Monday, October 1, 2012

How is a piano like a dictionary?

I had a revelation yesterday as I sat in the chapel. A member of the congregation played some beautiful prelude music while we waited for the final meeting to start. It was clear to everyone that he was very talented. The pieces he played were difficult variations of favorite LDS hymns but as I sat and observed, I noticed some things that made me dislike him. The first revelation was that there wasn't any sheet music on the stand. All he had was a hymnal. The beautiful runs and trills he played were improvised.

Completely. Disgusting.

My mom made me take piano lessons when I was little. Mom was a classically trained pianist and she wanted my siblings and I to have the same knowledge and appreciation of music. I quit playing when I was ten -- I hated practicing the jaunty ditties in the lesson books and was rarely allowed to play anything else -- but I still sat down and played a pop song or show tune when the mood struck me. I even improvised a bit once. The song I played that particular time was in a book that was missing the last few pages. It was one of my favorites so I figured I'd play what was there before I moved on to something else. It wasn't until I was about four bars off the page that I even realized I'd run out of music.

As much as I'd like to chalk off this gentleman's improvisations as a fluke in order to preserve my pride, I can't. A few bars can be a fluke but four songs in a row is the product of skill from decades of practice. It's a skill that I would possess if I hadn't quit. (Yes, there's a life lesson in that alone.)

The second thing I didn't like was that there was absolutely no dynamics. Every song was played at the same tempo (fast) and the same volume (loud). After the third song, I felt like I was listening to a bad techno album where every song used the same drum machine track. Despite his obvious skill, his lack of attention to this made me want to instantly write him off as an amateur.

I should probably back up a bit and mention that I'm a bit of a piano snob. I know that pianists laud Steinway, Schimmel, and Yamaha, but the only piano that holds a place in my heart is a Kawai grand. It's the brand my mom owns and subsequently, the instrument I learned on. It's also the brand of piano found in just about every LDS meeting house in the country. 

Why do I love the Kawai? It has a pure, clear, bright sound that isn't muffled like the Yamaha and it's a very sensitive instrument. On a lesser piano, it doesn't matter how hard you hit the keys, the sound is the same. But on a very good instrument, if you hit the keys hard, the sound is loud. If you press lightly on the keys, the sound is soft and tenuous. Sometimes, if you use the slowest and slightest of touches it produces no sound at all. A person that was less snobbish than I would argue that you can get the same effect from the dampening pedals (for those that don't know, that would be the two on the left). But an aficionado would tell you that any pianist worth their salt rarely uses the dampening pedals. Instead, they prefer the freedom of expression that can only be found on a sensitive instrument.

Because of the musical education my mom imparted to my siblings and I, I understand the power of dynamics. By changing the tempo and/or volume you can add emotion to a piece of music. When classical music lovers talk about expression, what they're really talking about is the musician's ability to use dynamics to tweak the piece and inject some personality without changing a single note. When you use dampening pedals the sound softens instantly in a pre-measured interval. But there are times when you don't want to dampen it that much. That's when the instrument's capabilities come in because you can control that interval. Instead of one big jump in the sound level, you can increase and decrease the sound by the minutest degree.

If you want to hear the difference, here's a couple links:

Moonlight Sonata Mvt. 3 at standard tempo

Moonlight Sonata Mvt. 3 with more dynamics

By not taking advantage the Kawai's full range, this gentleman wasted an opportunity to be truly brilliant. It marked him as a hobbyist instead of a master.

I've found that writers have the same flexibility and range of expression with language. Like a master pianist, a skilled writer can pull a reader's heartstrings, make their pulse quicken, or even make them cry with the power of the written word. Perhaps it's a developing linguistic snobbery, but I feel that as writers we have a responsibility to use language to our full advantage. It's our artistic privilege. Why should we just tell a story when we can take people on a journey? I've heard some writers criticize those who "waste time" searching for the perfect word. Instead of criticizing them, we should applaud their dedication. They knew what effect they wanted and didn't rest until the the precise tool that could accomplish it was found.

Artistry shouldn't be vilified.

So what if it took them a few hours or a few drafts? No one criticizes a pianist that practices the same (musical) phrase over and over again. No one expects them to sight read a piece and perform it perfectly. Likewise, we shouldn't be afraid to consult a thesaurus or a dictionary on a regular basis. Language is our instrument and we need to fully understand its capabilities so we can take a lovely tale and turn it into something glorious.

No comments:

Post a Comment