An overriding issue for many students is the need for ‘breathing space’ during performance. This is seemingly such an obvious point, but it’s one which is often challenging to put into practice, according to our regular guest columnist Melanie Spanswick.
According to the composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918), ‘music is the space between the notes’. Space can be created in many ways, both in the approach to a performance as well as actually between notes and phrases of a piece.
Creating space isn’t about changing the pulse in a piano piece, using copious ritenutos (or accelerandos) or using excessive rubato (taking or ‘pulling’ time), but instigating a small amount of time to ‘breathe’; this provides the audience with the opportunity to savour each note and each phrase, and enjoy the music.
It’s not only the audience which benefits here either: all performers require time to refocus and process musical thoughts during their performance. This space is even more crucial for less experienced or anxious performers because if they can implant space into musical phrases, they will be able to control their playing so much better, discouraging the ever-present problem of rushing or ‘speeding up’; an issue which so often affects even very talented young players.
Public performance of any kind is all about control and focus, and therefore if you are able to develop a way of creating more ‘thinking’ or ‘breathing’ time, then the level of your performance skills may increase dramatically. Apparently, Winston Churchill regularly inserted ‘pauses’ into his speeches and he even calculated the exact time or length of each break!
Here are a few ideas to help create the necessary space in piano playing;
- Whilst learning a new work, ensure each phrase is not only given its full length, but also a very slight space between each one. The length of space will totally depend on the speed of the piece, but even if it’s just an extra second, this allows every new phrase to be introduced properly proffering an expansive sense of time, devoid of any rushing or lingering.
- Before starting to play any work, always count at least one bar in your head (at the intended tempo). This focuses the mind and gives the audience a sense of expectation. It will help determine the speed from the outset as well; it’s amazing how many performers start at an ‘unexpected’ tempo.
- Space can be created within each phrase. If a work consists of a series of large chords and they are given slightly more time to sound than usual – we are talking nanoseconds here – this allows them to reverberate, resonate, and reach their full measure of expression. A performance can suddenly take on a new level of musicianship and sensitivity if each and every note is ‘placed’ carefully.
- Staccato (or short, detached) notes especially need to be given their full time. If you have a group of staccato or non-legato crotchets, each one will be articulated much more quickly than legato crotchets, that is, the fingers will leave the key bed more swiftly, but there must still be a clear ‘space’ between one sound and the next, particularly in slow music, otherwise the beat or pulse will be perpetually unstable and there will be a sense of rushing throughout.
- Extra time between movements of a piece and especially at the end of a work, generates an atmospheric quality fostering expressivity; it encourages emotions to linger in a positive way, for moments beyond the expected time.
- What feels like a slow tempo or long pause to a performer, is often interpreted quite differently by the listener. It’s true to say that a performer in a state of focus, concentration and stress, perceives speed to be slower than it really is; we often play much quicker than we intend. So with this in mind, longer pauses or gaps between sounds are sometimes a good idea; this element can be addressed during practice time.
- Pianists needs to remember to breathe too! An obvious point, but occasionally performing can be an overwhelming experience and fear takes hold. Students do sometimes forget to breathe, literally. Alleviate this issue by breathing deeply when practising and perform frequently in front of an audience. Experience is crucial when learning to implement breathing space during a performance.
The more space created generally, without disturbing the pulse, the more beautiful and harmonious the performance. This is a subject worth musing for any performer because it really can make all the difference.
About the author
Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.