Wednesday, May 13, 2009


What might it mean to an eight year old to "play musically"? Musicianship is the technical and interpretive skills involved in singing or playing music, if you go for the broad dictionary type definition. It is a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice, observation and critical listening. But what does translate into for the youngster in their first year or two of study? For me it has to do with artistry, but again, that term may be lost on all but a precocious little one.

There is often a blank on a critique for "Musicianship". It seems to enable the adjudicator to address whether it was "musical" or left them wanting. Composers do not and can not mark in everything a performer needs to know. Great musicians draw upon every single clue in the score and historical practice to decide what to do.

In a college setting or even at an exam, musicianship may deal with the technical aspect of music; do you know the scale, common chords, key signature, time signature of your piece. Can you verbalize the form of a sonata, the terminology of the baroque period? Musicianship ultimately refers to the language of music. Books abound on these concrete, measure-able topics. But I don't think that's all there is to it; or more accurately, I think this is just the beginning of musicianship.

I asked a few students this week what musicianship meant to them.
"So that it's enjoyable to listen to."
"Knowing how to get what you want out of a piece of music and then connecting other people to it."
"Well.., you know it when you hear it!"

Those answers carefully come right to it, don't they? What it comes down to is that it's not about you the performer. I love the idea of connecting your music with your listener. This is similar to being a good conversationalist. There is a real art to being able to connect with a person or people in conversation. And when you're nine or ten, the world still may revolve around you and the questions are posed to you. Children that will actually ask an adult a question in return and listen to the answer are precious. Being genuinely interested in your "audience" is delightful.

The answer I am finding as I ready the little maestros for their performances is to make their music come alive. I really hope they are musicians tomorrow.


  1. The idea of connection is paramount to me, & I think of the connection on an emotional level. This is an interesting question to ponder.

  2. Hmmm... yes and no.

    Let's start with the 'yes'. It is good to 'connect' with your audience at some primary and conscious level. It is desirable even. But I feel sometimes that it reveals an imbalance on the part of the musician(s). That is, they give too much, or go over the top in trying to establish that 'connection'. That is where the 'no' comes in.

    There are artists who are like radio stations: some come to you (metaphorically speaking) whereas wit others you have to travel to them (same trope). The former are the commercial radio stations, the latter are the niche ones. I find myself more comfortable listening to the latter than the former even if sometimes I find tuning the dial of my radio to a commercial broadcaster. Now, let's get back to your student(s). You can be skillful enough to churn out Chopin's 'Revolutionary' but unless you know, or imagine, actually make that capital, IMAGINE, what it's like to witness your country being invaded and unable to come to its rescue your etude will be played by numbers and will be applauded by the musicianship that you displayed but not by what you felt. An artist's inner circle is, in my opinion, the starting point for any execution, be it pianist, dancer or actor. so the student who answered:"Knowing how to get what you want out of a piece of music and then connecting other people to it." is actually aiming to manipulate the audience's emotions. But that will happen regardless. As Lawrence Olivier famously told Dustin Hoffman on the set of 'Marathon Man' when the latter was doing laps around the building trying to get into character: 'Just act, my boy, just act'.

    This was a great article, by the way and I'll keep visiting you. I love the piano, the sound of it, the performers, the compositions, the array of sounds you can produce by just combining the right number of blacks and whites. And you write with so much passion that I will be popping by regularly. How I wish that this type of debate had a more public platform :-)!

    Greetings from London.


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