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.
Bobby’s efforts to expand the way he approaches the performance practice of Robert Schumann can be seen and heard in his research project “Playing Schumann Again for the First Time.” His main goal there was to engage with Schumann in a multitude of ways that involve integrating various degrees of improvisation into the piano-playing, and inevitably also involved composing some music himself. Follow the link to the full text with sound examples.
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.