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On Musical Comprehension

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musicianship.JPGWhen I first started singing lessons at age 14, I was introduced to those standards of voice training, Vaccai’s exercises and Schirmer’s collection of 24 Italian songs and arias. At this stage, I was singing Italian phonetically – I knew the general gist of the words from the translations, but in expressive terms it was much like playing Mozart arias on the clarinet (which I also did around that age). Then at university I took Italian classes for 3 hours a week for a year, thinking it would be useful for someone taking voice lessons (and actually, interesting for someone who liked studying languages).

It was some years later again when I returned to the old Schirmer volume to revisit songs I had learned in my teens and had the bizarre experience of going through the motor actions I had learned to create the sounds, but now understanding the words I was singing. Bizarre and rather fun, I should add – I always enjoy the sensation when bits of my brain that hadn’t really connected before discover they have something in common.

I have had a similar experience recently on revisiting some Bach Preludes and Fugues I first learned in my teens on my new piano. Some of the repertoire I engaged with at that time has come along with me through my teaching, but for some reason I hadn’t touched the very first one I learned (G major, book 2) in years. And on reacquaintance I had the music theory equivalent of suddenly understanding the words coming out of my mouth.

At age 14, I experienced Bach as primarily a challenge in fingering: how to get the right appendage in the right place at the right time so as to permit the appropriate appendages to be ready to play what came next. But as my fingers groped their way around the keyboard in half-remembered motor actions, my brain suddenly found itself experiencing the music in terms of harmony and counterpoint. Interplay of dissonance and resolution, tonal architecture, long-range voice leading were all suddenly apparent – all the things you learn about in college, and then come to actually understand by teaching.

(I recall feeling quite intimidated as a student at how fluently my lecturers handled harmony, and thought, with the inferiority complex of kids from comprehensive schools who hadn’t studied Latin or grammar, that they must have had a much more thorough grounding in school than I did. Only later, when a student of mine asked me if I had always been good at harmony, did I notice that my teachers’ fluency would have been a product of years trying help people like me who were grappling to make sense of it all. I was so happy to reassure my student that I used to find it hard when I was her age, but that it had somehow become easier since then!)

Now, with the linguistic example, my younger self knew that she didn’t know Italian yet. But if you’d asked me at age 14 if I understood what I was playing when I performed this prelude and fugue, I would have said yes. I was having what I experienced as valid musical thoughts as I played this music. But from my current perspective, there’s so much more that my younger self was just completely failing to appreciate. It takes leaving things aside and coming back to them to have these moments of revelation – the music we bring with us grows gradually as we do, so our memories of engaging with the music in earlier years are infused with our more mature understanding.

So what I’m wondering is this: what will I be hearing in music in 30 years time that I am currently oblivious to?

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