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Mechanical playing (Read 1733 times)

Offline vaniii

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Mechanical playing
« on: February 09, 2017, 11:10:54 PM »
I have encountered a strange trend that I would like a public poll from you-all on; it matters not your experience, training or opinion.  I would like your personal thoughts on this issue, no matter how tangential or insignificant you think it is.

In lessons over the past four weeks, I have had three individuals --- new to my student base --- exclaim to me if they count and aim to do what exactly the music tells them to do, that their playing will be mechanical.  I find this exclamation frustrating especially considering that their playing is severely lacking in the musicality they are pursuing (i.e. a pianissimo passage is stomped through with indifference, or a staccato bass is pedalled, completely missing the texture).

These students are all competent, ranging in the spectrum of intermediate players.  They are starting to pursue simple cannon repertoire, including some baroque, classical and romantic repertoire.  My issue is, there is no substance to their playing, except for un-need gestures and posturing in attempts to make their music ‘emotional’.  When detail is missed, to the point of the performance becoming redundant, personally, I think mechanical playing is the least of their worries.

My question:

How would you define mechanical playing?

My definition would be playing every note in strict time with little attention to phrasing, articulation or dynamics; more importantly, musical context: that is, playing Debussy '[.*]', like Bach '[.*]'. 


Offline dcstudio

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #1 on: February 09, 2017, 11:49:09 PM »
Oh I have heard this one too....usually these students have heard someone else say something to that same effect when describing a very skilled (often Asian) individual miles above their current ability and they take it to heart as something that should apply to them now. You are spot on when you say that your definition of mechanical playing differs from theirs. One is in no danger of becoming or being a mechanical player if one cannot play to begin with.

They seem to confuse a piano competition winner who is described as "precise, and highly skilled, if slightly mechanical". with the clumsy box like sound often heard from students who do not yet read as quickly as they would like to.  Somehow they use this to justify not investing the time to improve their reading skills and they want you to lay off making them try. Lol.

Being mechanical is the least of their worries...


Offline keypeg

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #2 on: February 10, 2017, 12:38:46 AM »
It's not an easy concept, actually.  On one hand we can have mechanical, metronomic, robotic playing - on the other hand, something that is disorganized but may be felt as being "artistic".  Musicianship I think lies somewhere between control and letting go, and there has to be some mastery and understanding before getting there.  It's a path I'm still learning as a student.

In fact, when I first started putting feelers out for a teacher, I encountered a few on-line who wanted me to "let go", "be spontaneous", "feel" the music.  I knew I could go hog wild, because for decades while self-taught spontaneity had been my middle name.  I felt there were things I needed to learn, and what they proposed would be "Out of the frying pan, back into the frying pan."

Since then I have a teacher.  In my learning, it tends to start with control: being able to play even while relaxed before doing much with dynamics - being able to keep a pulse and count before going to rubato.  Even after having learned things, for a new piece I'll go "basic and mechanical" first, and then stretch it.  Some of the "creative, expressive" things still have a mechanical component.  One thing that might help you (?) Before hearing a thing, we can't hear it.  I'd play a "flowing lyrical line" and could not hear that the pulse was lost.  Therefore nothing sounded wrong to me, and I had to take my teacher's word on it.  Now I can.  That means your students won't hear it either, and it won't seem necessary to do what you're telling them.

I can imagine that a student who is very rigidly mechanical might have to loosen up: what works for me won't work for them.

I'm also thinking that the relationship between things like timing and expressive playing may not yet be apparent to those students.  Are these transfers from other teachers who might have been given an attitude toward music from previous teachers?  (Given what I encountered before finding my teacher).

Offline iansinclair

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #3 on: February 10, 2017, 03:01:42 AM »
I like the definition of mechanical -- "My definition would be playing every note in strict time with little attention to phrasing, articulation or dynamics; more importantly, musical context: that is, playing Debussy '[.*]', like Bach '[.*]'.  " except that is would add that strict adherence to the dynamics in the score would count for me as mechanical.

The comment I would add is this: for me, and I may be an old curmudgeon (probably am), I would say that before a musician begins to be able to add their own interpretation to a piece, they must -- must -- be able to play it at least reasonably accurately as written, and they must have the technique.  You have to walk before you can run.  It would be very easy to take this to an extreme and become very mechanical; that would not be right.  I think, though, that the trap can be avoided by making sure that the pieces being studied are appropriate for the level of technique.
Ian

Offline outin

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #4 on: February 10, 2017, 04:45:51 AM »
I cannot find the link  right now, but there's a good article about what exactly makes playing sound  musical as opposed to mechanical...

 Sometimes lack of musicality can be caused from concentrating too much on technical details and tenseness from trying to keep up with the demands of the piece. Some people have instinctive musicality that can disappear when the focus is shifted on skills. They need to learn a new balance of skill and creativeness. For me the musicality can be there when I sight read something the first time, but tends to disappear when I start practicing a piece and only comes back after I can "just play" it. I remember many times when I was playing something  badly and my teacher said it is very musical BUT...and then comes a list of things to correct. Then I correct them but the "musicality" is gone because I am too focused on details and get tense. If I don't spend enough time with the piece so that I don't have to focus on the details the musicality may never return. Usually what happens when I decide to just focus on the music and listen to my own playing is that it sounds great and the teacher is impressed  but after a while I crash and get a blackout. If I want to get through the whole piece without stopping I need to restrict the "musicality" and "flow".

But I have a friend who has an amazing memory and learns skills very fast. She says she stopped playing because while she learned everything quickly and played correctly she could never make it sound "musical". So I wonder if it is possible that some people just don't have it? But I wonder if  they can be taught to add it by someone who knows the exact things that make the playing sound"musical"?

Offline hardy_practice

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #5 on: February 10, 2017, 06:22:30 AM »
Mechanical paying is when your body doesn't experience the music.  In other words just going through the motions.
B Mus, PGCE, DipABRSM

Offline dogperson

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #6 on: February 10, 2017, 07:54:21 AM »
I really like your definition!   There are a couple of thoughts: 
- Doesn't there seem to be a trend to 'note perfect playing' over musicality?   I have heard it mentioned that several historical greats might not even get past conservatory auditions now because of the lack of being note-perfect?  I agree with DC that comments about competition winners can be misinterpreted and taken to an extreme by students who are trying to mimic.

- As pianists, we do not often hear how we play, but how we THINK we play.  Recording what I do has been a huge eye (ear?) opener for all elements of 'musicality'. 

I do not take your post as asking for suggestions in teaching these students, but if you would tolerate one suggestion from another student:  ask them to record their own playing and then perhaps play it back during their next lesson and also play a recording of someone with musicality playing the same repertoire.  It might be the nudge they need.

Offline keypeg

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #7 on: February 10, 2017, 08:27:43 AM »
nm

Offline vaniii

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #8 on: February 10, 2017, 12:19:32 PM »
Thank you for your responses.

The mind can be an echo chamber; whats is worse, when talking to people within a personal or professional circle this can also be the case.

From what you-all have stated, I can see priority should always be, get it right first, then make it musical according to your personal tastes.

The problem as I see is, some musicians favor their vision, over that of what the music actually is.

If you are playing a simple study with melody and accompaniment, it would be easy to assume this is mechanically played if a person is not filling it with dynamics and rubato; but, it is what it is, right?

The person this concerned, in my opinion, was trying to make more of the music because they were not 'impressed' by it.  Owing to this, a fairly simple study that if played well, sounded pleasant, became something over-stated, because they were trying not to make a mechanical exercise ... mechanical.

A number of the elements that make a musical performance are not annotated on a score, for example:

- shaping your phrases so they have a beginning middle and an end regarding dynamics

- adding rubato --- after the fact --- to highlight musical moments

- voicing notes when more than one is played to give the music a a three-dimensional shape

That said, musically cannot be bolt-on; it must be worked on so music is both the means to performance and the ends of the performance.

Offline brogers70

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #9 on: February 10, 2017, 12:55:19 PM »
You might try doing a demonstration for the students you are talking about. Pick a short, simple piece, maybe something from Anna Magdalena or from Schumann's easiest melodies for beginners. Play it once strictly in time, with no dynamic variation or articulation. That's mechanical. Then play it with exaggerated dynamics, changes in tempo (particularly speeding up when the notes are simplest), and an extremely legato articulation, maybe some blurring with the pedal. That's "bad student expressive." Then play it simply and gracefully as written, shaping the phrases, with micro-pauses at cadences and other very subtle uses of rubato, if appropriate. Then ask them which they like best.

Offline adodd81802

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #10 on: February 10, 2017, 01:06:41 PM »
Some people, despite being able to play an instrument, simply don't speak the language well.

We know this for everybody that can speak English, are not necessarily good English speakers. (I'm referring to formal speaking, not accent)

I think from times such as at school, standing up awkwardly reading from a book, we have that child that quitely reads from the page, with little emotion, change of tone, and characters all in the same voice.

I find it ironic, as actually the things they are reading, are situations we often speak every day, e.g. ending a question with a raise of the voice, that are then absent when putting into practice.

This is what I consider mechanical, speaking the language without grammar, tone and punctuation. There can be different interpretations, but there needs to some conformity along the way. A full stop in practice can last half a second, or 2 seconds, but it must be present to end the sentence.

Unfortunately, some interpretations are completely misunderstood, leading to shouting, when there should be whispering, and drama when there should be laughter. This simply comes from educating and better understanding of the setting in which the language is spoken.

Luckily for music, in most instances, we actually have directions indicated on the page, but there are still unspoken things that must be well understood - such as phrasing, as you mentioned.

This I think comes from a better understanding for simpler pieces. We would not start school on Shakespeare where we have to pick up on underlying meanings and tones that are not evident in the text alone.

One thing that seems to fall apart in a teacher / student relationship, particularly with older students, is the willingness to completely conform to the teacher, even I have had this problem as a student. I think the only way to address this is directly. There is no real fulfillment in just taking money without seeing progress, and that message needs to get across to the student.

Sure if they're willing to give you money to learn badly that's fine, as long as they know that's going to be the end result.
"England is a country of pianos, they are everywhere."

Offline keypeg

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #11 on: February 10, 2017, 07:49:16 PM »
What I've been seeing in the opening post is a kind of magical thinking which may have been brought forth by a first teacher.  Musicianship is not just a matter of feeling things in your heart, and then it will come out perfectly as music: You might engender such a feeling in the listener, but that is not the starting place for the musician, who crafts his music using the tools.  Those tools are things like dynamics, dynamic contrast, time (accel., dim., pausing or extending a note to emphasize it), articulation (degrees of staccato and legato, wet or dry via pedal etc.)  They are combined with an understanding of music - theory, form, etc.  "Feeling" and such is in there too, but not as the only or primary thing.

These things have to be taught.  And not just that you gradually crescendo a phrase, noting the emotional effect it has on the music - or that I have two phrases, will crescendo the first from level 1 to level 2, and the second one from a higher level 1 to a higher level 2 for contrast - not just these individual things.  But building awareness for the first time of the fact that this exists: that expressive music is largely created through specific devices.  The devices themselves are mechanical - the crescendo from level 1 to level 2 can be thought of quite intellectually.  But combined, with deliberation, they can have a more emotionally moving effect than if you just try to be inspired by emotion, and the haphazard effect this can have sound-wise.

There were suggestions to have a student record his playing, and then have him hear truly expressive playing.  If this student is caught in the magical thinking of emotion-driven expressiveness, he might simply try harder along the same lines.  Or be crushed that he "can't" be expressive and has been fooling himself.  If it is to work at all, then you have to point out why the other performance is expressive, what particular thing (the crescendo) makes it so.  Or .... practice the piece according to those instructions, practice it according to emotion, record both, and then listen to which sounds more expressive.

It's like a closed door if the awareness hasn't been opened.

I've struggled for words while writing this.

Offline vaniii

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #12 on: February 10, 2017, 08:33:42 PM »
Thank you, 'adodd81802' and 'keypeg', I agree with everything you have written.

These ideals are at the center of my approach to teaching music.

Simply put, learn to understand the mechanics of how and why, then apply it to everything you do.  A reason why we explore a large number of pieces applying the same principles.

Perhaps this is why it has stumped me; why do these particular students not understand this concept, despite it being so obvious (to me and ... us)?  Especially having some degree of proficiency and understanding; they are not your typical transfer.

Now, play devils advocate please, what are the drawbacks of thinking this way?

Maybe, their perspective is that playing exactly what is on the page is not artistic.  When comparing professional recordings, I have come across vast differences in the manner pieces are interpreted; i.e. Bach: Gould verses Hewitt; Mozart: Uchida verses Lisitsa; or, Liszt: Howard versus Berezovsky.

Offline keypeg

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Re: Mechanical playing
«Reply #13 on: February 10, 2017, 08:51:50 PM »
One quick thought about why people do or don't do things.  There can be absolutely no logic, no thinking, or no sense, in what people do.  ;)  But sometimes there is.