A student said the other day, “Working on Mozart makes me feel…” and he pulled his elbows in close to his sides and vividly mimed being constricted in a very tight space. And I could understand where that was coming from. We had been working for several lessons on finding the appropriate classical style for the Mozart concerto, and over and over again we stopped because a note had been crudely ended, or a slur turned upside down with the second note heavier and longer than the first. Or because the vibrato was too heavy for the musical moment, or the release from an appogiatura was too active. And in this sea of details, he didn’t feel that he had the freedom to make any music at all. It was just about making the articulation correct, and not actually fun.
I am not basically a stickler about performance practice. I am one of the least scholarly musicians I know, and I have not memorized the correct terms for the various Baroque ornaments and whether they are most appropriate in Italian or German music and from which precise era. I believe in playing what sounds good. But it doesn’t sound good to treat Mozart like Strauss or Kalliwoda.
Playing classical music – from the classical era, I mean, not just “serious music” – is in fact somewhat restrictive. There’s a sound that you use and a way that you end phrases. You rarely can rock the house with a truly full-throated sound, and there’s little tolerance for romantic swooshes of tempo and dynamic. The music was composed according to strict rules, and its style is familiar to even the lay listener. Our concerto is a great piece, and does have some musical complexities to discuss, but first all of the technique and articulation needs to be pristine and appropriate, because anything less sounds immediately sloppy and studentlike.
It’s been a long time since I struggled with this Mozart style. I had forgotten how rule-bound it felt to me when I was a student. Now I slip it on like a comfortable costume. Once I’m wearing it, I can still be me. I can still express my opinions through the music, and still have fun. It’s like the language in Shakespeare’s plays, or in Dickens’s novels. It’s challenging to get into that mode, but once you’re in there you can use the language to say anything you want.
I suspect that the reason my student feels so uncomfortable in Mozart is that I talk too much. I feel obligated as a teacher to have reasons for what I suggest, and to be able to generalize rules so that a student can use them in other situations. But laying out in words every detail of what Classical Style entails is long and boring and well, restrictive. I can do better. A little back and forth playing in our next lesson will solve the issue far more successfully, and be more fun for both of us.