IT’S ALL THERE: Reading between the Lines A guide to my thoughts on interpretation
A question posed to my teaching website porterflute.com asked, “how do I narrow down goals when it comes to things like tone or phrasing” and “how can I create specific goals that one can more easily measure?” In 2000, I thought I had answered that query, and thought of my Focus Sheet that looks closely at the goals we determine, workable within our own playing: “Articulation, tone, and intonation, and analyzing performance goals.” Then, I realized that my Focus Sheet doesn’t address that which we aren’t told: how to look beyond what we already know to be true by the composer. We need to read between the lines of music, so to speak.
There are devices of interpretation beyond the basics we see in the music. We just have to find where they might be. Some students have concrete ideas about tone and phrasing and feel that should be enough. “Should I think about how to specifically phrase? Why overthink things, right? I sound good already! The notes, rhythms, phrasing, intonation are all there!”
But, we know we could go deeper as musicians, yet sometimes we don’t know how. So now, I as your teacher, ask you to ask yourself a simple question. “What do I already know?” The answer is: Everything. It’s all there. You just need to think it, and feel it – all at the same time. You need to witness yourself in process so you can more readily accept the concepts behind interpretation and change.
Here is the obvious: Phrases can be measured with articulations, breaths, time changes, key changes, and all obvious areas of transitions like natural phrase endings and cadences. Dynamic contrasts are prevalent in every style, leading to a more stylish approach to tone. But that’s where it ends for some students. So many students are afraid of doing too much or “the wrong thing.” I was taught one philosophy early in my youth: When in doubt, sing out!
My college students often ask me to break down a problem and then build the solution back up through an exercise that should inevitably “fix” it for them. It’s not always easy explaining what I already know intrinsically about phrasing and musicality. Sometimes I can’t fix the problem for the students, who need to work through it themselves, figure it out in depth, doing whatever it takes to move on. “But, Professor Porter, it’s so hard to let go! I’m afraid!” I know! But remember, as artists, we are pieces of clay. Moldable. Free to be formed by our musical mind. We just have to ask questions that lead to answers that lead to letting go.
Specific goals determine output. We can easily break down goals into areas of work. Not so easy, however, is interpreting what the composer wrote. I’ll now speak personally, showing you my own advice to myself to find the magic in the music that brings me to my interpretation.
What do I already know that can affect my output for the better?
1. IT’S IN MY SCHOLARSHIP
I need to research before anything. As an interpreter, like an actor, improviser, or poet, I am allowed to create a piece of music with an author attached, playing what someone else wrote and, at the same time, being free to interpret and believe in my creation. I address the overall arch of the form: how many movements, how many motives, and how many keys so that all the building blocks that create musical form can come into play. I listen to others, with utmost caution to be open to interpretation. It’s only when I research that I bring more to the table. Any amount of research leads to a more informed performance.
2. IT’S IN MY IMAGINATION
I know where specific moments in the piece ask for change. Be it large phrases to smaller phrases, long notes to short notes, fast tempos to slow tempos and style markers like ornaments and appogiaturas, I exaggerate the change according to the needs of the piece. I know that these changes are effective. I separate motifs and microphrase to showcase the wonderful nuances and commonalities in the phrases.
3. IT’S IN MY INFLUENCES
I have many influences musically, the most profound being the singing voice. It is always the answer to phrasing. Just try singing your melody and the voice will automatically go to where the onus of the phrase exists. Put specific words to melodies that don’t have words. If I’m playing a piece that has been transcribed from voice to the flute, automatic emphasis goes to the words and their stresses both in meaning and in language. If I’m using the airstream to emulate bowing a stringed instrument, then I listen closely to how the airstream and the bowing can have a common emphasis.
4. IT’S IN MY SOUND
I decide what innovative sounds I want to create within the music. Sometimes “rich, warm, vanilla” isn’t the point or in the style of the composition. The overall flow of the piece can’t emerge until I know what the details are and only then can I begin to make my decisions. Listening to new sounds on our instrument prevents the interpretation from sounding the same throughout the piece and potentially boring! Take advantage of practice time exploring new sounds you never thought you could make. Remind yourself to not push in loud playing and not be weak in soft playing. I build tension and then release tension using Marcel Tabuteau’s numbering system from 1-10, 1 being pale and 10 being bright and add these numbers above the notes in my score.
5. IT’S IN TRUSTING THE COMPOSER
Understanding the composer is important to understanding the piece. I try to find what else the composer wrote for my instrument and other instruments in order to better approach the piece with the proper style. Often the writing style of a composer is prevalent throughout their oeuvre. It helps to see the shapes of the movements and their large sections. My advice is to put the piece far away and look to see what shapes are emerging – and then figure out their intentions and where they are traveling. Rhythm and tempo should not be approximated and you must use a metronome to memorize tempo changes. Often, in the accompaniment, moving notes mean motion, chords mean you can play slower or more free as a soloist rhythmically. My goal is always the full counting of notes, interpreting through the release of those notes, filling out the rhythm, and playing it as true to form as possible.
6. IT’S IN CHOOSING THE EDITIOR
Music is transparent – but difficult to see clearly. Many editors have insinuated their beliefs, articulations, dynamics and tempo markings into the edition of a piece to try to help the performer, but sometimes the opposite occurs and we are left with an innocent victim of an outdated edition. Over-editing is also a real problem. The performer comes away with a false sense of security and knowledge, thinking that everything the composer wanted in the music is already on the page.
I make sure to buy the edition from the country where the composer wrote the piece, even when the most famous editor’s edition is very popular. I want the most organic edition. If I myself am the editor of a transcription, then I try to stay as close to the original source as possible, offering fewer suggestions. I like to encourage the further study of style. If it’s downloaded as public domain then it’s origin is unsure and at best you are left wondering what you really are playing. I encourage to find your own ways to tastefully transcribe, for the future of our repertoire.
7. IT’S IN THE BELIEF IN MY OWN PLAYING
Often, I come back to performing familiar pieces years later and play them completely differently from when I first learned and performed them. The maturation process of familiarity happens slowly and often in the dark. I have come to understand through maturity that our practicing is a process undefined. There is no immediacy in learning to interpret because our interpretation will change with our age and our level of playing. I urge you to believe that you can learn simply from experience.
Reading between the lines is often the best advice I can give to my students, asking them to look carefully at the melody, harmony, counterpoint and form in order to gain insight into the finished product. I have been known to play exactly what is on the page and then work with it, within reason, making it mine and mine alone. When I hear students play a piece, and they surprise me (in a good way) because they interpreted the music within the written desires of the composer, then I am overjoyed. I love individuality and deplore sameness.
Therein lies the mystery of how one musician can sound completely different from another. As our hearts beat differently and yet the same, so are we to understand that it’s all there to begin with – I just have to find it. The composer’s pieces are carefully planned, but I don’t think I have to sound a certain way according to the way others play it. Everyone is different in producing a musical output.
Music is music – beautiful, individual and inspiring. When we are the ones who get to breathe life into the sound of music, then we can believe in ourselves and in our ability to interpret music. Just look closer. It’s all there.