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You’re playing classical music wrong

Grace Johnson wonders if we are playing classical music all wrong

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When I was learning Mozart’s “Turkish March”, I would play along to recordings and listen to how pianists varied their touch. I would follow the score and listen to how some notes were made shorter and more playful, and others were made more legato and expressive.

I figured out what I liked best and weaved the different sounds into my own interpretation. I practised the piece obsessively—I loved its speed, its rhythms, its contrasts, and above all its spirit.

I decided to show my work to my teacher.

She will be thrilled, I thought as I pulled up outside her orange-bricked house. She can’t complain that I haven’t practised enough this time!

I played it through. I made mistakes: my small hands couldn’t quite make the octaves, and I stumbled during the fast passages, but I felt my heart beat quicker during the exhilarating, forte finale. I had never loved performing as much as I did when the last chord was lifted, feeling as though it were mine.

But my teacher didn’t say anything. She looked confused. Then she frowned.

“The score doesn’t tell you to get louder in those places,” she said. “Why did you get louder?”

For the rest of the lesson I was taught how to play the score the ‘right’ way.

I was about seven years old then. But even now—thirteen years later, at the Conservatorium of Music—not much has changed.

Performances are judged according to their fidelity to the score. Did you play at the right speed, with the right touch, and the right feel?

What we often forget is that composers did not write every intention in the score—performers were expected to not just play the notes but to go beyond them.

Musical notation was intended as guidance rather than a prescribed set of instructions. Tempo markings indicate mood rather than a definite number of beats per minute. In fact, since metronomes weren’t invented until 1812, tempos were regulated according to heartbeats. The pulse of the music mimicked the pulse of the heart, which accelerated naturally during exciting passages.

Musicians of the past understood that there were many facets of an engaging and moving performance, most of which could not be conveyed by the score. While these interpretive practices are now incorporated into performances of Baroque music, it is considered incorrect in most other styles. But listen to recordings of modern composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin playing their own music. They frequently digress from the score, prioritising atmosphere over technical accuracy. They captivate their listeners.

It’s ironic: instrumental music is the least representative of the arts—a tree may inspire a composition for example, but it cannot quite show a tree—yet its interpretation is regulated by rigid standards. We freely interpret literature, film, and art; we conjecture about symbolism, allegory, and meaning. It is what we make of it. Do the same to a musical score and it’s sacrilege.

It is only recently that we esteem the composer and composition over the performer. The 19th century saw the rise of concert halls and virtuoso performers, where the audience sat in darkened silence for two hours and marveled at the genius of minds past. We have followed this tradition ever since, and it has warped us into silent audiences and complacent performers.

So as I sit through lessons and masterclasses that tell you “this melody should be played like this or that,” I wonder: are we playing classical music all wrong? Is this it—reproducing the notes on the page? Seeking the sound we think the composers wanted? Surely this only results in stifled creativity and stale interpretations.

Perhaps if performers are permitted freedom of creative interpretation, and taught to value atmosphere over accuracy, the spirit of the music will be revived in the minds of contemporary audiences—lest the music die by the score.