The problem with perfection...

Violinist Henning Kraggerud laments the loss of the well-rounded musician

The problem with perfection...
(Credit: Robert Romik)

When Mozart was growing up, his father Leopold Mozart taught him and his sister Nannerl dancing, languages, composing, improvising, singing, violin and piano. They also travelled, and experienced many different styles of playing and composing around Europe.

Beethoven was more known as an improviser than as a composer, during his first ten years in Vienna. Paganini is said to have improved his skills as a violinist mostly through composing. Norwegian composer and violinist Ole Bull was largely an autodidact, and even the ‘King of the Violin’ Eugene Ysaye was known to make mistakes in performances, like playing in the wrong octave, or playing the bassoon part for a few bars in the middle of a concerto. 

Then came along Sevcik, the Carl Flesch Scale system, violin competitions, recordings and much more. Violinists became more and more specialised, and it suddenly became rare for professional classical musicians also to be composers, and vice versa, and improvising went out of fashion. So is classical music really more relevant and engaging these days, when mistakes and out of tune notes are more and more seldom, and when there is arguably less difference in playing styles from one violinist to another than any time in history? Could it be that an unhealthy degree of clinical perfection, separation of composers and instrumentalists as professions and many other related issues are slowly killing the spirit of classical music life? Are we in danger of rotting from the core outwards? In the musical world, apart from in our classical musical genre, musicians are much more likely to compose their own music or part of it. Why is that so? And what does this lack of integration between disciplines do to classical music?

Imagine a theatre where the author dictates the speed at which the actors should read each sentence, and how loudly each word should be read, the length of each word and the tonal character of the voice of the actor. Then you can see how little freedom classical musicians are given sometimes in modern scores as compared to those from the time of say Bach to Brahms. Is the modern symphonic orchestra really comparable with a 100-player-strong cover band?

Debussy wrote that his metronome marks were like roses in the morning: they lost their smells quickly and were generally not to be trusted after the first bar or so. So before you try to force his music to do something that you maybe feel is against its nature, this can be very useful to know. When Brahms was conducting, he often made big accelerandos and ritardandos not written in his scores. When a student asked why he wrote in any tempo markings at all, he said that it was because he wanted that tempi every time, while he only wanted the others when he felt like it. He also (allegedly) said that he didn’t want to write too much into his scores since it would limit the great musicians’ possibilities and the bad ones would find ways to misunderstand it anyway, and so not be helped by the markings either. 

So the moral could be: investigate every part of the score to find ways to love it, to have fun, to see what possibilities within yourself it can trigger. Read as much as you can about music history and the time when the piece was written so you can to find new inspiration and discover different ways to interpret the notation. Use any method with or without your instrument which can bring you closer to something of value to you. Distrust anyone who proclaims universal truths, including me. "Nobody spreads as much darkness as those who have seen the light" Nils F. Nilsen wrote. Then when you feel that the piece is part of yourself, play from your heart and trust your feelings even if it means to depart from the written score at times. You cannot be wiser than yourself, so if you perform the piece as you most like it after you consider that you have really got to know it, this is where you honestly are with the piece at that particular moment in time. And I believe the chances of someone listening to it and liking it will dramatically increase.

Practise intonation to feel the pleasure of a chord in tune, practise different rhythmical patterns in passages to feel the pleasure of synchronising your fingers and arms. Practise etudes also as a piece of music, choose etudes which are nice music.

Try to improvise a bit every day to reduce the distance between thought and output and make the instrument act as part of your body. Try to compose a bit if you feel the slightest urge. My experience is that most are much better at improvising and composing that they think, if they give it a fair try.

Do you really like what you are playing? If not, search for things to love in it using your hopefully ever-expanding toolbox of angles and methods to approach it … or play another piece, if you still think it is junk!

The most difficult thing is to break unhealthy patterns; the first time you try new ways of practising (or teaching) is the most difficult. Whatever has brought you where you are today can be the same thing which prevents you from further improvements. To improve is to change. Take on the discomfort of trying something new, and then afterwards you can evaluate it. You will not take harm from that, but the benefits can be life changing.


Henning Kraggerud is a Norwegian violinist and composer, and the International Chair in Violin at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. His recording of Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos 3-5 is now available on Naxos. Click here to find out more.


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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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