Friday, November 14, 2008


I think speed is over-valued in music. My flute-playing youth was tarnished by a desire for speed: everyone around me coveted it. My sense of self worth was often determined by how quickly I could play particular excerpts and etudes. Many of the people around me (in the hallowed halls of Juilliard) seemed mesmerized when someone could play particularly passages really fast. Speed was the currency of the flute world. Consider many of the recordings made by Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway.

The not-so-news is that it is really not that difficult to play fast music on the flute. It is far more difficult to play slowly and evenly. Slow-moving phrases (on any instrument) expose every cent of less-than-perfect intonation, and they require far more control and far more air (or bow control) than fast-moving phrases. It is also difficult to phrase in multi-measure units at a slower tempo, because you need to concentrate on where you are, where you are going, and where you have been. Playing music at high speeds obliterates the need (or the chance) to see or hear much of anything along the way. Sure, fast playing can be exciting (when the music calls for it), but for the most part music that is played as fast as possible ends up sounding too fast.

Playing baroque music on period instruments or replicas of period instruments can send musicians down a slippery slope, and onto the path of superficiality. These are instruments that, by their very design, speak quickly, and simply do not make large (or even medium-sized) sounds. The kind of sustaining quality that musicians work for on modern instruments isn't really possible on baroque instruments, especially if musicians play without vibrato. (We are so duped by recordings.)

The expressive alternative is to use articulation to musical advantage, and create a hierarchy of emphasis based sometimes on where notes fall in a measure. And then there are notes that you just throw away. The other alternative (the one that I don't like) is to play everything as quickly as possible, thus avoiding the concentration problem that comes up when musicians try to sustain a musical idea for a considerable number of measures, and making any kind of hierarchy meaningless. That means, as far as I'm concerned, that all the notes are thrown away.

I used to think speed was cool. I even thought it was exciting. I used to prefer baroque music and even classical music played at high speeds. Now, as a recovering exclusive period-instrument-only musician, I tend to think differently. Now I prefer Allegro playing that is even and rhythmic. I find a musicians who have ample sounds far more exciting than people who play music (from any period) made of strings of "thrown away notes" that are played with less-than-beautiful sounds at speeds that are too high.

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