Three ways to make Early Music more expressive (And is there a ‘true way’?)

This article is a response to a thought-provoking post by Dr Noa Kageyama Three ways to teach students how to play more expressively (and is there a “best” way?)

It also returns to some fundamental questions that I posed in my very first post for this series, back in 2013: Music expresses emotions? 

As Historically Informed Performers, we may be teaching or coaching others, but we should all be perpetual students, for there are always new discoveries from period evidence, new challenges to our previous assumptions, new ways to apply the information we already have. Meanwhile our teachers are primary sources of all kinds, as well as modern-day musicians.

So here I widen the scope to include both sides of the teaching/learning process, whilst simultaneously focussing in on how the ideas in Dr Kageyama’s discussion might apply to the particular context of Early Music.

The Bullet-Proof Musician

Based in New York City, performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course.

I’ve followed his posts over several years, and I admire his evidence-based approach. Typically, he presents an expert and well-argued summary of one or more scientific studies, showing how they might be relevant to the real-life situations of music-students and teachers.

This is very similar to what I aim to do in my own articles, by presenting translations and discussions of historical sources, and showing how these can be applied in today’s Early Music. So I thank Dr Nageyama for all his contributions, especially the particular post under discussion here, and warmly recommend The Bullet-Proof Musician to you.

Three Ways to Teach

I summarise (for Early Music readers) Dr Kageyama’s summary of Robert Woody’s (2006) experiment.

Students were given a musical phrase to play, and then given coaching on how to make their performance more expressive. One approach was auditory, listening to a fine performance. Another approach was detailed, using written instructions, expressive markings in the score. The third approach was imaginative, suggesting an image or metaphor to shape the emotional Affekt.

All three strategies were successful. The auditory approach led to close imitation of the expert performance. Detailed instructions required more practice-time to be assimilated. Imagery led to significantly more expressive playing, which sometimes broke out of the accepted style-boundaries.

Dr Kageyama’s main conclusion was that an ‘artful mashup’ of all three strategies might work best. But please read his whole article, there’s more to it!

What is ‘Expressive’?

This question lurks behind Woody’s original study, and is briefly answered by Kagemaya as “measurable changes in dynamics, tempo, articulation”. My attempt at a short answer for HIP is here: Terms of Expression. In academic studies of listeners’ reactions to recorded performances, reported perceptions of “expressiveness” have often been linked to noticeable rubato. See for example the work of Dorottya Fabian.

In Early Music, we discuss emotional communication in terms of affetto, of frequent and highly contrasted changes in Affekt (this loan-word from German has subtly different shades of meaning in the academic contexts of HIP and Psychology: we won’t go there for now!).

We often cite the Rhetorical Aim of

muovere gli affetti

to ‘move the Passions’. It’s not just one emotion, it’s many different, strong passions. And they ‘move’, they shift frequently and significantly.

Most important of all, it is the listener’s passions that are to be moved. Performers might be emotionally hot, or cool and in control. This does not matter, though there is an increasing tendency to suggest more self-conscious performer-passion as the 18th-century progresses. For a thorough over-view of historical changes in the period Science of performer emotions see Roach The Player’s Passion (1993), very highly recommended.

Tears & Laughter

What matters is the audience’s response. So I would like to see more studies linked to Early Music repertoire that go beyond reported perceptions. Even the best reporter tends to confuse the performer’s signalling of ‘emotion’ [vibrato, rubato, body/head/hand-movements, facial expressions etc] with their own emotional response.

The historical test, familiar from many seicento reports, is whether audience members “laughed and cried”. Avoiding the subjectivity of reported perceptions, we could observe listeners’ physiological responses, tracking even short-duration, subtle reactions with a polygraph (aka lie-detector).

And there is a reminder here that we HIP -merchants should not be too deadly serious, we should not aim only for tears. Laughter is wanted too, and another Rhetorical Aim is to Delight the audience.

We could even link modern-day scientific observations to historical categories of emotion, by exploring the period concept of the Four Humours in modern-day performance, as experienced by listeners.

Read more about The Four Humours here: Emotions in Early Opera. And see project reports from my 5-year international program for Australian Centre for the History of Emotions: Text, Rhythm, Action. There are plenty of excellent research strands linking Early Music and Music Psychology, just waiting for investigators to follow up…

Three ways to learn: Listening

Each of Woody/Kageyama’s approaches has its equivalent in Historical Performance Practice studies. Many students and mature professionals are inspired by modern-day Early Music performances, live and recorded – this is the auditory approach, which tends to lead to close imitation. For Early Music, this raises the question of what we are imitating.

Since we don’t have Monteverdi’s or Bach’s own CDs, when we listen to fine performances we are dealing exclusively with secondary sources. Secondary sources can be illuminating, even inspiring, but we must test them rigorously against primary sources, against period evidence. Otherwise, there is a very real danger of 20th-century quirks being passed from one recording to another.

For example, the passaggio ristretto in Monteverdi’s (1624) Combattimento is very often performed staccato until the last phrase. But this is contradicted by the general rule that melodies moving by step tend to be legato. The staccato habit seems to have been picked up from a pioneering recording (Harnencourt perhaps?) and passed on through the generations, without further thought.

Nevertheless, we musicians are trained to listen and imitate, and we must find strategies that allow those aural skills to be applied, whilst staying closer to period sources. See my suggestions on how to Re-purpose Early Music skills and, for example, Helen Robert’s marvellous Passaggi app for improvisation and ornamentation in HIP.

Detail

This is the ‘classic’ approach of our discipline of Historically Informed Performance. We take every possible tiny detail from period sources, and painstakingly apply it to our own playing/singing/directing. It’s rather like trying to assembe a jigsaw-puzzle, without knowing in advance what the complete picture will be. It certainly is time-consuming.

And in the area of emotional content, there is always the danger that this academic approach leaves us so much ‘in our heads’ that we lose touch with our hearts, and (more importantly) with our listeners’ hearts.

Nevertheless, a detailed, historical approach provides a much-needed corrective to the imitation of modern-day performances. And contrariwise, listening to well-informed performers helps ‘connect the dots’ of all the small details gleaned from period studies. But the overview we obtain from such listening is inevitably someone else’s modern-day perspective.

So is there a better way to rise above the nitty-gritty, and see the whole wood, not just the trees?

Visions

Metaphors and imagery have been shown to help performers to enter a Flow state, see this article by Laslo Stacho, and also Flow, the Oxford Papers, and Flow, the Cambridge Talks (2014) as well as Flow, making Connections. Read more about how to enter Flow and get into the performance Zone here: The Flow-Zone. For the relevance of Altered States of Consciousness to period performance, see The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the heroes.

Pre-1800 Science of Emotions relies strongly on the theory of Visions expounded by Quintilian (1st cent.), whose writings on Rhetoric remained fundamental throughout the renaissance and baroque periods. Poetic imagery or a vivid metaphor in detailed verbal description (Enargeia, read more) creates an imaginary Vision in the listener’s mind, and it is this Vision that sends the Spirit of Passion (Energia) from the mind to the body, creating a physiological reaction (a smile, a frown, a blush, a chill, a tear, a laugh).

The interplay of psychological emotions and physiological reactions was understood within the period Science of the Four Humours. See again The Player’s Passion.

Energia, the mind-body link, is also the lively Spirit of Passion that communicates emotion directly from performer to listener. So, especially in baroque opera, the listener gets bombarded by multiple rays of energia, from the words, the music, and the performer’s Action: their posture, movement, facial expressions and rhetorical gestures.

The concept of Enargeia implies that the metaphors and imagery are detailed, precise and accurate. The Rhetorical demand for Decorum requires all the various energetic elements to convey the same emotional information, down to the last enargetic detail. And our discipline of Historically Informed Performance challenges us to line-up all that emotional detail with period aesthetics and primary sources.

Music of the Spheres

This Aristotelean concept still held force in the 18th century. The perfect movement of the stars and planets creates a heavenly music – musica mondana  – brought into sound by the Divine Hand. This ancient Science is reflected in microcosm by the harmonious nature of the human being – musica humana – and imitated in our everyday music-making – musica instrumentalis – both instrumental and vocal.

The cosmic, mystical aspect of music is itself a Vision, a metaphor for that ineffable beauty and profound significance that goes beyond quotidian concerns. However we might describe it, to be a musician is to believe that music is somehow special, with a significance beyond mere wood, strings, reeds, metal and organised noise.   

In the 18th century and earlier, the Art of music was specified at the human level by detailed principles, complex sets of rules.

By long and painstaking study, musicians can find what Quantz, CPE Bach and others called the True Way to play in each of the many period and national styles of the past.

The technical management of sound was historically termed Use, the mechanical procedures that serve the higher purposes of period Art and ancient Science. Read more about historical Science, Art & Use here: What is Music?

Musical sounds that result from such beautiful visions, detailed study and sonic expertise are one outcome, but only within the lowest sphere of the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, we hope for our audiences not only to hear interesting sounds and appreciate fine details, but to be moved by music-borne visions.

These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits…  We are such stuff as dreams are made on

Shakespeare The Tempest IV i (1611)

Last of All

There is a strong temptation for modern-day Early Musicians to begin with Sound. We love distinctive sound-worlds, that’s how many of us got into HIP in the first place. But in Le Nuove Musiche Caccini sets the period priorities as

Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around!

Caccini Le nuove musiche (1601)

The Music of the Spheres challenges us to seek a higher vision than mere sound.

So, whether we are instrumentalists or singers, we need to begin with inspiring imagery suggested by period texts. This is historical Science, the study of what is profound, cosmic, even divine (in whatever sense meaningful to us).

We should continue via the contrasts of tone-colour, dynamics, articulations and (especially) affetti required by each specific word or image. We should maintain a steady Tactus (see Tactus Workshop and search this blog for Tactus.) All this detail is Rhetorical Art.

And – last of all – we should experience – in real-world Use – the Sound that is produced by our detailed and imaginative historical work.

For HIP as for mainstream music-making, we need all three approaches. And for Early Music, we might do well to begin with Vision and Detail, and study Sound ‘last of all’.

The Master’s voice?

And not the other way around!

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