Brahms or Bust

It’s been a long day, my brain is running on empty and the radiator is about to overheat. I have now spent close to 7 plus hours staring at a computer screen with only intermittent breaks. When I look up from the computer, it takes at least 5 minutes for me to re-focus.

I’m over exaggerating really it’s more a second or two. Regardless, I could not and would not want to work in front of a computer 8 hours a day. I’m sure there are super powered monitors and displays for that, in order to avoid eye strain, and I’m sure they cost a considerable amount of money. Money that I don’t have, nor really want to spend, honestly.

And…I still hold the 1st place award for most non sequitors….ever.

To the subject of this blog: BRAHMS!

Part of my teaching responsibilities at CCM are coaching and teaching chamber music. Today, I started coaching a graduate chamber ensemble on the Brahms Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano.

If you don’t know it….rush over to youtube (I’d embed a link, but that would likely use what remaining brain power I have left) and search for it.

It’s really a magnificent piece of music. Brahms’ writing is so incredibly dense and thick but composed in such a way that you can audibly pin point each distinct layer. I’ve played this work countless times and performed it all over the country, and every time I find something new and discover some thematic or harmonic shift I never noticed before.

Today was sort of revolutionary. So many new and exciting things came to light as I was coaching the group today. I’ve coached and given masterclasses on the trio a few times, I know the score pretty well – but today, something just jumped out at me. I partially think it might have had something to do with the fact that the group is comprised of all graduate students and the space they were playing in extremely live so they had to be very sensitive and aware musically.

It was an amazing 2 hours for both me and the grad students. I squeezed out of them every ounce of musical juice as I could and they drained me of every brain cell I had. I’m NOT complaining. I generally only get that exhausted after playing a heavy orchestra concert or recital and it was kind of nice to know that they were keeping me on my toes. I really had to turn on the active listening skills to the max and make sure there was an even balance of talking, rehearsing, coaching, and playing. That’ll exhaust you!!!

We spent a lot of time pulling apart the various sections, looking at how Brahms bridges one section to the next, and how he uses melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic motives to connect everything. It’s really really fascinating.

One of the dangers with playing Brahms, and I find this in almost every performance I hear, is that performers feel the need to OVER romanticize everything. Rubato is something that should be used VERY judiciously when playing Brahms. Why? Well, Brahms wrote out specifically what he wanted. You may not always notice it in YOUR part at that particularly time, but look at the score and you’ll discover that he was building up that cadence and natural rubato for the past 16 bars.

Dynamics are another thing that gets people into trouble with Brahms, and a lot of other composers too. Reaching your peak volume too soon leaves the listener wanting more at later points or getting bored. When there are too many big dynamic moments throughout the work…it begins to lose its spontaneity. I can’t speak for everyone but it loses its spark. The trick is to maintain the energy and drive without climaxing too soon – that, I believe, is where you can start pushing it forward rhythmically, SLIGHTLY increasing the tempo. Really though, you’re just changing where you’re playing WITHIN the beat, in this case instead of playing on the back side of the beat, you move to the front, almost to the point where you’re early – but not really. It’s hard to explain and probably sounds like a bunch of garbage – but trust me, you gotta trust me on this! I’ve spent a lot of time, probably more time than one should, on identifying these sort of motivic nuances.

Actually…it’s much in the same manner in how an orchestra (or any large ensemble) reacts to the conductor and the ictus of the beat from the baton. The closer you are to front of the stage, the more you play at the back to center of the beat. The farther back you are in the ensemble, like the percussion or harp, etc. the more you have to play on the front side, almost anticipating too much. If you don’t make those subtle changes, you will never play together.

Which…actually is really quite fascinating when you think about it. Each section of the orchestra reacts differently to the conductor and concertmaster. That’d be an interesting paper to read….

More later…my brain has officially called it quits.


30 Day Challenge: Day 3



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