opera at the local opera house. It was a declamatory type of rhythmic musical characterization, and I coached him according to the principles set out in the first two chapters of this book. When the student returned from a rehearsal, he said that the music director insisted upon a more rhythmic and nonlinear style. The chorus master of the company was present and agreed with the music director.

The composer was also in attendance at this reading. He stated that he liked the interpretation first sung by the student but was overruled by the music director and the chorus master. When asked why a composer could not have a realization of his score that he considered more musical, the student's answer betrayed no musical intent of either the music director or the chorus master. The implication was that if the composer made a fuss, he might not get his other works mounted on the stage.

The story is not a fable; it is true and nothing has been exaggerated. Had Berlioz or Debussy witnessed the scene, the scorn they would have heaped upon such a situation is imaginable. While an inevitable result of the state of things as they are today, it was at the same time a vindication of the emotional approach to notation advocated in this treatise. Berlioz wrote on several occasions that conductors are the enemies of com­posers.

As for opera conductors, one only needs to recall Strauss' dictum that they should conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn, i.e. fairy music, to realize how little regard many conductors of today have for composers and what they are saying to us. After all, Strauss' instruction was verbal and specific, not hidden in the "mysteries" of notation.

Another occurrence came to my attention in which the refusal of the production team to look at a scene with the composer’s tempo marking led to a completely false representation of that scene. It goes on all the time. I have already mentioned the denial of Verdi’s tempo markings and the consequent falsification of his intent.

But these notions are merely of interest. They do not deal immediately with the purpose of discovering the relationship of notation and technique. Time after time when working in regular vocal or instrumental coaching sessions or with occasional clients, the response to these principles is that the voice or the musical result is freer. What a relief to discover that musical singing or playing comes from a free instrument. One student said that I was the only coach with whom she ever worked who made Mozart easy. Another student called after a performance of a Handel solo cantata and said, "Dan, that was the most fun I ever had in a performance. At last I'm free of those damned notes." Several have exclaimed in a lesson, "You make it so easy!"

There is the story of Porpora who for five or six years had his pupil, Caffarelli, do the same exercise over and over until at last Porpora could say to Caffarelli, "Go, sing what you like." Whether the story is true or not, we would dearly love to know what that exercise was and how the teacher applied it (or how the student had the patience to put up with it). But the point of the story is that the period of technical training was over. The pupil became an artist on his own merits and capacity in whatever roles he decided to sing because whatever he read on the page was easy for him and the emotional impact of the role could then assure the composer's effects and dramatic purposes.

Instrumentalists have the same reaction to these ideas. A violin teacher claims that it is easier to teach and get a more musical result from children. A violin­ist that I coached discovered that, while sitting in an orchestra applying these principles to a Brahms symphony, she felt that life became not only easier but (of course) more enjoyable. A trumpet student discovered that notes high on the staff are easier when the center of the tone sits high in the resonance of the instrument throughout all its registers, a necessary consideration of staff notation. A clarinetist discovered that high res­onance in his instrument demanded more attention to his embouchure so that it would not move. A french horn player discovered that releasing the muscles under his skull gave him a more opulent tone because that release made his jaw hinge freer, giving him better stability and flexibility. A pianist pointed out that it is easier to play Liszt and Chopin when taking these principles into consideration.

The purpose of musical performance is not ease, however; ease is but the comfort level of the performer. The object is to communicate musical ideas emotional­ly. What of the listener? Many, musical and nonmusical alike, have said to me, upon hearing me teach or coach or conduct a rehearsal, "I can hear the difference!" They all use the exact same words. So, if it is easier, it has a palpable effect on the result.

If so many musicians and singers have said that the process of relating technique to notation makes everything easier, the assertion can be made that if it is easy, or at least easier (it is a process), then it must be right! All well and good, but what matters is how to make it viable in a world that expresses music otherwise. One student actually said that he was afraid that he would not be able to get jobs if he played by these principles. The only response is: If it can be done according to the principles presented in the first two chapters, work should be available with any conductor or contractor in the world, but if an auditioner cannot do it emotional­ly and can only play rhythm and pitch with technique muscularly reinforced, the only jobs will be with con­ductors and contractors who are limited to that mode of expression. One can still make a living, and perhaps even a very good one, but why should one be deprived of the emotional depth of musical expression, which is the reason for pursuing a career in music?

Conversely, an excellent trumpeter finally left the profession because he could not get enough jobs that required sensitivity and musicality in expression to keep himself alive, and he did not want to blast his way through life. While following another career, he now plays whatever he feels like playing as a sideline.

Remembering Berlioz' dictum that conductors are the enemies of composers, we now arrive at the crux of the entire problem of the rhythm and pitch approach to musical expression in ensembles. When a conductor approaches music from the point of view that the chorus or orchestra is his or her instrument to reproduce his or her own feelings of the music, the singers or instrumentalists, who spent years developing their own feelings, have their own feelings negated and invalidated. They must now be robots and automata who try to reproduce someone else's feelings about the emotions inherent in the composer's ideas, a rather fascist approach. Watch the faces of symphony musicians and see how much boredom (and, yes, even hatred and contempt) appears on them. This is not the first comment in music history regarding this phenomenon.

Further, who has not seen the faces of the chorus, all the singers so stolid, disciplined, joyless, and unfeeling in the face of a tyrannous conductor, singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy during a performance of the Ninth Symphony? No appeal to the fact that they are singing and playing great music will mitigate this situation. Such an appeal is a red herring across the trail of the conductor's solipsistic approach to his or her craft. It is only when the emotional aspect of the score itself is recognized in the notation instead of in the mind of an interpreter, that large or small ensembles are free to operate emotionally together.

Haydn, Berlioz, and Wagner were the first conductors to lead forces without performing from a con­tributing instrument. Before that time and even during a good part of the nineteenth century, performances were generally led from a keyboard or by the first violinist. In other words, the principle of first among equals was the operational base of ensemble performances. However, Haydn (at the first several performances of the Creation and the Seasons) and Berlioz and Wagner communicated their own works, for the most part, and did not victimize the music by interpreting it because it was their own. A reading of Eduard Devrient's recollections (recounted in the Bach Reader) of Mendelssohn 's conducting rehearsals for the revival of Bach' Matthew Passion not only presents an eye-witness account of that event but opens the way to profitable meditation on these matters.

To bring us round full circle, Verdi, too, conducted premieres of most of his works. But as the nineteenth century progressed, more and more orchestras and choral societies were established that wanted to produce more varied programs. Also, with so many opera houses that wanted to produce the latest imported scores, the independent conductor became more and more the interpreter of the music of great (and not so great) composers. Slowly, with the march of time, interpretative factors began to be the result of better conducting technique in a curious reversal of the orig­inal purposes of notation.

For the performers the question arises: How does one achieve a musical and healthy result when the demands of coaches and conductors to produce proficient but basically unmoving musical sounds cause them to go off their voices or instruments? The performer must find the means of translating what is said to the potential of his or her instrument, and the operative word is translate. The performer must understand what the coach or conductor is asking for, and then to decide how to correlate the vocal and instrumental possibilities inherent in the notation with his or her own technical capabilities.

A singer I know worked in a theater under a musical director who, according to the singer, was musical in intention but lacked the capacity to achieve desired results because of doing things to the music. The singer realized that his work was appreciated, but credits that appreciation to the fact that he never did what the director said. He only did what the singer knew the score to be saying as to what the director's intentions should be. One conclusion to be drawn from these thoughts is that a good conductor knows what he or she wants and knows how to ask for it. This is perhaps an overly broad statement but it means that, given the principles in this tract, the emotional response of both the conductor and the performers will be guided by the score; the conductor's job is to share his informed feelings about it with players and/or singers in such a way that their feelings are enhanced, not shelved.

Finding the words to make the explanation more comprehensible is a matter that belongs in the studio or rehearsal room, for each person brings his own vari­ables into the process. More than anything else, humility before the score -- with endless pondering and experimentation to make the experience easier and freer -- allows the performer to find the truthful relationship between notation and technique, thus allowing musical expression to enrapture both the performer and listener.

Indeed the difficulty in writing this treatise resides in the difference between a spoken vowel and a vowel distorted by improper attack, or an instrumental linear attack and one that is "notey" and rhythmic. Finding the words is simply hard, as any teacher will confirm. Awareness of the principles of sensitive music-making guides teachers to those right words, not the application of physical demands.

I have evolved some principles that I share with mature students. The first is: Never do what I say. This is a precise method of getting the student to go to his or her experience rather than intellectually trying. That leads to the second principle: Don't try; just do it. Trying is an intellectual process of continual judgment. Judgment stops time. Only doing in the experience of time allows musical expression freedom. Post mortems can supply the judgement necessary for artistic improvement and growth.