· By Peta van Drempt
Should we even use recorded accompaniments at all?
The written word is one of the cornerstones of modern civilisation, and yet if it had been up to the great Greek philosopher Socrates it would have been done away with a long time ago. He believed true learning could only happen through direct dialogue with another human being, through a back and forth of questions and answers, until a topic was examined from all angles. He feared that the written word would result in a superficial 'fake' knowledge, with people thinking they understood things merely because they had read the words on a page. Thankfully his student Plato ignored this reservation and put Socrates' own ideas down in writing, which is why we in the 21st century can still hear what he had to say!
As I see it, recorded music is to the heart what the written word is to the mind. Where the written word is designed to pass on verbal information and knowledge, recorded music has the ability to preserve and pass on the ideas, sounds and feelings of our different musical languages. Unlike sheet music or the written word, recordings enable us to experience the colour, nuance and soul of musical performances from other times and places. Quite simply, they help us become more musically and culturally literate.
Similar to Socrates' fear that the written word would hinder our search for 'true' knowledge, some today would argue that live music is being strangled by its recorded counterpart. And specifically in the world of music education, very adamant voices caution against the use of recorded accompaniments with our young musicians. Like Socrates', it is an understandable fear. However, I would argue that recorded music is just a tool and, like the written word, it is a very powerful one. As with any tool, it is up to us how we use it.
Just as we encourage our children to read books, for pleasure and for understanding, should we not also encourage them to engage with musical recordings, both to listen to as well as to play along with? And just as we encourage our children to socialise and engage in real human interaction and discussion, so too we ought provide them with ample opportunities to listen to and play music in the company of other real-life musicians.
In my 15 years as a professional accompanist, many a student has come to rehearse with me just a few weeks before their performance, having spent months practising their pieces alone, pieces that were written for two players: soloist and accompanist. Almost always, in all that time, they had only internalised their half of the piece. As a result, we would then have to spend a lot of time catching up on the basics of counting out rhythms and rests, and figuring out simple entries. Sadly, there often wasn't enough time left to focus on the higher-level ensemble skills that are so crucial to making a performance truly shine.
During my graduate studies at the Australian Institute of Music in 2011, I began to learn the production skills required to actually create high-quality recordings of my accompaniments. And when I began to give these recordings to the soloists I worked with – both novice and professional – something very exciting happened. The recordings gave them a way to internalise the layout of the whole piece, letting them practise it on their own terms, at their own speed, and as many times as they needed. They would return to our in-person rehearsals with a new-found sense of confidence and ease in their playing, more equipped to direct the performance, and able to imbue more emotion and conviction into the music because they simply knew it better. Essentially, the recordings had helped them become more musically literate, giving them the tools they needed to truly own the performance.
I believe so strongly in the power of recorded music to increase our young artists' musical literacy that I'm currently working on producing a comprehensive catalogue of piano accompaniment recordings, beginning with the violin repertoire. By providing such a resource it is my sincere hope that more young (and old!) musicians will be able to learn the music they want to learn, find greater satisfaction in knowing their pieces more fully, and reach their musical potential.
Let us use the tools and technologies available today to empower our children to reach heights greater than we have. But more importantly, let us make sure there are always real live people by their side accompanying them along the way.
Originally published online by Limelight - Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine