Discussing Music Without Speaking

Claude Cymerman and I are playing a recital on Feb. 6, including the Debussy and Franck sonatas (and the Cassado solo suite). I’ll be out of town most of the time until January 28, and then DePauw classes start up again on January 31, and I have to make a short trip out of town between then and the concert. It doesn’t leave us much time to rehearse in February, so we’ve been working over the past week.

Today we played through the Debussy. We’ve both played it many times, he most recently this summer in France (or was it Germany?) with one of my former teachers, Gary Hoffman. He plays it incredibly well, and it went together as easily as I expected. Then we went back to the Franck. After a few rehearsals, it fits together nicely. The Franck, originally for violin, is a piece Claude has played many times, too, but this will be my first. I’ve always resisted playing it, because I love it so much on violin. But Claude twisted my arm, and here we go.

It was fascinating to observe the difference in myself playing a piece I know extremely well and is pretty much built into me, and one that is new. While the difference might not be all that great to a listener, the inner experience was quite dissimilar. Playing the Debussy, I was so aware of everything in the piano; we were able to do all sorts of nuances without discussing them. In the Franck, I have a lot of attention on just playing the cello part, including a lot of experimentation with sound colors, timing, when to slide and when not to, etc. Even when I try not to think as much about the cello part and listen more to the piano and how the two instruments interact, I get distracted by cello details.

I also know the Debussy piano part almost by heart myself; I know exactly what is going on and how my part interacts with Claude’s. In the Franck, although I’ve heard it all my musical life and have studied the score a good bit, I get a bit confused once in a while.

All of this is normal and quite to be expected. I just don’t remember every having the two experiences juxtaposed so together so closely and noticeably; it was fascinating to see the difference. And slightly frustrating. But I’ve been playing the Debussy for 30 years and the Franck for a couple of weeks–it wouldn’t be fair to expect the same sort of experience with them both.

Claude is such an incredible person to work with, too. An incredibly musical and sensitive collaborator as well as a virtuoso pianist. We talk about the music so little in rehearsals that one might think we weren’t communicating. In actuality, we are constantly discussing things, but not verbally, through our playing. He’ll vary his articulation, and I respond to it. I do a rubato, and he goes along with me. We try it a different way when a similar passage returns–one of us puts forth a new idea, the other listens and replies. I don’t think we talked at all in the Debussy, and a lot went on. In the Franck, we’ve had to stop and discuss some things. But they are much more practical than musical. I’ll be confused by the piano part and he’ll explain it to me, or he’ll point out that he wants to take time in a particular spot and I didn’t catch it (again, beause I’m more focused on playing the cello part). Many of the more important artistic details, though, materialize in the act of making music together.

It would actually be very interesting to record our rehearsals and analyze this. We are not unique in experiencing this phenomeon, of course, but it doesn’t happen with many people in one’s lifetime.

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