Last month I was at a gathering with a group of pianists and a friend of mine pulled me aside to ask me about a Scarlatti sonata that she was learning. She had not played Scarlatti’s music before and she was concerned that she was making the music too romantic or sentimental. Her concept of correct performance practice was that this music should be fairly strict in its tempo and should avoid expressive nuance. Fortunately, as we were talking in a social situation I did not feel comfortable going to the piano to demonstrate how the music “ought to go.” Instead, I simply told her that she should play the music as she heard it in her imagination and that over time she would probably land on a performance approach that worked for her.
Fast forward to this past weekend and we were together again and my friend had opportunity to play her sonata for the assembled group and it was really quite lovely. Afterward, her first word to me was to ask, “Is that okay?” It was clear that she needed a positive verdict to validate the work she had done in preparing her performance. Before I had opportunity to answer her question several other people gave a ringing endorsement of the beautiful tone she had created and the masterful shapes of her phrases. Okay, indeed, her performance was far more than okay, but why did she need us to tell her so.
This little micro-drama prompted me to wonder about this desire to be correct. As students of the piano, it is certainly laudable to be diligent in our learning to master disciplines of playing notes and rhythms accurately. There is also much to be said for becoming as literate as possible with the ways great musicians have solved problems of style or interpretation in the past. But it seems clear to me that there is a definite time to let go of the need to be correct. Far too often, being right becomes a safe substitute making a genuine musical moment.
Frequently, I have opportunity to coach a piano student who has become obsessed with being correct rather than saying something through her performance. On such occasions I often ask the student to remember a performance or recording that moved them deeply, and then to identify what it was about the performance that was so striking. Usually, they will say that the performance was intensely passionate or stunningly dramatic, but I cannot remember a single instance where the distinguishing feature was the performer’s accuracy.
Listen to this heartfelt performance of Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor, K.87 here.