Natasha Brofsky & Roger Tapping: On Learning New Repertoire and Getting to Know a Composer’s Unique Language

Have you ever thought about your process for learning a new piece, and wondered if there might be a more optimal way to do this? To not only learn faster perhaps, but also minimize bad habits that have to be unlearned later?

Like, should you listen to a recording first, to create an auditory model of some kind? Or maybe look at the score and try to create a model of it in your head in this way? Or simply play through it to get a feel for it?

Is it ok to emphasize technical details more in the early stages, and prioritize musical details later? Or is it important to do enough research about the piece in the early going, that the musical details can be baked into your practice even from the very start?

Surveys of musicians do suggest that there are some commonalities in how they approach learning new music. A series of interviews published in 1950 (Wicinkski) with ten well-known Russian pianists found, for instance, that the majority went through three distinct stages of learning. An initial phase where they developed an artistic image of the piece, a middle phase where they focused on solving technical issues, and a final phase where they tried to focus more on the bigger whole, and emphasized performance practice.

But there does seem to be a good bit of individual variation, and no one-size-fits all approach that’s exactly the same or “best” for all musicians. Although there do seem to be some important key principles that are probably a good idea to follow.

And what might these principles be?

To learn more about this, I thought it might be fun to reach out to two terrific musicians and teachers, and ask them this question at the same time, to see how similar or different their answers might be…

Meet Natasha Brofsky & Roger Tapping

Cellist Natasha Brofsky has had a distinguished performing career, as cellist of the Naumburg Award-winning Peabody Trio, principal cellist of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and guest artist with many ensembles such as the Takács, Jupiter, Ying, and Borromeo quartets. She has also been on the faculty at Yellow Barn, NEC, and Juilliard.

Violist Roger Tapping has also enjoyed an enviable performing and teaching career, having been a member of the Takács Quartet for many years, and since 2013, a member of the Juilliard String Quartet. He too has been active as an educator, having taught at the Aspen Music Festival, Taos, Yellow Barn, NEC, and Juilliard.

In this episode, we’ll explore…

  • Is it better to learn music by going to the score first? Or recording first? (3:02)
  • The different ways in which composers use notation, and why it’s important to remember that this is just an approximation of what they heard in their heads. (7:32)
  • How does one learn the unique language of a composer? (11:14)
  • Why Natasha finds it helpful to read historical accounts of composers. (13:09)
  • One of the keys to preparation that Natasha finds helpful in being less fearful and nervous on stage. (16:35)
  • Roger tells a story about Glenn Gould that relates to choking under pressure, and how not to psych yourself out before a tricky section and mess it up. (19:29)
  • Roger describes the potential dangers or downsides to listening to too much music. (21:43)
  • Natasha’s “why” question, and how to get into the composer’s head. (25:22)
  • Roger talks about the importance (and fun) of looking for a composer’s quirks and idiosyncrasies in the score. (29:43)
  • The challenge of performing – especially in front of one’s students! And the mindset shift that made a big difference for Natasha. (31:27)
  • How did Natasha and Roger navigate music lessons with their own children? (37:03)
  • The importance of choice, and at some point, making an intentional choice about one’s path in music. And how long Natasha and Roger tried to get their daughters to play string instruments before they found their own path. (39:03)
  • I ask Natasha and Roger what their own experiences with practicing were when growing up? Like, did they ever struggle with motivation? (43:16)
  • A couple thoughts on effective practice, and why it’s important to be patient with gauging progress. (46:18)
  • Natasha explains how the way we practice can sometimes reinforce fear on stage. (49:20)

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Noa:
My wife is a pianist and we met early on in college. So, so back in those days, we’d be practicing or rehearsing and often we’d get kind of bored or tired of practicing and rehearsing. And so we’d start debating various silly things like whether it was better to be a violinist or better to be a pianist, which instrument was more difficult. And, um, eventually sometimes more meaningful things like what was the best way to learn new music. So her tendency was always to start by studying the score and noodling around a little bit, to get some of it in her fingers. And then eventually she’d start listening to more recordings and so forth. But for me, and I don’t know if this was my Suzuki habits or not, but my first step was always to start with recordings and to get it in my head first and then start to get it in my fingers and then go to the score only after I’d gotten a sense of how it sounded and how it felt.

Noa:
And obviously there’s no one single correct way, and there are pros and cons to score first and recording first. And it depends on how much time you have and et cetera, et cetera. But as a student, I don’t know that I ever gave much intentional thought to how I ought to approach learning new music. I just sort of did it. And so I wanted to ask you guys about your process at this point, having had to learn a lot of music and perform it and teach and so forth. And I have to confess before I let you answer that a part of me is hoping that the two of you have very different looking processes, which is kind of why I wanted the two of you together. But, you know, even if you do have almost exactly the same process, that would be pretty illustrative too. So I’m okay. Either way, but yeah, when presented with music that you’ve never played and maybe have never even heard before, how do each of you approach learning?

Natasha:
Well, I mean, I think that’s an interesting question because I think we are a little bit similar to what you mentioned though, that I’m a little more of a score person than Roger, right? And we’ve, we’ve had discussions about that where you sort of intuitively pick it up and then I like to see it on the page and like to understand it visually in a certain way, not exclusively. I will listen a little bit. I listened like once maybe just to get, if I can’t understand it or get it into my ear from the score just once and then I’ll stop listening and really look at the score would you say we’re different in that way?

Roger:
In some ways, but it’s, it’s hard to generalize because I think we both came from families in which there was so much music in our backgrounds on just on all the time, our parents listening to music all the time, and we did too. And so the question was, if you really don’t know what something sounds like, what would you do? And actually in the, the music we normally find ourselves coming to play. It’s so little, actually that we’ve never heard in some ways, at least that’s been my experience through that. So there are some quartets I haven’t listened to before I played them. And if it’s, here’s the thing, if it’s in a sort of language that you already know, in other words, it’s not too complicated, it’s not by composer whose music you don’t know, or it’s not too modern. Then my instinct, I think, is that you sort of, you do have this little sense of being able to understand it through playing it in a certain sense.

Roger:
It’s nice to have the sense. You’re not going to make too many decisions. This is in the field of collaborative playing that most of all, let’s say in a quartet or trio situation. There’s a sense in which I’ve got one view. I get to put one side of this, which is, I think composers themselves, especially way back when people starting grow chamber music, they would have, they would have expected your first encounter with the music. In fact, we sitting, looking at the music and playing it with others. I mean, you wouldn’t have had scores. I think towards the end of Beethoven’s career, they started to make scores that up to that point. So you sort of had your ears out for what the other people were doing and you’d reach out. But as I say, this is for music in a style and language that you already understand, and it’s a different answer than if you’re playing something that’s just quite recently been written. I mean, there may be recordings in which case it’s so useful to be able to listen to something ahead of time and indeed to look at a score and work out before you were rehearsing and be professional about it and sort of who am I playing with, where are the melodies, things which it’s much harder to come to if you don’t know the language of the composer. How would you put that ?

Natasha:
Yeah, well, that’s, I mean, I, I agree with that, but I think, I think for me, it’s always, I sort of love looking at a score because I think sometimes I may have learned even if it’s music that, you know, Beethoven or something, I might’ve learned it in my ear from certain recordings that I listened to over and over again is as a student and a child. And then I look at the score and say, well, actually that’s not the balance that really, that really should be there. Or, you know, you discover new things. Um, my father was also a musicologist, so I think there’s a little bit of an analytical sort of historical bent towards my influence that I had. And so like for us, when we were listening to recordings on the radio, it was always a task. Like, can you say who the composer was or when this piece was written? I mean, he was always, it was always a bit of a quiz going on. Whenever music was on,

Roger:
But the lovely thing was that my father was a complete amateur and he also did that, but he was never, he never looked at scores.

Natasha:
My father looked at scores, he bought his scores

Roger:
but it was always, yeah, but we loved it. I mean, he was, you know, he’d just sing it. Who do you think this is by? And it’s amazing how often you could sort of get there. And he had a gradient for that also just as an amateur, but I I’m just take, it’s quite interesting, this sort of very first encounter with music as a sense in which you probably think the composer might’ve imagined, that’s how you would be coming across for the first time and being astonished by the actual sound of it and the combinations of it. And on the other hand, I’m not arguing against looking at scores. I mean, you there’s so much more in a score than you can pick up, so you have to have all your senses and the sort of subtle things like, you know, something’s marked to be a little bit louder than something else, or has different articulations. And these are things that composers definitely thought about everything you put down this thought about. Very specifically

Natasha:
And yeah, and I, I, one thing I’ve really enjoyed is thinking about how different composers use notation, how they react, you know, so I think of say, I mean, the example I often use like Tchaikovsky is, seems to be like very emotional about your uses dynamics, for example, you know, he has to write five F’s and four P’s, you know, and, and it sort of seems almost like, like it’s coming from his heart directly into the way he writes the dynamics and then, you know, Beethoven or Brahms might be more structural in certain ways or calling attention to, or harmonic moments or a structural moment in the form. I find that interesting. I think it’s important to, to kind of know how composers, what their language with notation is. And so that, that’s really important when you’re looking at score. That it’s just not the same for every, every person, everyone tries to get what’s in their head down on paper. And it’s only an approximation.

Roger:
That’s true. Cause you find some people, I mean, you come across some students who sort of are looking so literally at the score, that something they’re playing beautifully and suddenly they play some terribly short notes, ba ba ba, and it doesn’t make sense. And so in a way you had to get to the point where you sort of feel like you basically understand what the music should sound like, what its languages. And then you’re trying to sound what the person might’ve meant by the dots. And it might be that they want to just a little more spoken or very dry, but there’s had to be a reason you have to sort out the motivation.

Natasha:
And also that they might, the composer might’ve been reacting to a performance that they were hearing like that the performer played it too short. So he wrote, you know, lines on the notes and that doesn’t necessarily mean that those notes are long. So there’s a lot of information that you you have to kind of, you can’t look at it in a, in a one dimensional way. You really have to understand what’s going on. And I mean, for example, Beethoven being a great improviser, there’s a sense in which you have to think about the process as well and how there’s a sort of spontaneity in his composition at the same time as he really analyzed it as well. So there’s that tension in the way he notated. So I think you’d have to have a lot of information in that way or not, or sort of yeah. Wouldn’t you agree ?

Roger:
Yeah, and talking about looking at scores, what’s fantastic in Beethoven is if you can get to the point and it’s easy these days to actually see someone’s manuscript, right. Cause seeing a Beethoven manuscript is you actually see some crescendos are really big and thick, right. And he’s, maybe you can see where he’s altered them to go somewhere else where he originally thought of. And that as you were saying about Tchaikovsky almost it’s like real emotional thing going on. Very vivid.

Natasha:
That’s right, like that sort of in the Beethoven Cello Sonata, not as, there’s a teneramente written like really big on the score. And of course the printed printed version is tiny, you know? So you might not notice it, but you look at the autograph and it’s huge on the page. I mean, Nick Kitchen is doing amazing stuff with that. Like looking at Beethoven scores,

Roger:
The first violinist of the Borromeo Quartet Yes. He really is.

Noa:
There’s so much stuff that you said that I want to follow up on the I’m having trouble in my head trying to keep tracking it all. I mean yes, because when it comes out of finale or whatever software is being used to create the printed scores. It has to be standardized, I imagine. Right. They’re not going to have like thicker fonts for certain dynamics or certain crescendos, like you were saying that you would be able to see kind of intuitively and in an autograph copy that’s. Yeah. That’s pretty fascinating. It’d be nice if they included like, uh, like a copy of the autograph along with the score, maybe, maybe they do already. I just haven’t looked at a piece of music for 20 years.

Natasha:
Yeah, I wonder how that’s affecting composers now. Cause actually we won’t be getting their hand handwriting and stuff. I mean, it’s going to be more standardized in a way. I wonder if

Roger:
Well their sketches and see sort of what they tried and then couldn’t…

Natasha:
Yes, a lot of that’s going to be missing.

Noa:
The thing that I wanted to ask before, I completely forget it though. Was, was how do you learn the language of different composers? Before we just hopped on Roger, I was watching, um, the chat on Facebook that you had with Astrid and Jamie Clark, I believe about what do dots mean. And Schumann versus Bartok. And then you were starting to say some of the same sorts of things that you and Natasha are talking about now. And is it just listening or, I mean, not listening even, but looking at other music that the composer has written perhaps even further instruments, is it listening for a kind of historical traditions that have been passed on or yeah,

Roger:
Listening I mean, if you’re brought up, but that’s not right thing… I think if you have managed to get to the point where you have listened to a lot of performances of lots of pieces by the same composer, I think the thing that will strike you and it won’t be immediate necessarily, but let’s say let’s take Brahms, which, you know, we both have fell in love with early on in our lives. We were lucky to, without even intellectualizing, what sort of you’re hearing is long, a lot of long, beautiful melodic lines, harmonized, richly, and sweetly. Um, and as you listen to different pieces of that’s one of the things you hear in Brahms very.. yes I mean, there’s tremendously strong sense of just senseless, rich, gorgeous, harmony, beauty, beautiful, beautiful for it’s own sake. And there are many that sometimes he’s delicate, sometimes he’s strong, but there’s that sort of thing that, and even his use of instruments and the way he will give you a sort of beautiful singing violin lines and the way he uses the wind and without intellectualizing, you will sort of begin to recognize those sort of hallmarks. And if you’ve listened to Brahms, and then you listen to Haydn, Kurtag, you, you don’t really even need to intellectualize at all to hear that you’re dealing with different textures, different harmonic languages, different melodic languages.

Natasha:
Yeah. I mean, I would add on to that. Well, I, I would just say that one thing that I’ve found really fascinating and maybe it’s my father’s influence in this sort of this historical side of things, is that I, I love to read contemporary accounts of the composers themselves. And so when I like the famous Brahms example is this pianist who studied with Clara Schumann, Fannie Davies, who wrote an account of listening to Brahms rehearse the C minor piano trio and how he took time in certain places when there were swells and how his approach, you know? And so I find those kinds of things, very enlightening actually. So I enjoy reading.

Roger:
Yeah. That gives you a sort of license, doesn’t it, it sort of tells you what, what the values were in those times and that, and that, especially the sort of performance practice, but there’s something about that. But then there’s the underlying, what’s the word, the nature of the content of music, right? Which the more you listen to you, the more you could sort of just distinguish between Brahms does just sound different, has different textures, different harmonies than Beethoven, even though he loved him so much.

Natasha:
But I think in terms of students often when we are coaching these pieces, I almost feel sometimes like you have to give them permission to be flexible. Like they’re, they’ve almost become so literal and sort of giving them say, look, you know, this needs to sound spontaneous. This needs to sound flexible and free. And so I find that I’m often sort of giving permission to, to explore in that way.

Roger:
It’s an interesting thing that in a way, the way you respond as a musician to music has so much to do with the actual harmonic content in it. And so what sometimes happens, you can take a sort of complicated piece of music with lots of instructions, how to play it in a rehearsal situation. You can take away those instructions, how to play it and simply play it slowly. And lusciously even if it were a fast and vigorous thing and in doing so, you discover just by looking for it, that it’s full of sort of interesting harmonies and melodies and combinations. And that also because you’re in sense a musician sort of leads you to play with certain sort of colors in your sound and listen for who’s the main voice and things like that. And so there’s quite a long way you can get just understanding the content who is even before you’re told how to play it. Does that make sense to you? So you sort of following its shapes and developments harmonic key,

Noa:
And I might be misunderstanding what you had said earlier. I just want to make sure to clarify if I understood correctly, I got the impression that yes, you look at this score, but there are sometimes things that aren’t apparent just by looking at the score that you discover when you’re playing with one another, that you then have to relook at this score to kind of make sense of what it might actually mean. Is that kind of what you guys were saying?

Roger:
I think certainly at the detailed level, that’s very true. I think if you take a sort of something that is a language that we can easily understand. I mean, this, it sits, in harmony, we understand, and so on and so forth, then the things you’re more likely to notice in the score, which you don’t notice just by playing are the more subtle things like the slight differences in articulations, that’s partly true. It might also lead if you were a little puzzled, what should I be listening for here? Because maybe you’ve been following them a lot in line, and then you’re not sure where it goes. And that’s a great place also to get out a score, really trace it. And just that sort of visual aid is crucial to that.

Natasha:
But I also find that, that I, we had sort of in our sort of preparation, thinking about your possible questions though, and I know you work a lot with the stage, you know, fright and all of that. And one of the things that I found this really helped me is is that if you’re onstage and you’re actually, you know, so you can get on stage and you can be kind of in your own head and really like fearful. And at that moment, you kind of closed down and you stopped listening. So if you just really focus on listening to the whole score and not just your own sound, but everything that’s going out, you’re sound in combination with other sounds that I found to be very helpful when I’m nervous on stage, getting me, I need to get outside of myself and into a bigger place. So if I’ve done the kind of preparation where I’ve both been listening in very imaginative ways in my rehearsals and my preparation, and also visually looked at the score, both that gives me that much more to hold onto when I’m on stage, if I’m nervous.

Roger:
There’s a very nice, quite new book by Ed Klorman about the sort of origins of chamber music from the classical era movements. And in a way, what he’s saying is something you could say is very obvious, which this is what you’re saying a little bit, which is that people often say almost a cliche, that chamber music is a conversation and you know, between four smart people, sometimes all speaking at once, but you can somehow still understand what they’re saying, but there’s a way in which it’s actually composed in which as you play it, you are actually intended to be surprised. So you’re playing a melody. And if it were not for the fact that the other player suddenly played a D flat, you would sort of play it quite innocently, but the fact that something happens changes the way you play it. And this is, it’s almost like it is a little drama. And so the more you are hearing those things, listening out reacting to them, or, or something is sort of pretty nice, but actually it’s made extra sweet because somebody is playing in thirds with you that often happens with sixths or something. And what does that do to your actual sound and think exactly thinking of these sort of things so much gets you out of your own head. And it’s how the music was conceived.

Noa:
I think this is what you’re saying. It’s kind of reflecting on my own experience when I was focused on technical accuracy. I do remember nerves being a lot worse, but when I actually started understanding what to look for in music and in the score and what to think about in advance, what decisions to make, where I was more kind of excited about, uh, you know, there’s a really cool kind of dynamic contrast moment coming here, or there’s a particular kind of vibrato that I’ve worked on that I think is really meaningful here, et cetera, et cetera, which not so dependent on a particular, very narrow kind of technical accuracy. I do remember being surprised that I wasn’t nervous in the same sort of way. Um, is that I’m assuming what you’re speaking to a little bit.

Natasha:
Yeah, absolutely.

Roger:
There’s a funny story that the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould writes about, which may seem like a strange story, but I took a sort of lesson from it, which I think was the lesson he was intending. He said he was trying desperately to learn a bit too quickly, a very difficult Beethoven Sonata. And he was struggling to sort of find the technique, but he practiced and practiced and practiced. But when he played best was when somebody came in and started making a big noise in his room, I think he was vacuuming or something. And then he found he could play it. And it, and it made him realize that there was some sort of distraction you could do from the actual physical thing when. And so what I took from that, and I think that was his intention. I remember sort of passage that used to scare me quite a lot in a particular quartet and the cellist plays alongside, I have a harder thing and the cellist has bom bom bom. And I discovered that if I really listened to the cello part and imagine I was playing it because I practiced enough, you know, it was there. So you sort of, it’s like how you go beyond even trusting yourself to actually distract yourself because actually the body has learned how to do it. Is that a good way to put it?

Natasha:
Yeah for sure

Roger:
So if you can sort of access that is good.

Natasha:
For me, I found also just that there’s such a nice virtuous circle with teaching because when you’re teaching, you’re sitting outside and you’re, you don’t have the nerves of having to physically execute it and you you’re hearing what the essence of the piece and what’s important and what’s important to bring out. And so that’s sort of objectivity in a way. I found very useful when I go back inside and play from the inside for that reason.

Noa:
That’s actually one of the reasons why we tend to choke under pressure to Roger’s story. When we start either consciously monitoring, motor movements that have already been learned at a pretty high level or even worse, try to consciously control those muscles that we don’t normally think about. Just like, you know, we don’t think about walking or sitting or anything like that, but once we start being self-conscious about it or trying to control things, that’s when things start falling apart. And so, so yeah, being able to distract yourself in a musically productive way seems to be one of the keys to being a little bit more resistant to choking. So…

Roger:
To your question about how much to listen to music though in learning something I’ve sort of, I must say I have contradictory thoughts about this because as I said, I mean, we both with situations where we’ve listened to so much music as kids that a lot of the music you’re going to learn, you have sort of heard already. And on the other hand, I’ve also been mistrustful of the idea of deciding to listen to the recording before I start to play it, because I don’t wanna be my relationship. I want to be between me and the composer based on also, you know, just enough ambient knowledge of, of language and so on. But I’ve more recently, maybe not before first playing something, but I’m more recently gone back to wanting to sort of hear how other people tackle the problems. And just sometimes I’m listening to a score and thinking, well, not do I like it, but like, what would I do?

Roger:
It’s a funny, you, you, you can listen in such a way that you’re not being influenced unduly. You sometimes feel that that’s the danger, the students, because we both had experienced people come in and play something. And they’ve actually just been listening to one recording. They’re trying to copy it. And actually that could be pretty successful, but doesn’t feel quite like the sincere way to go somehow. It’s not your own response. So listening in such a way, you’re thinking, well, what could I do with this? Or do I like what I don’t like? And that’s important.

Natasha:
Yeah. I think of course, one thing that’s funny thing that’s happened with us is that we, because we’re spending a lot of time, well performing, but also teaching a lot and analyzing performances and listening and thinking, well, what could I do better with this and what, you know, how could I, and so sometimes we’ll put something on and I’m much worse about this than Roger, like I’ll put something on. And I’ll start like analyzing like, oh, well, you know, it’s a little too much vibrato there that could have been, you know, the phrase I don’t really like that phrase. And so then I actually can’t turn off that teaching kind of brain I can. So sometimes I have to just listen to something outside. I can’t listen to, you know, a cellist or I can’t listen to something that’s too close to home because I, it’s very hard for me to turn that off. You are more able to turn that off. I’m not able, so sometimes like he gets mad at me cause I’m just like ruined the piece, you know? Cause I’m just,

Roger:
It was a bit, yeah. Which hadn’t noticed before. I’m a bit more of an amateur in that way.

Noa:
I do want to come back to the teaching thing in a second, but this is more kind of a practical question about the listening. Cause I remember a masterclass where Leon Fleisher was talking to this group and said that, you know, sometimes it’s, it’s like you were saying too easy to get overly influenced by the traditions of how something has been played over the years without really questioning whether that’s what this course suggests. And you know, so one person plays Tchaikovsky Concerto this way. And then a generation of people listened to that recording and then start playing it based off of that auditory kind of model. And then other people start playing it off of that. So it’s like the game of telephone where suddenly it’s not necessarily even close to what was originally in the music. And so he said, yeah, sometimes you look at the score as if you’ve never heard it before. And you might find that it’s a very different piece than the one that you think, you know. And, uh, I’m curious about that in terms of how do you balance that, but also on a more practical side, like when you’re talking about this listening, like, do you listen to it sometimes without the scores sometimes with the score, like does it matter which? Is there a reason for one or the other.

Roger:
But I think if you’re already functionally deciding you’re going to try and learn something by looking at the score, right. You want to look and listen at the same time. I think.

Natasha:
Yeah. I agree with that.

Natasha:
Um, if that’s the process you’re in, there are lots of different ways that I think if you have the luxury of a lot of time and you’re just going to be able to listen to lots of different recordings or something, or over your life you have happened to, then you don’t by any means have to be looking at a score for that to happen.

Natasha:
Yeah. But I think to answer your question, Noa about how things get so distorted over time. And so I found it really interesting to, you know, when you would say the Dvorak Cello Concerto and you go back and look at what actually he wrote, how things have gotten distorted. If you look at it, not like a cellist, but really like a composer, like ask yourself, “why” questions. Why would he have written that texture there? Why did he put an offbeat there? What does he, you know, what does this mean for your part? I find that those are the kinds of questions that I ask myself and my students, which, you know, how are these other parts as Roger was talking about earlier affecting your part. And so you’re looking at the score for those reasons actually. Yeah. Thinking more like a composer than a performer.

Roger:
Yes, and also more like an actor, because I mean, I think, you, people use the word motivation when in rehearsal as an actor. Right. And so you have to know why you’re saying these words and why you’re saying the way you’re saying them. I think you can assume that the composer assumes that you’re understanding them and you’re not just doing, what’s written on the page. I remember seeing some sort of estimate once that even a piece of Mozart, like about 90% of what you do, isn’t actually exactly written down. I mean, that was to tell you exactly how to phrase things because we all sing with phasing. And even to balance things, he doesn’t say the first violin should be more than the viola, but if he’s got the melody, you know, you’re listening for these things because that’s what you’re listening for.

Natasha:
And I mean, I remember my colleagues that I’ve played with in the Peabody trio for so long would always bring up this example of, you know, nobody thinks of a melody with bar lines in it. Like you don’t, you don’t imagine these arbitrary lines, you know, like you, you sort of have it in your head and then you think, okay, well how can I write that down? So it’s like, we’re, I think that’s why I probably composers in the 20th century, started to do away with bar lines and just write in different notate in different ways. It’s very arbitrary.

Roger:
But it’s sort of your job and you could call it interpretation cause it’s a sort of a posh word, but it’s sort of your job to really feel like you’ve come to an understanding of why the markings are there why the dynamics are there and you could have different reasons for it, but you need a reason just as an actor needs to know, why am I saying these words and not just technically doing something, but I’m feeling sad when I do it or I’m being surprised or whatever every night actually, night after night.

Noa:
That reminds me a little bit of what a software engineer told me once. And I really ought to talk about this with composers because I don’t know how they think, but the software engineer was talking about how a lot of what they do is, or at least this person did was about figuring out what are all the ways in which the user could break what it is that I’ve created and how do I make sure that they don’t, right? So they don’t like in a bank webpage, what happens if you put in a negative number, right? Like, is it going to suck money out of the person you’re trying to transfer to like by accident, they hit the negative side before I’m going to send $50 to so-and-so they hit negative 50, will it take money? And apparently they found this one. So this one particular bank, you know, it was, it hadn’t been accounted for.

Noa:
So if you put, I want to send so-and-so $50 and you put a negative 50, it actually took money out of the other person’s account. So yeah, it’s like kind of thinking of all the scenarios. And I think, I don’t remember if it was Natasha you or Roger who said this earlier, but you know, maybe the composer was listening to a, an ensemble, play something and, and they played it in such a way where it’s like, oh, I need to make an adjustment. So they don’t misinterpret the lack of a dot or what the dot really means. And, and I remember, I think in grad school starting to look at music and say, okay, so if, if this accent wasn’t here, how would I have played it? And that’s okay. So clearly that’s not what the composer wanted cause they put an accent, so how must I then adjust so that it maybe represents for what they wanted. I mean, is that sort of the, the kind of thing you’re talking about by thinking like a composer when…

Natasha:
Yeah, absolutely. And I also, actually there was another anecdote that I heard recently about Mozart and this concerto, I can’t remember where I read this, but that he apparently would sometimes not write dynamics in his his concertos in the solo part. And he was reacting to actually, whether the, the audience was falling asleep or whether they were too rowdy. And so if they were too rowdy, he would come in really soft after the orchestral tutti and, and the opposite and vice versa. So his dynamics were actually responding to the audience in the moment, which it was really surprising. So thinking like a composer can mean all sorts of things.

Roger:
But talking about the score, there are two things. Your question was how do, how are you going to learn a piece for the first time, whether you should have listened to it a little bit score that there’s a second question is which ever the answer to that is you do want to be very, very faithful to the score and it might be that that’s, once you get into having heard it for the first time, or play it for the first time. But I mean, there’s so many, the great composers, “great”, the ones we sort of continue to just love and be fascinated by they’re so quirky. And especially these days, it used to be, the publishers were sort of, they’d sort of iron out differences. Like somebody’ does something differently, recapitulation. They couldn’t have meant that. Even take away some of the spicy harmonies, even in Mozart 70%, but nowadays you sort of can get closer to preserving those sort of differences and close attention to your parts of what it actually says, what the score says, I totally advocate that. It’s just a much more, you just feel like you owe it to the composer who’s got all these sort of imaginative ideas and you compose very slowly and every note and every bar is sort of so thought out in such a detailed way. So thatadherence to the being faithful to what they’ve written seems important.

Noa:
Right. Well, it seems like it makes it more, more fun as well to be attentive to these things as intentional, as opposed to, it must be an accident that this has an inconsistency relative to previously and so forth. Now I’ve lost the sort of really nice transition that we had to the teaching thing that I think Natasha, you brought up, but, um, I’m going to try to swivel back to that anyway. And I don’t even remember exactly what it is that you were talking about, but it did remind me of something. I think you wrote in CelloBello about a heightened degree of self-consciousness when playing for students, because there’s a degree of perhaps I need to really demonstrate or practice what I preach because I’ve been preaching about it so much that I need to make sure I’m doing it as well. Which of course is not helpful in a performance situation. So I’m curious how, how you and Roger as well, kind of put that teaching brain aside for a moment and really just focus on, on performing or playing.

Natasha:
It would be a lie to say it’s not a struggle. I mean, you know, performing is a challenge and, and I still get nervous and I try to, I have to deal with it every time, you know, but I think once when I was preparing a, a faculty recital and I was just beside myself, I was so nervous, but I suddenly had this realization, you know, which just took so much of the weight off. It just, you know, we are teaching an ideal, what we’re teaching is what we hope, hope we’re all searching for as musicians. And if you know that you’re trying to do that, you may not always be successful, but you’re trying, and you as the teacher and the students were all in that together in that search and that just took so much pressure off and then, okay, well, I don’t have to be perfect.

Natasha:
I can try to do this. And as long as I’m trying and using all of my knowledge and ability, then I can’t ask more of myself than that really. And to be, and also to be honest with yourself about, do you know that you prepared as well as you could? I mean, that’s one thing I asked my students, you know, to be honest with yourself when you’re successful and when you’re not successful in a performance, whether you think you yourself was successful or whether the audience liked it or not, or the critics liked it or not. There’s a moment where you, as an artist have to ask yourself, was I true to what I tried to do? Did I work as hard as I could have? Did I really try to play to these ideals? And if the answer is yes to that, then you can’t ask more of yourself. You know? So that was really my kind of moment of realization that took some of the pressure off. It didn’t make it like easy. I mean, I didn’t waltz onto the stage that great, you know, but, but it, it did, it took a little bit of the edge off and I was able to kind of just at least get some perspective and allow myself to enjoy the performances.

Noa:
I feel like that’s a pretty huge mental paradigm shift though, in that it doesn’t even, I’m assuming maybe even teachers or changes how you approach teaching and how you engage with students. And the you’re not making yourself out to be this expert, who’s arrived at a destination, but one who is still learning and, and on the path to mastery that, you know, you’ll never quite reach, but always continue to, to reach towards, it reminds me of a book called Mastery by George Leonard where, I mean, my take away from it was that it’s not so important. Whether you get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s just important that you be on the right path on the path to mastery.

Roger:
Yeah. There’s this sort of positive feedback loop, as you mentioned before, because one of the things you find when you’re teaching is that if you can get students to sort of channel their own imaginations, there’s stuff that happens given that they they’ve got a sort of basic technique that they’ve spent the time with it and so on, but I think they discover and you can see it happen. The there’s an extra sort of transcendent leap that happens when you get them to just imagine, what, what mood am I making here? What sounds I’m making? What do I feel in the music? And to the extent that that can take over from the technical things that can transcend the technical. And that is something you bring into performance as well. So as you go on stage, I mean, something that helps me a lot is really spending a lot of time thinking what actual sound do I want to make when I go on, which is not very intellectual at all, but it’s just, what do I want to feel like? And that’s translates for me into sort of with how I’m putting my fingers down, how my muscles are soft, but it comes from an imagination of how do you want to meet the audience? That’s how you meet the audience with your actual sound, your voice. And if you can sort of try to even be thinking about those things, even before you go on. And these are the things that we say to our students as well, they’re not sort of a variance with each other. So you can sort of learn from imparting that, that,

Natasha:
That came home to me recently, very powerfully. When I just two weeks ago, I had my first in-person studio class that we haven’t had for a year. And for the students playing, it was the first time they’d played for more than one person or two people at a time. And at the same time, it was also the first time a bunch of us had listened to music together. And, you know, this was just studio class. So it wasn’t like finished performances, but when each person finished there was this, that moment of that sort of magical moment at the end when the sound finishes and everyone is just in their listening head and kind of communing with the music. And it was a very palpable that, that moment of sort of communal listening that silence at the end. I never noticed it as powerfully and I never felt in a studio class that it lasted as long as it did. And I don’t know if that was my imagination or just that we hadn’t experienced it together in so long, but it was a really powerful feeling and something I want to keep remembering as we come back into the world as it were, that sort of sense of the magic that’s created when you have everyone listening together. And I think that that’s been a struggle this past year in a way that we’ve had to kind of imagine that rather than experience that.

Noa:
Yeah, cause the kind of listening we’ve done over the last year has been very different. There were a couple other things I wanted to ask related to something I saw at the Juilliard Journal, Natasha. I mentioned the, you know, the Q and A’s that they do every month or similar are often fun. And one of the questions that you’re asked is what do you wish you’d get asked and you responded, how can my child study music? And so I’m curious about a couple things, one, just more about that question, but also Natasha, I know that you’ve said your parents were involved in music and Roger, I don’t remember what your family history with music was, but

Roger:
Amateur musicians and but music lovers.

Noa:
Um, I’m also curious, not just your own experience, parenting musical children, but what your relationship with practicing might’ve been growing up as well. And if there’s any similarity, you see as parents and whatnot. Yeah. It, cause it’s something that I’m discovering with my own kids and how that,

Natasha:
You know, Noa, what comes to my mind first and foremost in every case is the answer to both how my parents dealt with the whole thing and how we have dealt with our children is choice. So for example, I think that, I mean, what both of our daughters have ended up doing is more towards the vocal side of things. They’re, they’re both singer, they’re both singing and writing songs. Um, and, but they did practice string instruments. So our daughter who was a cellist, you know, she for a little while, she was a cellist, you know, and it wasn’t a good thing, you know, because I would be in the kitchen making dinner and she’d be practicing and I’d shout, you know, something from the other room that’s out of tune or do that again. Or, you know, it was just a disaster. Like that’s just not going to work, obviously.

Natasha:
So, you know, I think the fact that they were able to carve out their own sort of that they were very musical and they were very, uh, loved it, but they needed to carve out their own space in their music and their approach to music. So they kind of both found their way to singing, which was, we were thrilled by. And I think with my parents growing up, you know, it was always like, they knew I loved my cello lessons, but they, they were like, you know, okay, if you don’t practice, we’re not going to pay for your cello lessons. It wasn’t like you have to practice, which I wish in some ways they were a little stricter, but, but it was my choice to do it. And I think that was important too. It was my choice to continue. I had to show that if I was going to continue with these lessons, I had to do the work so that I think that, and I think that’s important that I think a lot of students, you know, while they can get very advanced by their parents pushing them incredibly, I think once they get to that stage of life, when they have to own it themselves, that unless they’ve made a choice, I think everyone gets to a point in their life at some point when they have to make that choice, whether they’re owning it themselves.

Natasha:
And I think giving people that choices are really an important thing.

Roger:
Yes. I don’t think I ever felt pressure to practice with my parents. In some ways they sometimes tell me to do less of it, I used to get up sort of too early in the morning. And I thought they didn’t know that I did it, but I think maybe they did. So, but it’s, it’s really hard to get it right with the kids. I mean, they’re, they’re both beautiful singers and creative writers and such, but we couldn’t really find a way of getting them to play string instruments. I mean, they did do quite well. We had such beautiful relationships with them, but, but, but a cloud would descend one of my daughters. She please, you know, you’ve gotta be in the room when I practice. But being in the room when she practiced actually didn’t help. You said anything. There was just no way to do it.

Noa:
Can I ask how long you tried before you came to the realization that ?

Roger:
A few years

Natasha:
Oh, it was like a good five to seven years on each in each case, don’t you think the…?

Roger:
Yeah, I guess so.

Natasha:
Yes I think so. Yeah.

Roger:
They certainly enjoyed some of it and learned from it and yeah, it was all all good.

Natasha:
Yeah. Actually recently I think we listened back to a performance that our younger one did when she was about 11 she’s now 19, 18, almost 19. And I was like, wow, that was better than I remember.

Roger:
I think she thought so too. Yeah.

Natasha:
We all thought it was better than we remember it. And I thought, wow, that’s interesting. You know, that shows you how skewed your perspective is at the time where you’re so critical. You want them to do so well and you just lose sight of what they’re actually doing.

Roger:
There are no rules. I mean, as every parent knows every kid from in the in the same time as the two different from each other and you know, there are no rules, you just have to see what happens. But I agree. I mean, you don’t want to force them to do it. Of course you don’t. But I mean, on the other hand, I remember some, some friends of mine, in London actually paying their that’s pretty funny. They paid their kids to practice and actually worked because they went on practicing. They’ve got quite good, but we didn’t think we should do that.

Natasha:
I think we also felt like, I mean, I felt, we felt pretty strongly that they’re just let it, like letting them give up was not an idea. You know, that, that, that sense to teach them something, that’s something you work out over a long period was a really valuable lesson. And so right. I mean that they had to get to a certain point and then they could make the choice to decide to continue or not. So we, I think we did, we definitely helped with that.

Roger:
Especially since they had both asked to do it in the first place. It’s funny. Yeah. Our older daughter just, she had those funny words to the little kids and she would point to a viola case, or a cello case and say “babies”, which was her way of saying music. And she clearly wanted to do it until she actually did it. But now they’ve turned out in as beautiful musicians

Noa:
Was the singing, something that came out of, I want to explore something new or was it mom and dad, are expecting me to stay involved in music somehow. And this is the thing that I’m going to do

Roger:
They couldn’t help singing all day.

Natasha:
They were always singing, constantly.

Roger:
Yeah. And they love being in choruses. And so, and then, yeah, I think we all find out we as musicians. I mean, there’s a certain you get up and somebody enjoys the way you do it. And that also is a nice positive feedback. So you feel like you’re giving and people are sort of understanding what you’re doing and that happened with both of them with the singing too, I think. Would you say ?

Natasha:
yeah.

Roger:
So that’s sort of encouraged to use, encourages you to feel like you’ve got something to offer and makes you develop it.

Noa:
I wanted to follow up real quick on the personal practicing, because that’s something that I’m now kind of newly curious about because it seems everyone has such a different relationship with practicing growing up, but it’s not necessarily the case that everyone who, you know, quote succeeds in music as a career had such a positive relationship with practicing growing up. So I don’t have a specific question per se. I’m just curious to hear a little bit more about what it was like and at what point it started to become something like you said, Natasha, that you, you owned a little more of yourself and how that happened and so forth.

Roger:
My own experience of this. And I think I sort of carried this into my teaching somewhat is that particular point I was given a piece, which is too hard for me, but I absolutely loved it. It was Vivaldi A minor Violin Concerto. And it was really hard for me, but I so much loved it that I spent hours during the summer holiday when I wasn’t even having violin lessons, just because I liked it so much. And that was my first real sort of primary, you know, I’d practiced a bit before, but that just so I’m always trying to get students to do things that they really want to play. Also with chamber groups, sending something, ideally, that’s something you love and you can sort of imagine the, the way you want it to end up in the end. It’s such a powerful sort of incentive, isn’t it? So that’s a very romantic way of putting it, but that was my experience. And then in doing so you have this sort of sense of knowing on a problem and sort of enjoying the problem solving aspects of it, if that’s where your mind goes, which is part of what musicians have to do as well.

Natasha:
Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s one of the fun parts I remember. I remember actually I was told this silly story about myself in college was I think that that was my teacher made, realized that I would end up doing a lot of teaching in my life because I would come to every lesson and I would give him a sort of like a 10 minute lecture on exactly how my practicing had gone that week and exactly what I did. And one week I came in and he finally looked at me and said shut up Natasha and just play, you know, so there was sort of, I was always kinda struggling with that, but I think, yeah, I think I enjoyed the sort of tackling a problem part of it. I mean, loved music. I think I just loved music so much that I just wanted to play. And I was so excited to play these different pieces, but also the sort of intellectual exercise of solving problems and organizing your own time.

Natasha:
And I think all those aspects and the psychological aspect, all of it fascinated me. But I think, you know, we joke about this now about, you know, just opening up the case, getting the instrument out of the case is a big factor. So we have a joke in our household. Like if one of us is running around other things like putting stamps on envelopes and like clearing up the table by the entrance or whatever we’ll say, are you about to practice? You know? And that’s like something that happens, you know,

Roger:
isn’t that true?

Natasha:
It’s just getting them out of the case is closing the door and sitting down and doing that.

Roger:
And then you do get caught, to work

Natasha:
You get into it ! That pre opening the case part, that’s the hardest door to walk through.

Noa:
I feel like part of that, at least in my memory, going back a long time was that I didn’t even really know what exactly to do in the practice room. And so that undefined nature of, I just know I need to play so that I get better. And there’ll be no guarantee at that point because they had no strategies as to whether things would get better or not at all. I think it was a real disincentive to practicing. I’m assuming that’s changed over the years, but do you remember a time when he started getting a glimpse of, oh, this is what problem solving means or it looks like, or how I approach it. Did you remember what that was like? Or like how, how did you start? Like when you work with students and they seem to not quite know exactly what to do in the practice room, like, what are some of the things you do to help them figure out how to, I

Natasha:
Would say, I think it’s really important to understand that there are certain things that might go better that day, you know, that you might work at something and it’ll feel better right away. And then other things that will take long-term chipping away at. And I think it, I think a lot of people don’t understand that they think that either they’re practicing the wrong way, if it doesn’t get better. But what I usually tell them is like, if you’re practicing, you know, you’re really analyzing the problem and trying to understand it and working at it consistently over a period of time, there are just certain problems that need time. And there are other problems that are solved by a good fingering or a masterful, “think of your first finger at that moment, or think of the interval.” You know, I mean, there are little things that help in the moment, but that practicing is really something that’s both short and long-term. And I think if you understand that you’ve come a long way.

Roger:
And I think what a lot of the great teachers and players know is that practicing sort of slowly, but with great care and musical intention and beauty is, is a lovely thing in itself to do. Cause you sounded good when you play slowly and not divorcing it from the music. And it’s where the really, the really good work is done. You sort of take away the muscular tension. It’s also true in rehearsing with colleagues and chamber music. You sort of play not so slowly that as I sometimes say, you fall off the bike. I mean, it’s got to have this sort of sense of it’s still going, you know, where you’re going. You’re not analyzing every note cause that doesn’t even make sense. You’re thinking of phrases and colors. But the thing is that there’s a technical aspect to phrasing. In other words, if you’re not thinking about phrasing, then you’re also not moving your bow more when you’re growing or you’re not deepening your vibrato as you go to a point where you want to bloom. So if you’re not doing those shapes, there’s at least half what you should be doing, technically isn’t even going to happen. That’s how I see it. So people would just say, well, learn the notes. And then learn the music on afterwards, I think are missing something crucial. Technically

Natasha:
You have to unlearn. If you do it that way

Roger:
You just sort of end up just being stiff from the students saying, so, and then the nice thing about that is that it’s, it’s good for you physically because you’re sort of varying things all the time, but also it’s nice. I mean, you can make the instrument sound good all the time. It gives you this sort of confidence

Natasha:
And also it teaches you something about flow. I find often that you can practice in mistakes and you actually practice in fear. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed. So like, you know, if you always hesitate in a place, right. I mean, obviously

Roger:
Or play the top note softly, because you’re not quite sure if you’ve got it.

Natasha:
Right, and then you keep doing that. You’re just actually reinforcing your fear. So that’s important to me.

Roger:
So sort of just trying to always be clear about I mean, you know, you, you have to trust that you do we, you do we all have instincts. As we talked about people sing, they tend to sing with phrasing musically. So just listening for that, am I playing in a way that makes the thing sound musical and natural, even when it’s slow

Natasha:
And then not allowing yourself to stop a lot. I think there has to be a time of your practicing, where you are analyzing problems and really dissecting what might be wrong. And then another side of the practicing where you’re working on the flow and the continuity and that’s something actually, I’ve been working a lot with my students recently because I actually had this realization that all of them were just stopping all the time when they never practice, even in a slow tempo, they always, especially, especially in slow tempos, they were never practicing fluidly. And so it wasn’t helping them.

Roger:
Yeah. And then it gives you the time to really isolate because you keep on getting the shift wrong. So go back and actually really fix that problem, then do it in the flow again. And it’s, it’s a sort of simple formula, but it really is a nice way to practice where you sort of have an aim in your mind.

Notes

More Natasha, Roger, and family

Natasha and Roger both do a ton of performing and teaching, so I thought I’d include a small sample of each domain to explore:

Natasha

  • Here’s Natasha’s recordings of Beethoven’s op.102 cello sonatas: Beethoven: Opus 102 Sonatas for Cello and Piano (Natasha Brofsky & Seth Knopp)
  • And a masterclass where she works with a student on the first movement of the Brahms F Major Cello Sonata: Natasha Brofsky Master Class: Brahms F Major Sonata, Mvt. 1

Roger

  • Here’s a link to a movement from Roger and the JSQ’s recent recording of Beethoven’s “Rasumovsky” Quartet, Bartok #3, and Dvořák “American”: Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2: IV. Finale. Presto  | And, a link to the complete album
  • And here’s Roger coaching a quartet playing Bartók #6, with JSQ colleague Areta Zhulla: Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6 | Juilliard Areta Zhulla & Roger Tapping Music Master Class

…and family

I asked Natasha and Roger a couple questions related to parenting in this episode, so I thought it might be fun to include their daughters in this post in some way too. =) So if you were wondering who shot the photo of Natasha and Roger at the top of the page, that would be courtesy of their daughter Ellie. And, here’s a link to some of their daughter Cordelia’s recent projects: Cordelia Tapping

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

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