Bobby Mitchell

I’ve always considered musical practice to be creative, with unusual results happening all the time. There must be something unusual or spontaneous in every instance of good music-making.

As a child Bobby Mitchell disliked practising, especially the feeling that he was supposed always to repeat the same thing over and over in the same way. To avoid boredom and despair, he says, he experimented at the piano a lot during his childhood, and that included looking for different ways of practising the scores he was supposed to learn. ‘The reason music is so compelling to me is that it always comes out differently, in every live scenario, and even though this instinct was controlled and allowed to thrive only in small doses during my time in conservatory, it never disappeared completely.’

Something about this approach to scores evidently affects listeners, and in a positive way. ‘Connoisseurs and listeners unfamiliar with the repertoire seem equally aware that I have a somewhat different approach to playing the piano. … I was recently described by a fellow professional as playing as though I was improvising the compositions on the spot. A listener who is intimately familiar with the Schumann Fantasy, Op. 17 told me in July 2016 that she couldn’t explain it exactly, but there is something very different and refreshing about my approach.’ But this seems to be the case not just for professionals. ‘Listeners repeatedly tell me that their opinion is not valuable because they don’t play the music (a position I constantly and vehemently argue against!), but that it sounds so fresh and alive and very modern, as if it was written for this moment’.

Listeners repeatedly tell me that their opinion is not valuable because they don’t play the music (a position I constantly and vehemently argue against!), but that it sounds so fresh and alive and very modern, as if it was written for this moment.

  • ‘When I begin preparing a piece like the Schumann Fantasy, Op. 17, I:
    • pull apart the score and look for ways to play parts of the text but never the complete text (‘separating the voices’)
    • put parts of the text or excerpts of the complete text through rhythmic exercises, again avoiding exactly what is written and with the goal of never having to repeat myself
    • in the case of tonally functioning music, I learn to play the piece in all 12 keys
    • continue finding ways to vary the pitch and rhythmic content of the text – the possibilities are endless
    • shape the ‘interpretation’ of the work in private performances with small groups, either at home or at house concerts, etc, before bringing the work to the concert stage’

Bobby doesn’t try to write down any of his reinterpretations, but he does like to make recordings of experimental moments in the practicing process and use those as feedback. When it comes to performance, he finds that ‘once I start performing a piece in public, a certain shape to a certain musical work emerges that remains intact, although there are also many details that can change from performance to performance. Ironically, I am starting to feel that the more I am able to experiment while practising, the more concrete an interpretation becomes. In other words, the improvisation takes place during the practicing but there is significantly less during performance.’

Ironically, I am starting to feel that the more I am able to experiment while practising, the more concrete an interpretation becomes. In other words, the improvisation takes place during the practicing but there is significantly less during performance.

As far as teaching goes, Bobby is developing a catalogue of concrete methods to train students to approach the classical repertoire in an experimental way. Many of these are commonly practiced in jazz education – playing with a recording, and transposing for example. They include:

  • systematic rhythmic and agogic exercises to encourage a liberal approach to rubato and timing in performance (as taught to Bobby by Robert Hill, professor of historical keyboards at the Musikhochschule Freiburg)
  • transposing tonal repertoire into all 12 keys (this is ‘conceptually simple but crucial!’)
  • harmonic reduction of a musical work to its partimento skeletal structure, and then super-imposing different surface characteristics onto the harmonies, a crucial step towards learning to improvise
  • imitating sound recordings, in the spirit of Sigurd Slåttebrekk’s Chasing the Butterfly project

‘It is not my role to determine whether conservatories and classical music institutions will accept practices like these on a grand scale. I can only have direct influence over my surroundings and take responsibility for my concert work and the supervision of a few students. I encourage students to participate in competitions because of the intensity it provides for preparation, but I don’t believe competitions are a healthy route to success, nor even viable any more these days.’

Bobby also enjoys listening to old pianists, in particular Vladimir de Pachmann and Alfred Cortot. And he acknowledges ‘adventurous moments in Martha Argerich’s and Nelson Freres’ playing, for example’. The influence of the oldest recorded pianists can be heard in this performance of the Liszt Sonata, which uses a piano contemporary with the piece.

Liszt ‘Sonata’ (1849) with improvised prelude, played on an 1849 Erard, recorded live in Utrecht

Bobby comments: ‘The transition from the extemporised prelude to the beginning of the piece is especially powerful in my opinion. The re-contextualisation of the first notes of the piece harmonically make the extremity of the beginning clear. Finding harmonic schemes and practising using thematic material from the Sonata was my approach to preparing to improvise a prelude.’

4’42”: ‘After spending time exploring all the ways to desynchronise the hands, and putting the passage through agogic exercises to lengthen certain beats and shorten others in a systematic way, this realisation in live performance satisfies the expressive content of the passage and also lets the instrument speak fully.’

7’02”: ‘Using similar techniques as described at 4’42”, and while practising, I also kept a generic vision in the foreground of having one of the lines rush while keeping the other steady – for example, letting the melody rush while having the bass remain steady, and vice versa. The results sound rhetorical and speech-like to me.’

Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66, live performance in Maccagno, July 2016

3’51”: ‘The conscious acceleration into the beginning of the coda sounds very effective to me. I have been consciously working towards [the 19th-/early 20th-century practice of] re-coupling accelerandi with crescendi. It was part of my classical training to separate the two, because one wasn’t allowed to speed up while getting louder. I’m of the opinion that they sound quite good together.’

Further creative performances by Bobby Mitchell:

Haydn: Sonata no. 38 in F, Hob. XVI/23 (1st mvt. extract, rec. 24 Aug 2013) (clavichord)

Brahms: Handel Variations (rec. 12 Nov 2014)

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    Frank Levin

    Mar 23, 2019

    Hi Bobby:

    I have been checking out your recordings since I met you at the impromptu church performance in Vancouver and your interesting comments about practicing techniques, especially learning to play every piece in all twelve keys, an incredible challenge with especially chromatic music like Scriabin’s for example. Much I like, ex: the Liszt Sonata. I look forward to further exploration of your work.

    At some point you might like to explore some of my music, my New Gymnopedies, over 30 San Francisco Souvenirs ( I lived there for close to thirty years ) and Morning to Midnight Suite for example, accessible and suitable when work by a Canadian composer might be appropriate.