How Much Freedom Is There in Musical Performance?

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Welcome to, I’m Robert Estrin. How much freedom is there in musical performance? If you listen to the same piece by different performers on the piano or any other instrument, you’ll find dramatically different interpretations. How much do you have to be faithful to the score, and how much can you just take off and do what you want to do? The answer may surprise you!

You want to play faithfully to the score.

If somebody was listening to a piece of music written by a great composer and they were transcribing it note for note, they should end up with the same score that the composer wrote with every last detail. Does that mean that every performance should be the same? No, surprisingly, because you can execute every detail of the score in different ways to indicate what is written, and different people have various ideas about how to achieve that.

I’m going to give you a great example today, which is Debussy.

Debussy was a French impressionist composer from the early 20th century. His music is a wash of colors and sounds. And yet, it’s important to have the clarity of what is intended in the score come out in your performance. But there is more than one way to achieve that. For example, sometimes there are double-stemmed notes, a note with a stem going down and a stem going up. Why are there two stems? Well, that note is part of two different lines of music, like different instruments playing. It may be 16th notes and 8th notes at the same time. One voice is on the top and one voice is on the bottom. Sometimes voices overlap, and they both hit the same note at the same time. The composer wants you to understand that and project it into the performance. It creates different sounds. So in the first movement of Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite, there are double-stemmed notes. Interestingly, it starts off in the third measure with double-stemmed eighth notes (with staccatos), which intersect with 16th notes on the bottom. What makes it even more interesting is that starting in the fifth measure, you have a similar passage except with double-stemmed quarter notes with 16th notes on the bottom. This is a subtle difference which is the genius of Debussy creating nuances of sound. (You can reference the accompanying video to hear this on the piano with the score provided.)

Ideally, you want to do as much as you possibly can with your fingers and then use the pedal for expression.

That’s just one example where the composer wants to have different lines of music, and it’s up to you as a performer to find a way to execute it to create the effect. On the seventh measure, you have the same pattern twice, but the first time with a crescendo/decrescendo, then it repeats with no dynamic changes. There are all kinds of subtle phrasing, double stemmed-notes, inner lines, expression, and crescendos. What I have found over the years is that if you really learn the precision of where the crescendos start and end, exactly how many notes are slurred, attention to double-stemmed note values, and you delineate all the minutiae of the score, it brings the music to life!

Be sure you’re not working from a heavily edited edition of the score.

You want to follow the markings of the composer, not the editor, because the editor may or may not have great ideas. You should always know what the composer had in mind with an urtext edition, one that is not edited, or one that clearly indicates what’s coming from the editor rather than the composer. That way, you can get in the head of the composer and get an idea of the concept of what they really were after. Those small details all come together to mold a great performance. So you can indeed follow the inclinations of the composer and do so with the conviction of how you believe the music can best be expressed. I hope this is helpful for you! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at Living Pianos: Your Online Piano Resource. Join the discussion at where you can leave your comments on countless articles with accompanying videos.

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