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Re: Metronomes (was Re: No, Gould's so fast)

Anne S wrote:

> It is common for people to
> play the more difficult passages in a piece slower than the easy parts. I
> have a few students who play so erratically that I can't stand to listen
> them unless the MM is on.  If they play with it enough their rhythm
> improves.

Yep, I've heard that.  How closely related is it to the problem where people
speed up in "easy" passages?  If there are not enough note events happening
to keep the tempo down, many players get impatient (or neglect to count) and
rush.  I'd propose that it's harder to play a piece slowly and steadily than
faster and steadily.

There are also people who play faster in the difficult passages than in the
easy passages, because they tense up and rush when they anticipate the
problems coming.

Myself, I've found that if something is really tough I tend to neglect the
last three or four notes of a phrase, not playing them musically enough.  I
don't necessarily change tempo or get the rhythm wrong, but my attention
goes ahead to the shift or other tough event coming up rather than finishing
out the previous phrase correctly.  I have to circle the sluffed notes in my
score to force myself to pay more due attention to them.

> Good editions of music will suggest a lower and upper MM speed for each
> piece.  I object when conservatories say  that "This is the proper one and
> only speed for this piece"

Er...maybe for teaching children, yes.  But I'd say for anyone from about
grade 9 up a "good edition" is one that has *no* editorial markings
(articulations, fingerings, tempo suggestions, dynamics) that were not
written by the composer.  No metronome suggestions.  Else when is the
student going to learn to interpret the music convincingly from the notes
themselves rather than from some editor's later ideas?  Tempo and all those
other decisions can be derived from the musical content and from learning
the stylistic background of the composer and the instruments.

This morning I dug out the 1924 Hughes edition of the WTC 1 (Schirmer) just
to see what it had.  Sure enough, as you mentioned, the c minor fugue was
Allegretto and q=80.  I read the preface and found this: "It has been the
purpose of the editor to avoid the jungle of phrasing and dynamic signs
which so hopelessly clutter up the pages in many editions of the work, while
still giving sufficient indications for the guidance of musically
intelligent students (no others need hope to approach the Well-Tempered
Clavichord [sic] with any expectation of success).  It need hardly be
mentioned that indications of whatever sort are to be taken as the personal
opinions of the editor, and that their aim is neither dictatorial nor
dogmatic, but rather suggestive and musically stimulative."  (etc.)

But for an edition that claims to be uncluttered with a jungle of
suggestions, it's laughable.  In the first five bars of that fugue I count
60 (yes, sixty) editorial suggestions.  And that's before the third voice
even comes in!  Looking ahead to the last few bars of this fugue, the editor
has added small notes in the bass suggesting that the subject should be
played in octaves!  This is ludicrous.

Yes, the good old (bad old) 1837 Czerny edition also had all sorts of
changed notes, added octaves, dynamics, etc. like this, but it was
explicitly a record of how Czerny remembered his teacher playing the WTC.
His teacher was Beethoven.  Such a marked-up edition is of course valuable
as a record of interpretive taste at the editor's time.  It *would* be
fascinating to hear a good faithful rendition of the Czerny edition on a
c1810 fortepiano, taking all the changes seriously.

But if an inquisitive student really wants to learn Bach (and not
Bach-Czerny or Bach-Hugues or Bach-Palmer or Bach-anyothereditor), why not
get a good edition that has only the markings Bach gave?  The adventure of
learning the music from a clean edition is worth quite a lot.  I'm eternally
grateful to the teacher I had in about grade 7: he made me get the Henle
Urtext of the WTC before I learned any of it from any marked-up editions.
(It still has extraneous pianistic fingerings, but is otherwise clean.)

There is also a modern edition (by Laurette Goldberg) of the WTC fugues that
is written in open score, one voice per staff.  That's pretty interesting.

> >A few years back, I read that English teachers in Maryland who were no
> >longer teaching their students what they should be learning. Instead,
> >were teaching them how to pass a notorious state-wide essay test.
> This is how music is being taught in Canada.  We have a national contest
> called the Kiwanis Music Festival.  It is not unusual to hear 15 kids in a
> competition all play the same piece in exactly the same way.  The only
> difference is the number of wrong notes each hits.  Every once in awhile a
> kid will do something like Bradley mentioned GG doing -- reverse the
> staccato and legato markings.  Instead of being commended for originality
> is shown the score that Bach was supposed to have marked (only he didn't)
> and told that he "played it all wrong".

This is a very sad situation.

It also happens to some who study with the Suzuki method: by rote and using
the Suzuki editions.  Again, those are decent enough for beginners, but the
students when they become old enough need to learn to think for themselves
and discard the method book.  Many students (and some teachers) have never
seen some of that music in non-Suzuki editions....

I grew up in a place where we had high school "Contest".  Kids from all over
the state (Indiana) came to some of the big universities for a day with
their solos and ensembles, and played pieces for judges.  It was just for
prize ribbons and supposedly helpful comments.  I accompanied many of my
friends in their violin or clarinet solos.  The emphasis was always on
playing the pieces in a way that the judges expected, and playing notes and
rhythms accurately, not on having any musical insights.  Everybody who did
this got a First.  Everybody who had enough train wrecks got a Second.
Pretty frustrating.  Also, the comments and ribbons were always just for the
soloist, not the accompanist, even if it was a duo sonata or something.
Usually it was concertos with piano reduction, though.  The same pieces got
played over and over and over.  Those of us who could sight-read well often
ended up accompanying a lot of people.  The accompanist generally wasn't
supposed to do anything unexpected or in musical dialogue, though, just stay
out of the other kid's way so the judges could hear what they were listening

So many kids were worried and nervous about collecting a certain number of
Firsts at Contest each year.  I was glad I never took a piano solo to
Contest; it was mostly for orchestral instruments anyway.  (I did play some
of the Beethoven Clarinet Trio in an ensemble entry, and they put us in a
room that had a terrible little piano: bad action, and way out of tune.
Then the judges graded us down a few marks because my friends couldn't play
perfectly in tune with this piano.  Silly.)  Any upsides to going to Contest
as a high school kid?  Well, I got to play some good music, it was a fun day
with my friends, I usually got treated to lunch, sometimes was given a few
dollars, and everybody was usually dressed up nicely for performance...for a
hopelessly shy nerd kid like me, it was a nice chance to look at some pretty
girls all dressed up (even though they were all worried about their

> Parents want value for their money.  They need to have their children pass
> exams and win contests in order to feel that the teacher is any good.  My
> way around this is to only allow exams every other year.  On the odd years
> have kids to other things  -like play jazz . If you buck the system too
> you can't make a living.

Understandable.  I like that idea of having them play jazz!

Bradley Lehman, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl
Dayton VA