“MUSICALITY” - AN ELUSIVE CONCEPT
Updated: Feb 22
The more I delve into new words and concepts from the world of music, the more I find ambiguity and vagueness. So often the experts I consult, such as piano teachers, performing pianists, or composers, tell me the answer “depends on the context -- and it means a lot of things.”
Being trained as a lawyer often results in frustration when I hear this response, and I wonder why musical words cannot be more concrete and consistent in meaning and use? But then, never mind; I left the legal world some 32 years ago and voluntarily and delightedly moved fully into the artistic and lately, musical, world! (LOL)
(BTW, I just received a former library copy of the 2002 edition of "The Oxford Companion to Music" edited by Alison Latham. I highly commend this dictionary of musical terms, theory, music styles, composers, and musicians, to any new music student. I wish I had had it when I first re-started my elementary piano studies 20 months ago! Of course, readers of the 2002 edition will miss information on notable pianists who became known during the last 20 years, such as Khatia Buniatishvilli and Yuja Wang, and there are no or few comments on the history of musical styles other than from the classical, romantic, and early modernist periods.)
Let’s take the word “musicality.” I first heard it used a little over a year ago when I was playing a number of pianos for sale in stores or private residences, in order to find my piano, The Duchess. Bruce Nalezny, a composer and piano broker, met me at a local piano store to try out four pianos he had located, ones that he felt suitable for my tonal, touch, and budget needs. After he heard me play a few simple pieces that I always used to test any piano, he expressed surprise at the feeling I had for the differences of this or that particular piano, and for my expressiveness in the pieces I had played. I don't remember if he used the term "musicality," but I think that is what he meant. To be sure, I played awkwardly using a score, since by then I had only had about 10 months of piano lessons under my fingers.
As time progressed, my three piano teachers mentioned at one time or another, that I had a sense of “musicality,” but no one explained it to me. I intuited that that was something good to have, but wasn't sure what it was. Recently I set out to understand what precisely I might have a sense of?
Robert Estrin (my current teacher) who has a large number of online students from around the world and years of teaching students in his studio, recently summarized “musicality” for me as:
“the ability to create emotion in the listener.”
His recent vlog on the word was a bit more helpful. He stressed that musicality incorporates playing expressively (which can be learned or improved), but also necessitates good technique in order to manifest physically through the piano what one hears and feels emotionally inside one’s mind and body. However, he says, the best pianistic technique does not automatically result in musicality, and the performer and performance can come off as remote or cold. I've noted that in listening to some performances at the SF Symphony as well as on YouTube; I can be astounded by the performer's technique, but feel not much at all.
Of course, what creates emotion can be dependent not only on the individual player, but on many other things including the listener. The perception of “musicality” can depend on or be influenced by culture, age, gender, race, personality, what instrument is being played and how well known or popular that is with the listener, what music one has been raised with or come of age with (Elvis will forever be one of my five favorite singer-musicians!), exposure to the musical genre, period of music, what one's peers or mentor likes, what Robert calls "musical intelligence" (knowledge of music theory and structure), and other.
I think to express musicality on an instrument, two parts of the body are key to both performer and listener: the ear, and the body and heart.
THE EAR: The listener must first listen and hear the composition, really “hear” it down to its bones, including structure, theme or motif, nuances, dynamics, transitions, melody line, harmonies, phrases, cadences, and coda. Then one must hear the tempo, rhythm, and the style of music. Some writers have called this “deep listening.”
THE BODY: Sometimes when I am fully focused on and listening intently to a piece, my body starts to get involved. As I begin to listen, feelings of one kind or another may develop. Then I "lean" further in to the piece and search for something that attracts me -- or not. If not, I may take on the piece to learn (usually not!), but it remains a mechanism on which, or via which, to learn some piano technique, and that is the end of it.
But if I feel something -- good, bad, or ugly -- then my heart has become involved in the process of evaluation, and the musician has communicated with me by eliciting an emotion. The musician to me, has been “musical.”
In response to Robert’s vlog, I speculated on whether taking classes in the dance, martial, or physical massage and energy arts would or could improve one’s musicality on the piano? I am in complete concordance with his astute reply:
“Experience in dance, theater, and even the fine arts can all aid in playing expressively. In fact, just taking in life, whether it's experiencing a beautiful sunset, or enjoying a conversation with a close friend, or ultimately, being truly present, are what make being musical possible!”
To which I say: "A-woman!" (My neighbor pianist friend and mentor, Joe, is pictured playing The Duchess, while I lie enthralled under the soundboard!)