Three tips for getting beyond the notes

There is an elusive idea in the performance of music that we all instinctively know: just playing the notes is not enough.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that just playing the notes and observing every other marking on the music (such as dynamics and articulations) is not enough to qualify a performance as a good performance. If you really broke down the music of great performers and cataloged every decision that they make, you would find that what you see on printed music is nothing more than a rough outline. Great performers either instinctively or intentionally add make thousands of tiny decisions as they play music that in themselves seem insignificant but collectively bring the notes to life.

Those decisions include such things as balancing dynamics of individual notes against each other, tiny variances in tempo (rubato), extra articulation detail, phrasing decisions, and much more.

Of course, teachers want to teach students these things but that is easier said than done. Sometimes, teachers may take a very technical approach where they introduce rules for various situations. While that is better than nothing, it is woefully inadequate. You can’t come up with rules for everything that happens in music because there are simply too many possibilities to consider. The other problem with that approach is that it limits performers to being like other performers. No one wants all performers to think the same way and play the same way. If we did, we would just build musical robots.

Today, I want to give you a different approach to learning how to get beyond the notes that is much more flexible and does not require you to learn a few thousand rules. Here are three guiding principles:

Get the notes
You can’t get beyond the notes until you get the notes. Maybe that is obvious but it is where we have to start. The first key to being able to think more about those extra details is mastering the piece to the point where you can play it without thinking much about it. You have to be able to easily play the right notes at the right time.

I will mention something important here. All of use have technical limits. The closer you are to your technical limit, the less opportunity you will have to get beyond the notes. If you are always playing music that is right on the edge for you technically, you are going to spend all your time just trying to get the notes. It is fine to stretch yourself technically but you also need to play a lot of music that is well within your technical ability. Doing so allows you to stretch yourself in the performance things I am talking about.

The best way to understand how performers go beyond the notes is to listen to them. Listening is way underrated but should be considered almost as important as practice. Listen actively and try to break down what is happening. Even if you can’t necessarily explain it, good performance skills will rub off on you.

Sometimes it is helpful to transcribe or actually work out what a musician is doing. In today’s world, that is easier to do than ever. I sometimes use Logic Pro to listen to music and it includes a function that slows down the music to a level at which I can easily pick apart what is happening. There are apps you can get on your phone that will do the same thing. (Amazing Slow Downer is a good one and costs $15.)

There is a very strange idea that floats around in the academic music world that you have to be diverse in what you can play.  There is a succinct word I can use for that: rubbish. Great performers as a rule are not diverse in what they play. They have one style and they play it well. 

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. I could name a few and you could too. However, even in those cases, when great musicians stray from their strength to try a different style, those projects may be credible but are rarely if ever considered top of the heap in that style. I could give example after example of this but I don’t want to name names really. However, as an example, I recently saw a very famous pop musician on PBS doing a jazz standards show. I have no doubt that that musician is a fabulous pop musician but her approach to standards was not very good. She lacked the nuance and it did not feel authentic.

It is hard enough to really master the performance of one style. Find the style that fits you and go with it. I am not saying that every song has to be the same tempo and the same chords and texture. However, I would say that musicians in general should narrow the scope of the music they perform so that they can truly master what they do.

Those are my three simple tips for how to get beyond the notes. Forget about trying to break this concept down into a bunch of rules. That is just not how it works.