Phrasing and Meter — by Robert Battey

Today’s ruminations have to do with musical phrasing.  As a music critic for the Washington Post, I'm regularly attending concerts of all kinds.  That, plus a lot of chamber music coaching, leads me to ruminate on this subject often.  The ability to produce clear phrasing is just as important as having good rhythm or intonation, but a lot of folks don’t do it well, or as well as they think.  Remember, in grade school, when we had to take turns reading aloud from the book?  And how some kids were flat, with little inflection and the same pause between every word, while with others it came out sounding like natural speech?  To a certain extent it’s the same with music, sometimes even at the professional level. It’s often been remarked that the [...]

Pezzo Capriccioso, Transitions, Alterations, and Rosin (Edited Version) — by Robert Battey

I am indebted to Aron Zelkowicz for correcting factual errors in the first version of this article, and to Peter Close for locating an on-line version of the original score.   Today’s ruminations are on Tchaikovsky.  And his congenital weakness regarding transitions.  It’s kind of endearing, that such a genius would have this Achilles’ heel; for some reason, his muse regularly deserted him when he needed to stitch together two sections of music. It could be in a placid spot, such as the transition to the jerky second theme in the first movement of the Piano Concerto . . . or the connecting “music” preceding the waltz variation in the A minor Trio. It could also be in a transition meant to increase tension, like the second return to the [...]

Bach Suites and You – by Robert Battey

“In a work of art the intellect asks questions; it does not answer them” -Friedrich Hebbel Few tasks are more daunting than attempting to discern and convey J.S. Bach’s precise intentions for his Cello Suites.  Just playing them is hard enough, but a true and meaningful interpretation of the Suites requires an entirely different heuristic model than that of our other repertoire.  This is because the autograph of the Suites has been lost, and we are left only with several flawed and inconsistent copies.  Since there is no original source, everything, from notes to rhythms to phrasings, must be questioned. With many pieces, one can rely on the fidelity and accuracy of a high-quality edition, prepared either from autographs or composer-supervised prints.  There, you have the simple choice of either [...]

The View from Both Sides — by Robert Battey

  Critic. n.: one who walks out onto the field after a battle to shoot the wounded.   As a still-occasionally-performing cellist as well as a regular music critic for the Washington Post and STRINGS magazine, I feel exquisitely the sentiment expressed by the wag above.  There are few things more discouraging than to give a concert of which one is proud, only to later read that you “had an off night, with wayward intonation and a pinched sound.” On the other side, to judge from the press quotes sprinkled in concert flyers and musicians’ bios, one might think that everyone is incredible. In such a subjective realm as the performing arts, these anomalies and injustices will always be with us. No two people hear the same thing at a [...]

A New Look at Sight-Reading (Part 2) — by Robert Battey

"I can play something ok if I have some time to practice it, but I can't sight-read to save my life."  How many times have we heard this lament or some variant, particularly among adult amateurs?  It does express a common deficiency.  Sight-reading is a specialized skill, which must be acquired separately and in addition to one’s general technical work, so it’s quite common for a competent player to be a weak sight-reader. The term “sight-reading” is a poor one since it’s both obvious (how else will you read music if not by sight?) and inaccurate (“sight-playing” is a little closer, though not by much).  It’s been used to mean several different things, but the meaning we’re concerned with here, and the only context in which the skill level really [...]

A New Look at Sight-Reading (Part 1) — by Robert Battey

As a teacher who specializes in adult amateurs, and who coaches at chamber music workshops catering to the amateur demographic, I have been struck by the differences of approach between these players and the “serious” conservatory students. By definition, “amateurs” are those who pursue the art form simply because they love it, and without the goal of becoming a professional. Conservatory students pursue the goal of professionalism even when, in a few cases, they don’t actually love the art form that much. But inherent in that pursuit are the thousands of hours slaving away on exercises, scales and etudes, always with an eye on the competition lurking in the next practice room or the impending juries. Amateurs “just want to play.” They have no illusions about ever sounding like the [...]