During these past few weeks I’ve noticed an underlying theme in my MIE experiences. I didn’t recognize its significance at first, but I really think this might be a thread worth exploring. My first introduction to the idea came when I brought a piece from my repertoire to Larry’s Solfege for Singers class. The piece, Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Sea Eagle” for solo horn, is truly intimidating. Take a look at this excerpt from the first movement. How am I supposed to tackle this thing? Larry suggested all the standards; practice the syllables with no rhythm, practice the syllables in rhythm, and the like. Then he suggested that I practice singing it and then playing it with no accidentals. At first, I thought that was pretty pointless. Of course I could do it without accidentals! It’s the accidentals that make it so hard. Wouldn’t that eliminate the whole context, the point of the piece?
But then, Larry went on a related tangent in our MIE Intro class of 11/7. Paraphrasing, he said that if you can improvise in the context or style of a piece of music you will have a greater knowledge of that piece. If not, perhaps you have only a didactic understanding, such that any performance is either right or wrong, follows the rules or doesn’t. But instead, consider other pathways of inquiry that can give dimension to a performance. And indeed, in Solfege we recently improvised in the style of Palestrina, finding that it actually made singing Palestrina easier. How fascinating, that changing something and intentionally performing it wrong, altering the decisions the composer made, could make the written piece easier!
And in fact, we spent the entirety of today’s Intro to MIE class proving that point. One of our recent assignments was to learn Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music.” (Score excerpted here.) We were charged with recording it twice, once as written and once with a different technique. Some people played the piece on pitched water glasses, other people sang the parts with two voices sounding a third apart, and so on. These multiple representations of the same piece colored our understanding of the piece. Today we broke it down even farther, performing it with two drum circles and solo gong. One circle played only beat 1 of each grouping, the other circle played beat 2, and the gong player intoned the only beat 3 in the measure. It was really difficult to stay together, especially then when one group or the other moved to the second measure and the parts were no longer in sync. But this greater understanding of the piece made it easier then when the drum circles played the parts as written, moving forward measure by measure and switching parts within each measure on command. Each new representation of the piece, each variation gave the class a greater understanding of the piece, such that our performance and our interpretation were much more convincing and informed.
I asked Larry after class about how this all relates to my Peter Maxwell Davies piece, and his comment was that we need to make our unplayable pieces playable quickly to begin working on them. Whatever route takes you to that point is a good one. So whether it be an exercise to make an unplayable piece easier so that some day I might perform it as written, or to make a tricky piece harder in practice so the performance is improved, consider this path of education in your own music. What we do can have so much more life than right or wrong.
Kristen Dirmeier is a graduate horn performance major. She has served as aÂ Teaching Assistant for Larry Scripp’s “Introduction to Music-in-Education” course, and currently works in the MIE Research Center as a Documentation Specialist and Portfolio Archivst-Analyst.