VENGEROV'S VIEWS | Maxim Vengerov on Harmonic Thinking to Discover Your Own Interpretation
In this, the last of eight teaching classes, violinist Maxim Vengerov discusses how harmonic thinking can help you to discover your own interpretation
To help celebrate the launch of our new site, and the re-launch of Maxim Vengerov's new website, maximvengerov.com, over the past weeks the superstar violinist, teacher, and conductor, has been guest presenting a series of exclusive teaching advice classes for our readers, teachers, and students everywhere.
Accompanied by helpful teaching videos that demonstrate key concepts, Maxim covers a wide range of topics including sound, left and right-hand technique, bowing, breathing, harmony and structure, and interpretation.
In today’s eighth and last lesson, Maxim discusses harmonic thinking to discover your own interpretation.
Discover the whole series, and be sure to share the classes with your own students and friends, and let us know how Maxim’s advice has helped you on your journey to learn more.
Like architecture, music has structure and form. When you see a cathedral, for example, you approach from a distance and this overall structure is your first impression - the size, shape, key features like a spire, and so on. You only see the details as you come closer - the entrance, ornamental elements, etc. - and begin to appreciate how these fit together to form the structure of the whole.
However, in music, this big-picture view is not the listener’s first impression, it is the final impression. Why? Because it is revealed over time. There is a narrative: we cannot know at the beginning how the story finishes, or appreciate how masterfully a plot twist is woven in, until the end has finally been revealed to us.
It is part of our job as the performer to understand the narrative of a musical work, and to convey this convincingly to the audience. A compelling interpretation will reflect not only an intellectual understanding of how a work is constructed, but also artistic decisions about how to bring this across in the moment of performance. (This is like how an actor reading a story might use different voices to help the listener understand the different characters, or modulate the tone of their voice when something important is happening.)
Of course, interpretation is multifaceted and is also informed by many additional diverse factors. In this post I will focus on how thinking about structure and harmony in music can help shape interpretation, and share with you some recommendations for how to uncover these aspects of a work for yourself and communicate them clearly to the listener.
Musical building blocks and how they connect
“Constructing in your mind the bigger picture of a musical work requires understanding its different components and their relative priority.”
In a building, the most important components are the foundation and load-bearing structural elements, because without these, it would collapse. In music, the harmony, rhythm, and structure (i.e. musical form) serve the same purpose - these are the vertical elements. In baroque music, for instance, the bass line is the foundation upon which chords are built. Each chord, each individual harmony, is like a different pillar supporting the overall building, but still with its own weight and identity.
However, these vertical harmonic pillars do not exist in isolation; they are connected to each other as part of a bigger musical structure. The musical phrase bridges between them, like a cat weaving its way from one pillar to the next, or an electrical cable arcing across transmission towers - this is the horizontal element. Harmonies are also related to one another within the broader context of the tonality of the work. The home key, for example, has a different sense and importance compared to a more foreign harmony.
Thinking in this way, you can start to connect the harmonic pillars together in your mind into bigger building blocks of harmonic progressions and phrases. Then, these in turn also connect together within the context of the musical form of a work (e.g. sonata form). The main theme, for example, has a different importance to an introduction, motif or bridging passage between themes. Then, the different movements of a larger work also complement one another to form the whole.
So, there are many different levels on which to analyse a work, from a single chord to the overall structure, and within each level there are different priorities.
Forming your conception of a work
“Working with the full score and also away from your instrument will help you put your part in perspective.”
To discover for yourself the structure and building blocks of a musical composition, I recommend to first study the score, without your instrument.
Work with the full score, not only your part. As the violin is primarily a melodic instrument, we usually play with other musical partners. If you work with only the violin part and form your musical ideas based on this, you will miss most of the magic hidden in the harmonies and the interplay of the parts. It would be like learning lines for Hamlet without knowing what the other characters are saying. Furthermore, you may find many of your ideas might not make sense when it comes to the first rehearsal together with your musical partners - making a lot of your practice simply not valid!
Working with the score, analyze the harmonies and form of the composition, and identify the different building blocks of the work and how the composer has fitted them together. Ask yourself: Which elements are important, and which are secondary? Where are the irregularities? For example: an unexpected dissonance, a rhythmic irregularity (e.g. syncopation or a hemiola), or a structural anomaly (e.g. a 9-bar phrase when an 8-bar phrase would have been expected). As performers, we are like treasure hunters, always looking for the magic in the music and seeking the most effective way to share this with our audience.
Once you have sketched the main outline of the work in your mind, you can start to work on bringing this to life. Exploring at the piano, playing the different parts separately and together, can help train your ear to how your part fits in.
I also recommend trying to sing the other parts whilst playing your part on the violin. This is a very challenging exercise (and you may prefer to do it when nobody is listening!). Practising in this way is particularly useful for sections where other parts have the main theme and you are accompanying. Singing the theme whilst playing your accompaniment forces you to hold both in your mind at the same time, and to listen well while you play. The accompaniment should not be passive; it should closely complement and support the theme, and sometimes even lead the way.
Playing chamber music will help you hone these skills even further, and will refine the way you play and interpret solo repertoire. Students sometimes forget about chamber music in the quest to become a soloist, but it is a very important part of developing your sensitivities as a good musician.
Communicating your conception of a work to the audience
“Plan well during your preparation, but remember that performance is the true moment of creation.”
To fully absorb the complexities of a work and make it our own, we need to understand it on many different levels, from the small details to the overall bird’s-eye view. The key structural elements of a work are fixed, like landmarks on a map, and you should analyse and know them well. But this deeper understanding of the work is only the starting point for spontaneous creation in the moment of performance.
It can be easy to get lost in the details, focusing too much on individual moments and losing sight of how these fit together. This can translate to a performance which is hard for a listener to follow. The simplicity of a clear vision and overarching narrative can sometimes be more compelling than a series of seemingly random or rhapsodic ideas one after the other, no matter how interesting or beautiful each may be. Decide on your priorities during the process of working with the score, and try not to get too lost in the moment when you play.
When you play alone (e.g. works for violin solo), the interpretation belongs to you, and you are your own boss. But when you play with others, the interpretation does not belong to you any more, it belongs to everyone. You and your partners interact and integrate your individual parts together into a shared interpretation, according to the composer’s wishes.
This means you must always keep one ear listening carefully to the other parts as you play, and react to what you hear. Listen from the bass, the foundation, and try to feel the whole harmony, and where your part fits in. (This is where practising well will serve as very good preparation, because you will already have trained yourself to listen well while you play.)
Savour the irregularities, and use the many resources at your disposal to highlight these moments for the audience - for example, changing the vibrato, speed of the bow, and so on. Even if it is the hundredth time you play a piece, try not to take anything for granted. Think from the perspective of a listener who has never heard the work before, like it is the world premiere.
However, despite careful and meticulous planning, always leave room for new possibilities during the performance itself. Our interpretation should not be rigid, or fixed - we must leave room for spontaneity, and react to our partners and the environment in which we play. Sometimes we plan one thing, but are inspired to make a different decision in the moment, or we discover something new. Performance is the moment of creation. Planning is not creation, it is just a sketch.
As performers, it is our task to bring the audience on a journey with us, and share with them the message and story behind the music. Musical works, especially larger-scale ones, generally have an underlying structure binding the different elements together into a single cohesive unit. This added level of abstraction adds complexity and new dimensions to the musical message, and is the scaffolding necessary to support the beauty and grandeur of a bigger vision. It is this connection of vertical and horizontal which forms the fabric of the musical landscape.
I hope these recommendations give some useful practical advice on how to think about and prioritize the structural and harmonic building blocks of a musical score. In this way, you start to think like a composer must think. By making informed choices about the relative significance of the different elements as you feel it, you form your own interpretation of the composer’s intentions. Your conviction and understanding of a work is what will come across to your audience, and what will ultimately deepen their experience and appreciation of the music.
Watch the full teaching video below, where Maxim explains in further detail and demonstrates the concepts he introduces in this article:
This series was curated and co-written by Anna Gould.
To find out more about Maxim, including his recordings and upcoming performances, visit www.maximvengerov.com.
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