April 22nd, 2012

The first time I started thinking about it was when I was teaching at North Texas State University, now UNT.

I had a student named Anthony P. Anthony was just a freshman, and not even a music major. He had come from Houston and he had the most incredible gift. Everything he played, he made the guitar sing.

And in that singing, I could hear a ‘voice.’ It was a voice full of feeling and expression. At times it was plaintive, at other times coaxing. When he played, you felt like he was speaking directly to you.

After that, I began to hear other musicians the same way. In every one of them, I could hear a voice too. In good musicians, I heard voices with the same sensitivity as Anthony’s, voices full of feeling and expression.

And in others, all I could hear was a “blah blah blah blah blah.”

You feel as if they’re talking at you instead of to you.

Try it. Go on youtube and listen, not to the notes, not to the technique, not even to the music, just listen to the ‘voice’ behind the playing. You may have to close your eyes and concentrate real hard and then you will hear the ‘voice’ in the notes.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting three wonderful musicians at Del Mar college. One of them was Yury Martynov, Chair of the keyboard department at the Moscow Conservatory.

Yury Martynov at Del Mar College

Yury Martynov at Del Mar College

Professor Martynov is not exactly a household name, but in the pantheon of great musicians, he’s right up there with the best, Dinu Lipatti and Glenn Gould.

At a private dinner, he played three pieces for us and I was completely floored. Never had I heard such sensitivity and feeling. The word is ‘magical,’ especially in his impromptu performance of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 (this youtube  performance is not by Martynov but it’s pretty good too.)

What is it about Martynov and Anthony that so captivated me?


Anthony was blessed with incredible natural sensitivity to the music he was playing. He probably didn’t know what he was doing, but he knew how to make those notes sing.

Mr. Martynov, on the other hand, is the consummate artist. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he creates pure magic with it, with great sensitivity.

So what’s this thing called sensitivity?

We know what it means in life, we use the word all the time. We say someone’s sensitive to the cold, to heat, to pollen, perhaps even to criticism.

To me, it means to be aware, to sense and know what’s going on, and respond to it, either consciously or unconsciously.

That definition is the same in music, to play with sensitivity means you must know what’s going on in the music and you’re able to respond to it and convey that feeling and emotion to the audience.

At the basic level, it means giving full expression to the melodic line.

Like a good actor speaking his lines convincingly, you must play every note and melody convincingly, and give it its appropriate emotional content and meaning.

But sensitivity is much more than just playing melody expressively.

You must know everything else that’s going on in the music, from chord changes to key changes, to every compositional device in the book.

If you’re going from the dominant chord to the tonic chord, you must convey the sense of resolution in that chord progression. Or if you’re playing an appoggiatura, you must give it that sense of resolution too. Or if you’re modulating to a different key, you must know the relationship between that key to the old key and be able to convey that relationship in your playing. (For instance, modulating from A major to C major requires a different treatment as from A major to E major.)

And you must understand the function and relative weight of every other element in the music.

For instance, main themes have more weight than secondary themes, and secondary themes more weight than transitional filler material. Melody has more weight than bass lines and bass lines more weight than accompaniment. And you have to play them all accordingly. You can’t play everything exactly the same as if they all have the same musical weight and meaning.

If you do, you’ll get that “blah blah blah” effect I wrote about earlier.

It does make playing classical music difficult, doesn’t it?

Well, western classical music is a highly evolved art form and no one claims it’s easy or simple. It’s a complex language in itself, with many special conventions and syntax and one has to immerse oneself thoroughly in the art to be able to understand and express it convincingly.

How does one go about learning all this?

From experience — from listening to other artists, understanding what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and then incorporating those things into your own playing.

But the most important part is to become extra sensitive to everything that’s going on in the music and be able to convey that understanding to the listener in your playing.

In his masterclass, Mr. Martynov said something which sums up his special musicianship perfectly. Talking about a Scriabin phrase, he said, “That phrase is very boxy [square], in your playing, you must escape that box.”

That, to me, is the essence of good sensitive musicianship, make the music come alive, make it sing, make it talk and escape all the boxes within it.

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