Ask Jason

May 3, 2020

Shawn asks…

“I'm curious as to what goes into deciding how to interpret a piece. Is there a lot of listening to different performances and conductors from the past? Do you just sit with the score by itself? Is it iterative, allowing shifts in expressive decisions as the orchestra practices it and things come up? Is it different when working with pieces that are more or less familiar or personally appealing?”

What a fantastic inaugural question! It’s a pretty juicy one that people write entire books about, but I hope I can offer a thumbnail sketch here that’s interesting (though this first edition of “Ask Jason” may turn out to be the longest one…).

So the composer leaves you this score with a lot of objective information (the 2nd clarinet should play an F-sharp for three beats) but also a ton of subjective information. It says this part should be “fast” but how fast is fast? And how soft is soft? How short are these short notes supposed to be? The trombone and oboe are both marked soft: should they really be equally soft or is one more important? And this trumpet line: should it be played with a bright tone or a dark tone? You can make an argument for both…

How does a conductor arrive at the answers? Well, you’re right: you sit and stare at the score. For hours.

I can only speak for myself but I personally make many of the interpretive decisions like the ones above fairly late in the learning process. I don’t want to commit to anything too soon.

It’s like a mystery: if you go in thinking the butler did it you’ll just look for clues that confirm that hypothesis. I just go over and over and over the information in the score and try to absorb and remember it. I try to look for every clue I can find before deciding what all the clues add up to mean. Sooner or later patterns and consistencies jump out at you and this becomes your “way in” to the piece, how you’re going to do it this time. A picture emerges of what this piece is about and that picture will show you how fast, how short, how dark…

As far as familiar pieces, if I’m revisiting the piece from a past performance, I try my best to start over. If I try to just tap into what inspired me the last time – last time’s “way in” – the same spark may not light a flame. But if it’s a great piece there’s more than one light to see it in, more than one thing to notice and bring out.

Sometimes I force myself: if we did it this way last time I have to find another way this time. Artists who repeat themselves can become complacent, and you can totally hear that complacency in performance. (I know that sounds cheesy to say but it’s really true.)

The part about recordings is an excellent question. On the one hand you want to follow your own path. You hear a convincing recording and think, “yes, that’s the way to do it!” and it’s easy to cut off your imagination to interesting insights you might have had relying on the score alone. And if the interpretation isn’t yours it’ll never feel as sincere.

On the other hand, some of the greatest musicians who ever lived have spent their lives studying this music and their “research” has been documented in recordings. What musician wouldn’t want to know what they discovered??

For me it’s “know yourself.” I usually study the piece, form my interpretation, then explore some recordings. At that point, it’s like I’m running my ideas past great experts to see what they think. There will be things I’ll learn and incorporate, and other things that sound amazing but just don’t fit with my current understanding of the piece. (It’s very often “why didn’t I think of that?!”

The last part of your question – how does the interpretation change in rehearsal with the musicians – is a great question, and one I want to pick up next time along with a related question someone else asked. So tune in next time!

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