Saturday, September 21, 2013


What is musicianship and where do you learn it? According to many universities it consists in the skills developed in ear training courses. Musicianship is the ability to hear music and take it down in dictation. It is the ability to sing written melodies at sight. It is the ability to read an orchestral score and play a version of it on piano at sight. That sort of thing.

Those are certainly things that are important to a musician and they are easily taught and tested, but is that what we first thing of when we talk about "musicianship"? What are we referring to when we call someone "musical"?

I think that the core meaning of the words "musical" and "musicianship" is actually something much more subtle and difficult to both teach and test, which is why it is not explicitly listed in the curriculum. Musicianship, beyond the basic abilities I mention above, is the ability to play expressively, to evoke musical expression. This is, after all, the real goal of all musical performance--to reach the audience somehow, to affect them, to move them. Music is wonderful at expressing, well, musical moods. I hesitate to say "emotion" because I don't think music really communicates garden-variety emotions.

But it most certainly does express something.  Schoenberg says in his book Fundamentals of Musical Composition that "The concept that music expresses something is generally accepted. However, chess does not tell stories. Mathematics does not evoke emotions. Similarly, from the viewpoint of pure aesthetics, music does not express the extra-musical." [p. 93] But it does express the musical!

My mother always used to say that classical music evoked for her images of waterfalls and forests. I think that she was just trying to translate musical expression into verbal language. I regard music and language as two expressive mediums that each have their characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Music can't say "meet you at 3pm for a coffee" and language can't say:

What I think we are really thinking of when we speak of musicianship and musicality is that subtle ability to make a musical phrase come alive. True, you need a fund of technical ability and all those other musical skills, but all that is merely a prerequisite to playing musically. Notice that abbreviation in the musical example above: espress. That stands for "espressivo", asking the player to play with expression. It is really impossible to put in words what that means, but it involves connecting the notes in a vocal manner, shaping the line with dynamics (perhaps a bit louder in the middle), maybe even pushing ahead a bit and tapering off towards the end. Treating this phrase as a kind of living thing.

Where is this learned? The answer is mostly in private lessons. If you have a teacher that really knows his or her stuff, then they will be talking about this all the time: shape that phrase, listen to where it is going, look how the music is building to a climax, what is the mood or atmosphere here? And so on. When you have all the music before you, then you can use language to point out things here and there. But a lot of the instruction might be things that would look odd written down. You can teach about rhythm by singing it: da da da DUM, illustrating all sorts of things with your voice, or with gestures. It can be interesting to look at videos of a masterclass.

Just for fun, here is a brief excerpt from a masterclass conducted by guitarist John Williams in Australia. When he gets hold of the guitar and starts demonstrating some alternative ways of transcribing some chords (the piece, Torre Bermeja by AlbĂ©niz, is originally for piano) this is a beautiful example of what I was just talking about. There are a few muttered phrases: "like this" or "maybe in first inversion", but mostly it is musical illustrations, i.e. without any words. This can be very confusing if you are not a guitarist (or pianist, or whatever) or not intimately familiar with the piece! But this is how one teaches musicality: with a host of musical not verbal, examples.

Now let's end with John Williams playing all of Torre Bermeja. What a wonderful, effortless technique he has!

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