MUSIC: Wrong Notes In A Splendid Performance by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Wrong Notes In A Splendid Performance by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I particularly remember one lesson from years ago, when I was seriously studying the flute.  I was playing for my teacher, John Oberbrunner, a major work that I was about to perform in public.  We had agreed that I was to play the piece all the way through, as I would in the performance, and then he would respond to what he had heard.  I do not now recall exactly what the piece was, nor do I remember the whole of my teacher’s response.  But I have never forgotten one thing that he said.  I had played a dotted half note just before a rest of several beats, and I had forgotten that it was supposed to be a sharp, not a natural.  During the measure’s rest that followed the wrong note I lifted the flute from my lips and grimaced in disgust with myself before the next entrance.  How could I possibly have forgotten that the note was a sharp, not a natural!  I had practiced it a thousand times.  What was I thinking?

Evidently my grimace had been severe enough that it appeared as if I had swallowed something vile and repugnant.  My teacher spoke highly of the overall interpretation, but he then said something like this: “As someone listening and watching you play, what I will always remember is not the performance, but that terrible face you made after your single wrong note.  If you play a wrong note, do not acknowledge it to the audience.  Be bold.  Play on as if that wrong note were the score, because you want your listeners to remember the beauty they did hear, not the one brief flaw that was far more amplified in your ears than in theirs.”

John Oberbrunner’s words came back to me when I read the following observation of Robert Shaw, the famous choral conductor: “In the very worst sermon, political address, classroom lecture, or musical performance, something of value may happen.  You can muddle or muffle the words of Isaiah, Lincoln, or Galileo, but they will not be silenced. – And in any major musical score there are so many possibilities for error that no one man [or woman] can  make them all.”

One wrong note is not worth a grimace that displaces the memory of the entire piece.  I am not arguing in favor of wrong notes but rather for the wisdom of both Oberbrunner and Shaw: the beauty of great music can survive less-than-perfect performances.  This is important not only for our sanity as musicians but also for the encouragement of the many amateurs we work with, who, in a performance-driven culture, may feel inadequate to doing challenging works because they know they will not sound as perfect as the recordings or concert performances that introduced them to the piece.  I have heard many imperfect performances of major works by part-time organists, amateur singers and instrumentalists, community chorales, and church choirs that stirred me profoundly.  Yes, there were some lost entrances, the textures could have been clearer, and the registrations might have been chosen with greater care, but still there was a vitality to the music-making, and by the end I was permeated by the spirit of the work.  And is that not our ultimate goal – that the spirit of the work, drawn from the spirit that animates all things, might breathe through our music-making into the listeners’ hearts?  Or to put the matter as a variation on the words of Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 4:7), we have this treasure of music in fingers and feet and vocal chords that do not always hit the right key or pedal or pitch so that it may be clear that the wonder and beauty of music is something greater than ourselves.

 

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