When we practice, what is our goal? Is it simply to “get better?” What does it mean to get better? Certainly there are some purely objective standards such as intonation, smoothness, controlled bow changes, clean articulation, clarity, etc. Is the ultimate goal to play with a high technical standard?
It is arguable that from a purely technical point of view performance standards in classical music are much higher than they were 50-100 years ago. For proof of this all one needs to do is listen to the top 20 competitors of any major international competition. What you will hear is a level of technical perfection that would make even Jascha Heifetz blush. Absolutely perfect intonation, beautiful sound, crystal clear runs and and a very polished visual presence are all there with every performer. And yet most people would agree that something is missing. While these performers are impressive, the audience is left with an empty feeling. Very few of these outstanding players become stars, and even the ones that do still don’t have the public adoration that Heifetz, Kreisler and Casals had in their lifetimes. As great as a player as Maxim Vengerov is, it would be crazy to put him in the same league as Heifetz and Oistrakh.
So what is the difference between the older generation (players from 50-100 years ago) and players of today? To get back to my original question, I think it has to do with what our goal is when we practice. The players of the past were great communicators. They had something to say about the music they were performing. When they practiced their aim was not simply technical perfection. It was to be expressive. Naturally there needs to be a certain level of technical perfection in order to express anything, but what we have today are many players who say very little.
Why were these older players such great communicators? I have several theories, ranging from how careers are made all the way to differences in equipment.
Let me start with equipment. During the last 50 years an enormous change has occurred in the materials that are used in string making. Almost all violinists use synthetic (nylon) strings instead of gut. These strings are more stable in terms of their intonation but lack the beauty of gut strings. Another factor is that nylon strings can be played rather aggressively without the sound breaking, so it is possible to press and make a decent sound. For the cello an even larger change has occurred. The cello now is almost exclusively strung with metal core strings. These strings are at a significantly higher tension which creates a radically different sensation while playing. Most cellists prefer these strings because of there quick response, but they still lag far behind gut in terms of beauty.
I personally think that these changes have had an effect of how we play. You can press an enormous amount on these new strings. This I think has had a huge effect on our ability to play expressively. One of the big distinctions between players of today and players of the past is phrasing. Players of the past pulled their sound more. Today they press more. Pulling a sound with a lower tension gut string is the only way to make a good sound, and it is this pulling feeling that results in the ability to make long, connected phrases. Pressing causes the phrases to be chopped up. This change in string technology is certainly a primary factor in how players play their instruments, and if we want to emulate players of the past it makes sense that we should use the materials that they used!
Another theory I have has to do with the rise of the international competition. I believe that competitions are poisonous to great music making. They automatically put a player in a position of thinking about purely technical matters. If you play just slightly out of tune in a competition you can be eliminated. This drives performers to treat music much more like an athletic event and less like art. I think that a full recital is a much better way to judge a performer. In a full recital a player must captivate an audience with his or her imagination. Of course the technical level must be high, but the level of inspiration must be much higher! If there are some missed notes in a recital it is not a very big deal, which leaves the performer more time to focus on developing a beautiful interpretation. The players of the past made their livings through recitals and understood that expression and communication are far more important than total technical perfection.
I have many other theories about this, but I should stop before this blog gets too long!
To get back to my original question, I think the answer lies in keeping expression in mind when we practice. Practicing can seem like a very dull thing sometimes, but if you are always thinking of an expressive goal then your practice will be much more rewarding!