Learning about performance and interpretation in music may be the most difficult aspect of your music lessons, but it is at the heart of what it means to be a musician. If you have ever listened to a computer attempting to play a piece of music you will know that even at the best of times, barring some very careful human editing, the result is never particularly convincing. The performance sounds stiff, overly calculated, and distinctly lacking in nuance and subtlety. Of course it shouldn’t be surprising that computers today don’t perform music well and that any human performance is almost bound to be more subtle and interesting than a computer performance. The reason for this is that, well… computers aren’t intelligent, and music is extremely complex.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that performing and interpreting music should be easy for real people, even very intelligent ones. One of the things that makes music so difficult is that there are no right or wrong answers in music. It is true that there are certain conventions in music, there are aesthetic principles at work, and there are the psychological effects music has on us and the best performers and interpreters of music are able to use these in order to achieve marvellous effects, but there is no such thing as correct and incorrect when it comes to interpretation or a musical performance. And yet despite that, there seems to be performers and interpreters of music who are, without question, doing something right – that is, their performances are effective.
Effective for what? Opinions will differ here but I have always felt that the purpose of music is to invoke in us, the audience, certain emotions. Most often these will be pleasant (and why shouldn’t they be?) but even emotions that would normally be undesirable in the real world are things that we seek in music. Who doesn’t enjoy listening to a really sad piece of music, and who actually enjoys being truly sad? The nature of the music being performed, the melody, rhythms, harmony, colours and textures of the music, does of course play a large part (arguably the largest part) in the overall effect of the music, but it is necessary for the performer to bring that music to life and to communicate to the audience the message of the music. Interpretation in music is no less important than interpretation in language and if you have had any experience with Google translate you will understand how important interpretation is for communicating a particular message. You may also consider the difference between the performance of a very fine actor to that of a very poor actor. What a good actor is able to do is make their performance believable. When a bad actor attempts the same, you know they are “acting” the the result is less believable. It breaks the illusion that the scene could be real and so we become disconnected from it and the effect is lost. It is no different in music.
So how is performance and interpretation taught in the music lesson? As I mentioned earlier, their are definite conventions in music and each style of music will have it’s own conventions. In Jazz for example, music is interpreted far more freely than in Classical music since it is expected that the Jazz musician will improvise based on the piece of music performed, whereas the classical performer must stick to the written notation and any interpretation must be confined to things like phrasing, rubato, and dynamics. This is why many classical performances will sound virtually identical to those who are not use to picking up the subtleties and nuance of a performance. The style of music you are learning, therefore, will have an impact on how your teacher approaches performance and interpretation, and it may be the case that teaching either performance or interpretation isn’t necessary or appropriate for a particular style of music, or type of music lesson.
If teaching performance and interpretation is on the cards, however, each teacher is likely to have their own approach. Some may teach it verbally, directing you to get louder here, softer there, don’t bob your head up and down here… etc, some may teach by demonstration, and some by directing you to great performers and interpreters, encouraging you to listen to and watch their performances. More often than not though it will be a combination of all of these.
The most important thing to remember, of course, is that when it comes to the performance and interpretation of music you must be yourself and you must remain honest. Just like a bad actor, a musician pretending to be someone else is never convincing. The music student’s task then is simply to become better at expressing them selves and to develope the tools to enable them to do just that (see the page on Practice and Technique). It takes time and patients however – and often the developed ear and eye of a good teacher to keep you on track.