My performance goals and preparation methods... illustrated in Purcell's Chacony

- Dr. Bradley Lehman


My keyboard arrangement of Henry Purcell's Chacony in G Minor works best on clavichord or harpsichord, but also reasonably well on organ or piano. The original piece is for strings; I have made voice exchanges or octave transpositions at various places to make it more easily playable with relaxed arm motion.

It looks rough on paper. Perhaps someday I will get around to re-notating the whole thing. But, this should at least give a reasonable idea of the arrangement.

Preparation and training

This score is an illustration of my typical working methods as I prepare a piece for performance. Thorough preparation is especially important when a piece is at the limits of physical playability, as this one is.

Preparation is the training of the "left brain" [LB], "right brain" [RB], and physical motions [PM]. The principles are similar to those of "method acting": become the character and then behave naturally. Whatever one has to say will then come out in the correct language and communicate directly. (And in some music, one has to be three or more characters simultaneously, in conversation....)

To accomplish this I generally go through a score multiple times marking it extensively. The score grows from a page of undifferentiated notes into a picture of larger interactive events grouped intelligently: a visual record of relationships and hierarchies and purpose. Every note is there for some reason, and most of those reasons can be determined before performance time.

I mark the score so I won't have to remember the same decisions with foreground attention later; a performance is not the time to be rethinking grammar. (Marking also helps me quickly relearn pieces that have been put away for a while.)

  • Linear clarity: mark each individual voice for phrasing, breaths, appoggiatura groupings, melismas, imitative entrances, and other musical gestures. This step is parsing the basic musical grammar first, thinking as a composer and examining the language: essential! [LB]

  • Mark dynamic accents and crescendos/decrescendos to be played or simulated, again as part of the basic grammar of the piece. (This is important even on the harpsichord and organ, where many people believe dynamics are impossible. Good technique makes the listener hear these dynamics regardless of any objective quantity of sound.) [LB/RB]

  • Mark any notes that seem to need special attention to shortness or length: imagine how a good wind or string player or a singer would interpret them as strong or weak notes. Make the hierarchy of the notes visible. [LB]

  • Play through very slowly, working out hand distributions and fingerings which best obtain the sound that is required from the above steps. The purpose of technique is to get the right expression; it is not an end in itself. [PM/LB]

  • Circle or otherwise highlight any notes which will require a special amount of attention during the heat of performance, whether for musical or for technical reasons. [LB/RB]

  • If there exists a bar anywhere which has no markings yet, find something in it to mark: give the interpretive right brain some reassurance that the bar has been thought about! [RB]

  • After all this (not before), play through the piece many times paying attention to all markings. Do not skip over even the smallest marked detail, as it has been marked for a good reason. Any earlier sight-reading that bypasses this background preparation will end up being counterproductive; one will learn physical motions that have to be unlearned as they give the wrong sound. [LB/PM]

  • Sometimes I also mark harmonic events and large-scale arrival points, though not in this piece. (This piece's compositional structure is self-evident: the respites from G minor are obvious.) Such markings would be anything that the right brain's "big-picture" attention would need to know about during performance. They also help the left brain know where we are within the structure. [LB/RB]

  • As the big picture comes into view, mark any large-scale interpretive ideas as well. [RB]

  • Listen to as many relevant performances by others as possible, in any medium. [LB/RB]

  • Play the piece on different instruments to enrich the vision and range of the piece. The physical motions of different instruments can inform the interpretations on the others. Also play in different environments if possible, listening to the differences in the rooms. [LB/RB/PM]

  • Practice to develop a varied range of interpretations, any of which may be called upon as needed during the performance, but all sharing the same grammar as learned above. [RB/PM]

  • Instead of "slaving away" too much in a practice room, go read books and listen to music and talk to people. Think about the piece away from the instrument. Rehearsal of physical motion is only about 10% of preparing a good performance. Prepare the brain and the soul.

Goals of this process: expressive performances

I try to learn a piece so well that all the above preparation is in the background and middleground (else the playing will sound pedantic or labored); i.e., thoroughly prepare the left brain and the physical technique so they can play on autopilot. One can always fall back on them in an emergency, if circumstances prevent creative response. (This might be enough to please some listeners anyway: those who are pleased by a replay of practice-room perfection and an absence of train wrecks. Many listeners never learn to expect more than that from classical music performance.) Technical "correctness" must be there, but should be so far in the background that its perfection does not draw attention. That's not music.

The music's foreground is the improvisatory freedom fitting the occasion of the performance: direct musical expression by the right brain which has been trained to use the range available to it. This is the level where the music has a chance to move people and to be an occasion: something happening "before the listener's very ears." One has prepared oneself so the reactive gestures in the event are natural and conversational. With the right brain in charge and responding to the audience, everything should sound fresh, easy, inevitable, and soulful: just breathe and play.

And if the audience is truly paying attention, reward them by taking chances, letting everyone (including oneself) learn something new about the piece each time it is played....

Art: resonant expression of that which others already know to be true

Role models

So, whose performances do I admire? I can generally find something to enjoy in almost anyone's performance, as long as I sense that the performer has some genuine involvement in the music (not just assembling the notes accurately as an end in itself).

I am pleased when the performer has considered details carefully and thoughtfully, and then reassembled the piece so that it sounds organic and "in the moment." The music unfolds and grows naturally, with a balance of inevitability and whimsy, a clear structure yet with a sense of play and ease...a delight in controlled irrationality. The performer adds something personal to the music, but short of eccentricity or intellectual pedantry. It has to sound as if the music is presenting itself convincingly, with a life of its own. (I suppose I've already said that with the word "organic.") It helps if the performer is allowing fresh things to happen every time, either improvising directly or allowing the music to sound improvised. The music has to sound focused and vital, not like just another careful run-through from a practice room. Cautious "correctness" is deadly. If I wanted to hear something merely correct from the page or a treatise, I'd just go look at the score and listen to it mentally. The music has to mean something beyond its grammar.

The following are some of the performers whom I feel I most resonate with; there are others whom I could list also. Otto Klemperer, Alfred Cortot, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Pablo Casals, Philippe Herreweghe, Hopkinson Smith, Andrew Manze, Fabio Biondi, The Atlantis Ensemble, Roberto Loreggian, Enrico Baiano, Richard Egarr, Gustav Leonhardt, Helene Grimaud, Leopold Stokowski, Walter Gieseking, Robert Levin, Jordi Savall, Antonio Barbosa, Robert Hill, Christiane Jaccottet, Sylvia McNair, Edward Parmentier, Il Giardino Armonico, Bela Bartok, Jascha Horenstein, Ernest Ansermet, Zhu Xiao-Mei, Ginette Neveu, Maud Powell, Sviatoslav Richter, Quatour Mosaiques, Pieter Wispelwey, John Barbirolli, Andrew Lawrence-King, Mark Swartzentruber, Andrew Parrott, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett (when improvising), Andre Previn (when improvising), .... Notice that many of these performers sound quite different from one another, yet they share that ability to present deeply probing and natural interpretations.

I find I return most readily to hear these people's performances repeatedly: in their work I often hear a type of spiritual involvement beyond merely playing well. They let the music emerge, yet without sounding generic. They illuminate the meaning and structure of the music, and it does not matter so much what the medium is.

On some days I'm also fond of more "interventionist" approaches: Willem Mengelberg, Glenn Gould, Jacqueline du Pre, Pierre Hantai, Blandine Verlet, Leonard Bernstein, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Joao Carlos Martins, Wolfgang Rubsam, .... But I usually enjoy these performances more as intellectual curiosities than as main versions. If the performer distracts me from direct experience of the music, I find I am ultimately more impressed than moved.

Obviously, all of this is very difficult to balance! How far should the performer go before it sounds too unnatural? How far should the performer go to sound involved enough?

It is the interpreter's job to assimilate as much as possible the feeling which the composer turned into music, and to express it in such a way that the listener can hear it in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm and tempo. I have made my choice. First I imagine the musically sensitive listener. Thus I have faith in the listener, just as I have faith in the music, and the two things hang together. My idea is that the listener is able to understand and so all I need to do, in so far as I am able, is to let the music speak, without recourse to the sort of effects that one can always produce, but at the expense of truth. - Ernest Ansermet

Music must cause fire to flare up from the spirit - and not only sparks from the clavier.... - Alfred Cortot

(Coincidentally, Ansermet and Cortot were both Swiss, as were my ancestors...)


With all those delicately balanced goals in mind, I offer examples of my own harpsichord and organ performances .... (The Purcell piece above is not included with these.) Some might be successful, others not. Different listeners will find different things in them.

See also this essay about decoro, sprezzatura, and grazia.

Comments to are welcome....

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