Dinu Lipatti on Practicing as Art and Craft
Dinu Lipatti was one of the great pianists of the 20th century despite having his life cut short in 1950 by Hodgkin's Disease at age 33. In addition to his resplendent artistry, consummate mastery of his instrument, and his renowned kindness, he was known to be a master pedagog and deeply dedicated to his pupils. In a letter penned to one of his students Lippati laid out his approach to practice:
“What can I tell you about interpretation? I really ought to talk to you about it rather than write, as I should need thirty pages. In a very imperfect manner I could recapitulate the method which in stages guides us, as I believe, to the truth.
First, one should try to discover the complete emotional content of a work by playing it a great deal in various different ways before ever starting to play it ‘technically’. When saying ‘playing it a great deal’ I think above all of playing ‘mentally,’ as the work would be played by the most perfect of interpreters.
Having lodged in one’s mind an impression of perfect beauty given by this imaginary interpretation — an impression constantly renewed and revivified by repetition of the performance in the silence of the night — we can go on to actual technical work by dissecting each difficulty into a thousand pieces in order to eliminate every physical and technical obstacle; and this process of dissection must not be of the whole work played right through but of every detail taken separately. The work should be done with a clear head and one should beware of injecting any sentiment.
Finally comes the last phase, when the piece, mastered technically throughout, must be built up architecturally into its overall lines and played right through so that it may be viewed from a distance. And the cold, clear-headed and insensitive being who presided over the whole of the preceding work on the material of which the music is made, takes part in this eventual performance as well as the artist full of emotion, of spirit, of life and warmth who has recreated it in his mind and has now discovered a new and greater power of expression.
Forgive me for expressing myself so badly about something so solemn. I hope it will not seem incomprehensible to you.”
Not badly at all. I would highlight four points from his letter:
1. The process starts with playing
2. The playing continues away from the instrument, creating great imaginings. Dreaming the part so that the mind can lead the body.
3. That musicality is a architectural craft that requires rational thought just like technical work. One crafts the note, the phrase, the theme, the section, and then the work, planning the balance, dynamics, intensity to bring the whole to the brightest and most compelling relief.
4. The artistic, intuitive, personal, subjective spirit is then released to realize the art, the living, breathing work that the rational mind has prepared while that same rational mind remains to oversee and step in if the work becomes unbalanced.
It is extremely important that an artist is working at all of these levels on a daily basis. The typical practice method keeps students on the first three steps for long periods of time on only once in awhile when the teacher's fear for the student's failure is tempered, the 4th step occurs - in performance.
But this is absurd. We see that the very best students are performing all the time. One might say this is because they are more well prepared, but which came first? And good preparation is most often dependent on having a goal.
I submit that students become good BECAUSE they perform often and gain the benefits of doing so. Not in a lesson, not in a master class, but in the warm and supportive context of a true audience.
The fourth step of Lipatti's approach is one that engages the spirit, connects the soul to the meaning of music, and brings joy to the performer. It should happen almost as much as the preparation, the practice, lest the soul wither and the inspiration die out.
Suzuki, the Japanese pedagog felt that students should have pieces in all states of preparation. This is true, but even more important, musicians should, no must, have numerous venues to play in and be playing constantly to revitalize their practice.
It serves the community and the performer.
Music is something we do together. Music is playing and listening. A living communication between open and receptive performer and an open and receptive audience.