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1921 cartoon of Gilbert and Sullivan audiences

Image via Wikipedia

When is it acceptable to listen to a recording before learning a piece?

Most of the time, I am strongly against this as a learning method.  For purposes of interpretation, copying someone else’s recording will always sound like a copy.  It will never sound like you.

One scenario

I heard of two pianists who played a 4-hands recital 2 or 3 years ago.  The program included a set of 3 Gershwin Preludes, but neither performer was familiar with the style.  “So we listened to Leonard Bernstein‘s recording and we just did what he did.”

I don’t think I’m the only person who finds this unacceptable!

Why now?

Last week, I listened to a recording before playing a note in order to learn a score as quickly as possible.

So why is that OK this time?

The score is an operetta.  I will be playing rehearsals but not the performance (which is with orchestra).  So this is not about my artistic integrity; it’s about learning notes, tempi, and orchestration.

This score is not well-known (Haddon Hall by Sydney Grundy and Arthur Sullivan (not Gilbert and Sullivan)), and is printed in 19th century English style.  In other words, what Americans are accustomed to seeing as a quarter rest looks like a backwards 8th-note rest instead.  The notes are smaller and everything looks a lot less clear.  All the lines, note heads, stems, etc. look about as substantial as if they had been written with a pencil.  The repeat signs are very dim, with no double bars drawing attention to them.

I had a week to learn this, having intentionally taken some time off.  My plan is to play about 1/2 by what I’ve heard and 1/2 by sight.  Listening to the recording will save needing to look so closely at the music for accidentals, hopefully.

The first rehearsal, a run-through, is tonight!  I’ll let you know how it goes.

This is fun!

Best part so far:  the second-hand contribution of Mr. Syntax.  He seems merely to be quoted, rather than appearing as a character himself.

Under what circumstances do you consider it acceptable to listen to a recording before learning a piece?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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