Buxtehude and Boëllmann—final thoughts (for now)
For the last year I have looked, in as much depth as space seemed to permit, at the process of studying and learning two contrasting and, I hope, complementary pieces—the Praeludium in E Major, BuxWV 141 by Dietrich Buxtehude, and the Suite Gothique, op. 25 by Leon Boëllmann. This month I will share a few thoughts about this project as a whole; then next month I will turn to something new.
The goals of this long series of columns were really two: first, to provide a template for working on the two pieces, which, if followed, would help a student learn those pieces securely and comfortably; and second, to suggest ways of thinking about and working on organ repertoire that could be applied broadly to other pieces.
The learning process
The process of learning a piece of music on the organ can be thought of in three parts—parts that are not rigorously separate, but interact with and blend into one another. The first is the very practical: learning the notes by working out fingerings and pedalings, and by practicing the notes systematically and patiently—and practicing enough. The second is getting to know the piece as well as possible. This includes anything that permits the player to know, consciously or subconsciously, what is coming up next in the piece. This has a working relationship with the act of memorizing a piece, but doesn’t depend on memorization. (And indeed memorization does not guarantee really knowing the content of a piece musically.) This knowledge reinforces the learning that comes from practicing—makes it more secure. The third part comprises purely interpretive decisions that are made about how to play the piece: tempo, articulation, phrasing, and so on—and of course also registration.
In the columns of the last year I emphasized the first two of these, writing rather little about interpretation, for reasons that I will discuss below. Also, I only occasionally, when there seemed to be a particular reason for it, outlined a specific protocol for practicing a passage. That protocol is largely the same from one case to the next. Systematically organized and patiently carried out practicing is monumentally important. I will outline the most important points about it once more here.
1) Any student or other player can successfully play any passage right off the bat—sight read it—if he or she keeps it slow enough. The harder or more intricate a passage is, the slower it has to be at first. The simpler a passage is or the more it is broken down into simple parts, the less slow it needs to be.
2) The correct starting practice tempo for any passage is a tempo at which that passage is reliably accurate and feels easy. Again, the simpler a passage is, the less slow that tempo has to be. Practicing hands and feet separately allows the initial practice tempo to be less slow than it would have to be to cope with playing the whole texture from the very beginning. The most important thing to note is that an appropriate practice tempo is never defined in relation to the ultimate tempo of the piece or to anything about what sounds “musical.” Students can get into trouble because of a reluctance to practice too much more slowly than the tempo that they hear in their head for a piece. This should never be a consideration at this stage. The faster a piece is supposed to be in the end, the more important it is to practice it slowly enough in the beginning.
3) Once any passage, in any combination of hands and feet, has been played enough times at a given (appropriate) tempo, and feels really easy—essentially automatic—at that tempo, then it can always be played just a little bit faster. This is simply a fact about the human mind, brain, reflexes, muscles, and so on, which continues to be true as the passage increases in tempo towards (or beyond) where the player wants the piece to end up. Therefore:
4) Any passage or piece can always be learned—by anyone—by starting it at a slow-enough practice tempo and speeding it up in sufficiently small increments. Always—anyone. This only ever appears to have failed when the person claiming to have done it has not really done it. (I should know: I have from time to time been that person, led by busy-ness or laziness or distraction to cut corners. Most of us have done the same.) The teacher’s role in this process is to motivate the student to stick to practicing this way.
5) Choices about how much to simplify the increments in which a piece is practiced—that is, whether to practice a measure at a time, or a few measures, or half a piece or a whole piece, how much to practice separate hands, when to start putting things together, and so on—are really matters of the psychology and motivation of the student. Different choices will affect the trajectory of the learning of the piece, but not the final results, as long as the above principles are followed. Some students like working with larger or more complex chunks of music and are willing to keep them slow enough; other students would rather work with simpler or smaller bits and be able to have the “up-to-tempo” experience sooner with those bits.
(I want to mention, just by way of example, a recent experience that has come my way just by coincidence that touches on this. I have a student who has been working on the first Contrapunctus of The Art of Fugue—on harpsichord, and thus with all four voices in the hands—over the month or so prior to my writing this. She decided—after spending some time working out fingerings—that she would altogether skip the step of practicing hands separately. This was contrary to my assumption that she would work out each hand until it felt really ready before putting the two together. She did this because she found the whole texture fascinating and wanted to experience that texture from the beginning. And—this is crucial—she has made it work because she has been willing to keep the whole thing slow enough, and to crank it up to tempo very gradually indeed. I believe that it will take her longer to learn the piece this way, but she is finding it more interesting, and she will in the end learn it well. I should mention that she is playing through individual voices in the manner that I have often discussed, to learn them both aurally and structurally.)
I wrote quite a bit in recent columns about hand choices. These are a disproportionate and needless source of trouble for many students. Of course, if a passage involves the use of two keyboards, with one hand on each, then the player does not choose which hand plays which notes, and it was the composer’s job to make sure that the note patterns within each hand are plausible to finger and play. If both hands, and thus the whole manual part of the texture, are on the same keyboard, then it is extremely important that the student consider the two hands, ten fingers, to be one unit—a unit with the job of playing all of the notes in the most comfortable way, regardless of what note is printed in what staff. I have seen students classify whole pieces as un-learnable because of disadvantageous hand choices in a few salient difficult spots.
Getting to know the piece
In writing about getting to know the piece, I have tended to emphasize what might be called motivic analysis, but of an informal kind: simply noticing any melody, motif, theme, fragment, etc., that happens more than once. It has always been my experience that noticing things like this, even if this is not followed by the drawing of any particular analytic conclusions, leads both to more solid playing—by improving the ongoing remembering of what is coming up next in the piece as it goes along—and to more rhetorically convincing playing. However, getting to know the piece through noticing things about harmony or chord progressions, while not something that I tend to emphasize, can certainly also be useful.
A piece like the Toccata from the Suite Gothique is strongly chord-based. A trip through the piece, identifying chords by letter-name and type and also by relation to a local tonic or to the tonic of the piece, could aid in finding those chord shapes securely, and therefore in playing the piece well. A passage like the section of Buxtehude BuxWV 141 that begins at m. 60, though certainly conceived contrapuntally, can also be seen as organized around chord shapes, and taking note of what those chords are can also be useful in fixing the piece in the student’s mind.
Practice techniques that I described in the last year’s columns might of course also suit other pieces. For example, in the final column on the Buxtehude, I discussed the technique of leaving out certain notes in a passage as a stage in practicing. This directs the attention of the ear to the stronger notes, and guides the player towards playing lighter notes lightly. I discussed this in connection with the fugue subject of the final section of the Praeludium. This approach could also be applied to the Boëllmann Toccata, leaving out the latter three sixteenth notes of each quarter-note beat in the right hand over the first nineteen measures of the movement, and similar passages, and playing the on-the-beat notes as (very) detached quarter notes. This would, among other things, elucidate the relationship between those notes and the left hand chords, which are in effect detached quarter notes.
I am very much a non-authoritarian when it comes to interpretation. I have no desire whatsoever for my students to play pieces the same way that I do, or in a way that I consider “right”. If a student of mine, or any other musician, plays a piece in a way that I really don’t like, or that I consider “wrong”, either based on analysis of the piece or historical considerations, then that is their business and not mine.
I am happy to share my reasons for liking or not liking anything, but only if the person with whom I am sharing those ideas is not going to feel obliged then to do things the way that I seem to want them done. I fear that the hand of a teacher’s artistic, aesthetic, and interpretive judgments can be a very heavy one for a student, even long after the teacher has modified or abandoned the particular opinion.
I try to consider any aesthetic judgment that I formed more than about five years earlier to be officially out-of-date and subject to being changed—or at least needing to be consciously re-thought before it is ratified. However, if I conveyed that judgment to a student with a kind of teacherly authority, then the student might have a hard time letting go of it, even if unknown to that student I have already done so. This is why I have tried to avoid statements of the sort—“this theme (or passage, or piece) should be played legato (or staccato, or with this or that phrasing)”—in these columns. Another reason for avoiding this is that my own interpretive thoughts about these pieces have changed at least somewhat as I have gotten to know them better by writing about them.
For example, I would now play the Prière à Notre-Dame a bit less slowly and significantly more freely than I would have expected to play it a year ago. It is also true that, outside of a certain level of generality, interpretive decisions in organ music depend on the instrument being used and on the acoustics of the performing space. The more solidly a piece has been learned, the more readily a performer can adapt his or her performance to the needs of a new instrument or a new acoustic situation.
I have enjoyed living with these two works for a year. They are both, beyond the nitty-gritty of working on them, expressive, exciting pieces that are viscerally fun to play as well as wonderful to hear and interesting to think about. Next month I plan to write about memorization. This is a subject that arises fairly naturally out of the attempt to learn a piece or two really well. The question of the relationship between memorization and really thorough learning of a piece is a complex and controversial one. I will try to explore a number of different ways of thinking about it, and give an account of my own views and my own experience.