|Image by N P Holmes, from Wikimedia Commons|
Warning: this post, due to its confessional nature, may be a bit shocking, especially to anyone who believes that a note-perfect performance is the only successful performance.
First of all, I want to express that I really do try my hardest as a musician to learn music as accurately as possible. I take care to learn the notes slowly and accurately, I figure out the rhythms, I am always conscious of what the composer indicates in the score in regards to expression...I do my homework because I believe that is my responsibility as a musician. But sometimes, in spite of my best intentions, I find myself in what seems like an impossible situation.
I am scheduled to perform the final movement of Borodin's cello sonata with a young cellist soon. Thankfully, or maybe not so thankfully, I've had the music now for months so I've had a good amount of time to work out the kinks in a handful of passages. In other words, I "should" be able to play it just fine. But here's the thing - these two passages that I'm having trouble with are, in my book, impossible to play as written. It's one of these parts where there's this gorgeous, romantic, soaring melody in octaves in the right hand (no problem!) accompanied by an exceedingly busy, nasty, awkward, finger-twisting, half-a-keyboard spanning accompaniment in the left hand. And of course it's fast, especially when performed with an energetic, extraordinarily enthusiastic young musician who just wants to have fun.
I've asked the cellist, no make that "begged" the cellist to not rush.
I've tried to explain why a slower tempo is better ("I might actually hit some of the right notes!")
I've talked to her teacher.
I've talked to her mother.
I fell down the stairs and sprained my wrist in order to avoid the concert all together. (Didn't work - they just posponed it!)
But after all this, no deal.
The other day, sitting at the piano after a month of not facing the Borodin thanks to my sprained wrist, I felt nauseous. I felt defeated. I felt mad. "Why, oh why can't I play this thing?" I had a pretty dramatic moment with myself. Quite impressive, really. And after a few days of attempting to play all the notes I finally decided that this situation called for desperate measures. It was time to be creative. It was time to decompose what was on the page and come up with something do-able. So very sorry, purists, perfectionists and dear Borodin!
I know, shocking. Well, I'm laying it on the table right now. I'm confessing that I have completely re-written part of the Borodin cello sonata. I went to youtube, listened to a recording and when those horrible passages came up I closed my eyes and listened. I didn't listen for every note in the piano part, I just kept my ears open for what stuck out and what stayed with me after the passage was over. And guess what? Were all those tiny notes in the left hand even audible or discernible? Nope. All I heard was the bass note at the start of every measure or even every two measures in some parts. Encouraged by this, I sat back down at the piano and found a way to play the passage without making a mess of everything yet keeping those wonderful bass notes and the rhythm of the sixteenths going. I could fly now! And the soaring melody in the right hand? I could actually enjoy it and sing!
Do I feel bad about all this? Well, yes and no. The perfectionist, ambitious side of me wants to be able to pull it off the way it's written but the realistic side reminds me that I've put in a noble fight on that front. And in the end, what's more important? My ability to do some feat of pianistic magic or my ability to support this young cellist free of terror and with passionate musical intent?
We played the Borodin this past Tuesday for a final run-through at a performance class and it was my first go at my edited version. They only thing different anyone seemed to notice was that the pianist was actually smiling this time around! That certainly works for me. And next time I get the chance to perform the piece, I'll give the "correct" notes another go, I promise.
Can you forgive me now?
P.S. - If any other musicians out there feel like confessing about their own blasphemous re-writes, please feel free to do so in the comments. I think it's important for young musicians, especially, to know that it is done sometimes. Many thanks!
Added later: Geraldine, author of the wonderful blog, "Geraldine in a bottle," mentioned in her comment below that she recently wrote a post about this very topic: "Should you try to play all the right notes?" It's wonderful, just like all her blog posts.