Sweat Equity

This week I’ve been working on a short piece for all-pizzicato strings that required me to pull out a rarely-used violin. It’s the first time I’ve had to “work up” something on an instrument in a long time; usually I’m just playing to hear a particular chord progression or something of the sort, but in this case I was forced to regain a little bit of my old violin proficiency in order to see if my rollicking quarter = 200 tempo was a bit optimistic for some passages.

Still, my abilities are nowhere near those of the players who will bring the piece to life, even considering my mad left-hand-pizzicato skills acquired over a long period of guitar playing. Yet I’m confident that the insight yielded from hours of practicing strange, twangy glissandi is useful and not an illusion. By way of some kind of transitive property, I know that if my barely-able hands can eventually pop out this passage in tempo, then it’s reasonable to conclude that a professional violinist could be counted on to do so as well.

Very often when I’ve heard performers complain about a difficult piece of contemporary music, their complaints are directed towards a real or perceived lack of initiative on the part of the composer; particularly with passages that will require a great deal of practice to execute, any indication that the composer has asked for this sacrifice flippantly—and without proper regard for the difficulties of performing musicians—is greatly frowned upon. I’ve been the brunt of these accusations myself at times, and often rightly so. But this time I don’t feel as guilty about a few sore fingers—mine are already torn up from a week of crackling pizzicato pull-offs, so the performers could hardly accuse me of blithely underestimating the performance difficulties involved. It’s never my goal to compose difficult music, but on those rare occasions when extreme difficulty in unavoidable nothing says good faith like a little elbow grease.

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3 thoughts on “Sweat Equity

  1. tbro

    effort to reward ratio
    As a performer, I ask two questions: (a) can I play it accurately, given enough of the right kind of effort? and (b) is the musical result worth that effort? If I have to practice an extra 40 hours to be able to play something that’s not rewarding to me musically, I’d rather spend my time doing something else. On the other hand, if the musical satisfaction is great, I will willingly, even joyfully, make just about any effort imaginable in order to be able to do it justice. I do sometimes feel resentment toward composers when either (a) the difficulty level is a result of cluelessness, stemming from lack of knowledge of how my instrument works; (b) the difficulty level is a deepened by inept notation; or (c) I have the sense that the composer has no knowledge of just what the difficulty level is (or worse, knows and doesn’t care). I do appreciate it very much when a composer takes the trouble (as you describe doing here) to get a realistic sense of what they’ve created, difficulty-wise. When I’m working with composers who are not intimately acquainted with my instrument, I am always happy to get involved in that kind of evaluation before the piece is signed, sealed, and delivered, and I think most performers are.

    Reply
  2. dfroom

    Roger Sessions said in “Questions about Music,” (a fabulous book), that music should never be more difficult than it needs to be. With that in mind (and being married to a first-rate performer, the pianist Eliza Garth, and seeing what she goes through), I always try to live up to this advice.

    And yes — when one writes something difficult, one should know how difficult it is. Particularly important is that the difficulty and the musical impact be matched (one wouldn’t want to have a viruosic passage in a section that is supposed to be relaxed!).

    When I get to talk to performers early in the process of learning a new piece of mine, I typically ask them if there is any passage or couple of passages that are taking up the bulk of their practice time. When there is, I sometimes find a little change can make things much easier without any detriment to the music (sometimes the little change improves things).

    My experience, though, is that performers nearly always reject my offer of a change! They think that if I imagined it, and if it is possible, they will, with enough practice, be able to play it.

    If they ASK for a change, I ALWAYS do everything I can to comply.

    I think the performers on the scene today are among the most dedicated, talented, and amazing people one can ever meet. If they complain, we should listen — and listen very carefully!

    Reply
  3. pgblu

    Particularly important is that the difficulty and the musical impact be matched

    How exactly (or even inexactly) does one determine this?

    Reply

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