On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano
Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.
~ Zen Saying
What could be more Zen than practicing the piano without touching the instrument! To become a master of energy at the keyboard, a magician of orchestral color, you must distance yourself from the 88 keys. Discover your inner conductor.
Once I remember as a teenager having an hour to practice right before a lesson, and there were no practice rooms available, so I went to the library and opened my score of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and began reading my way through it. Suddenly my interpretation became clear and I went up confidently to my lesson to play it. Same as before, if not worse.
Nothing replaces working at the keyboard. That is, the fingers, hands and arms have to possess the interpretation. But what struck me and remained with me was that experience of near-genius comprehension of a score when I breathed and sang and analyzed my way through it without having to waste any energy or thought on the banalities of moving my fingers or be distracted by the sound coming out of the instrument. It was an hour of absolute lucidity.
Through the years I continued to study scores away from the piano, but only when there was no piano available, which was rare. I generally studied scores in trains and airplanes.
When I was twenty-five, I moved to Rome. Within my first few months there I happened upon a wonderful conducting teacher and decided to take up the baton, a lifelong ambition. Within a short time, my ability to absorb music without the aid of a piano changed drastically. I learned how to absorb scores with my inner vocal instinct by connecting every note to my voice or at least to my inner voice. I stopped touching the keyboard for months at a time and started becoming a real walking orchestra. My inner hearing became more intense and I started to hear the specific colors of the orchestra in my head. This is when I started to become a more powerful, aware interpreter.
I would spend most of the academic year with baton in hand, but return to the piano as summer approached and spend a few months rediscovering myself as a pianist, doing concerts and competitions. Studying piano scores away from the keyboard became a powerful tool to come to terms with my own interpretation and really learn the details of the printed score. What surprised me and continues to surprise me is that no matter how many times you breathe your way through a score, you always figure out something new. There are so many different ways to analyze a score, from the smallest details to the largest design, noticing phrase lengths and the ways bars group together, becoming aware of large and small harmonic movements, discovering recurring rhythmic and melodic units, and simply gaining real command of the dynamics, accents, phrasing and pacing. Also, you become more conscious of the specific emotional colors that are being experienced, and try to understand why they affect you the way they do. The process of analysis and assimilation is endless. And then each time your fingers come into contact with the keys, they feel out these new realities and reveal a greater depth of understanding.
As a conductor, this process is all the more intense and studied because you develop tools to help you translate scores into a new physical and mental understanding that a mere pianist has yet to know. The translation of thought from one language to another is a most revealing process. You discover what is unique to each language, and what is shared by both, what is universal. Both are important.
The piano is capable of certain colors and expression that the orchestra is not, and vice-versa. Imagine the vulgarity of an orchestra playing a Chopin Waltz or Ballade, or a Beethoven Piano Sonata! The piano rendering a Beethoven Symphony is equally unsatisfying and unidiomatic. Every instrument has its own inner laws that give it its unique expressive potential, yet all instruments and instrumental combinations share certain universal qualities of expression.
What’s the ideal balance between study at the keyboard and study away from the keyboard? I venture to say about 50/50, provided that if you're a professional pianist a minimum of at least a couple hours per day is maintained at the keyboard because of the physical aspect that has to be continually kept up.