We, pianists, have a great deal of music competing for our attention. With all that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, not to mention Chopin and Liszt, why would anyone spend time learning new music? Having been asked this question numerous times, I thought I would share some of the ways that learning new music has enriched my musical life and helped me to evolve as a pianist and teacher.
I was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged me to explore new music as a core component of my educational experience. As a student, I frequently collaborated with my composer friends and peers, who would write works for me. The process of interacting with a living composer is quite different from a dead one (at least most of the time). Although I am guilty of trying to summon Scriabin through supernatural means (lights did flicker), being able to talk about musical intent, clarify indications in the score without reading scads of treatises (and still not having any clear idea), as well as contributing to the musical outcome as a performer (with the composer’s consent!) are unique musical experiences.
For most of our canonic repertoire, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of superb recordings of every work. I have performances that I worship (a blog about how I became addicted to youtube will soon follow) and I voraciously devour new recordings of my favorite works. I encourage my own students to take a lesson with Rubinstein and Cortot on a frequent basis. We are so fortunate to have so many recordings and realizations of the great works. But, this can also be paralyzing and overwhelming. Our rich heritage comes with a great deal of baggage. On a bad day, it can hinder rather than inspire. Instead of exploring the work with freshness and spontaneity, we set out to recreate it in a certain tradition. We become defensive.
When learning a new work that has never been realized, it’s a completely different process. There is no recording. Once you recover from passing out from the sheer number of complex notes and rhythms that you have to learn (sometimes in a very short time span), you start unraveling the mystery of the score. If you are working with a composer with whom you are unfamiliar, it takes some time to get the musical language in your ears and hands (this is no different with your first Schubert or Messiaen, by the way). If the work features expanded techniques, innovative compositional procedures, and complex rhythmic groupings, it is like learning a new language. It requires task immersion to the point of not knowing where you are or what day it is. Some of it can really be so daunting that it seems impossible to play at the indicated metronome marking of whole note = 244 (because it probably is).
But here’s the thing: when you engage with new music in this way, you are a part of the process of creation. You are the medium through which this music will be heard for the first time. You get to dig deep and imagine and try different things and figure out how to play a bass cluster while simultaneously creating a fifth partial harmonic with your right toe. It expands your connection with the instrument when you find ways to create sounds with your body (there is no manual and not everyone has arms like a praying mantis). You hear these sounds that no one has ever heard before and you grapple with how to make this musical puzzle come to life in an authentic and meaningful way. It requires you to be brave and trust your own musical instincts. You have to rely on your own imagination and artistic sensibilities.
If the piece is written expressly for you, then you may have the opportunity to influence certain elements related to the compositional process. If the composer knows your playing, or even better your musical personality, then the piece will often highlight that. To my delight as a small-handed pianist, composers writing for me do not include vertical intervals larger than an octave that cannot be arpeggiated or redistributed between the hands. As part of the process, you have the opportunity to work directly with the composer, gaining insight into the musical intent and how you might incorporate that in your performance. You can even help the composer realize that whole note = 244 cannot sound playful nomatter how many hours you practice (but possessed by a demonic force, yes).
I love learning new works for all these reasons. I love how it stimulates new ways of listening, learning, playing and thinking. Learning music in this way has also transformed the way that I practice Beethoven. Sometimes, it’s fun to ignore the legacy and hear the music as if for the first time. But perhaps most of all, I love being part of the process of helping new art happen. It makes me prouder to be human. That is no small thing.