cracking the trill code

One day, when I stumbled over the trills in the connecting run in the middle of the refrain of J.Ph. Rameau’s Les Sauvages, the harpsichord professor in charge advised me to “practice until it works.” I am a trill person. Consequently this recipe did lead to a better result, but it ought to be clear that it is, nevertheless, bad advice. The question is not “when will it work?” This inevitably will become a despaired “when will it ever work!” which gets us nowhere. The relevant thing to ask oneself is rather: “why doesn’t it work now, and how do I make it work?” The answer will disclose the appropriate manner of practicing, as opposed to an appropriate number of practice hours.

Even in professional historically informed playing, trills very often do not automatically come out properly. Granted, those players who, when failing to play an embellishment as planned, would produce a well audible awkwardness (harpsichordists) or find their tone destroyed and their technical balance upset (woodwind players) are more likely to have struggled with the problem at depth. Others, however, have the ability to hide in the tutti group or to pronounce their trills in some noncommittal way. Such evasive practices remind us of a person who got tired of wrestling with the German personal pronouns and simply replaced der die and das with a mumbled, generic d’r.

One thing ought to be clear: if we are serious at all about playing in style (in any repertoire) a serious attempt at a correct execution of the embellishments is mandatory. There are several reasons for this, all open doors really, but nevertheless all worth mentioning once. First of all, the player, who evades playing trills in Baroque music, who fakes them in a I-didn’t really-decide-how-this-one-starts manner or who plays them in a minimal and perfunctory manner as if to say “I did play the trill, did you hear” cannot possibly claim to play stylistically informed – the use of a Baroque instrument in this context only enhances the absurdity of the situation. It is as if someone would play a piece in c-sharp minor without the accidentals, because it is too difficult. Furthermore, it is frustrating beyond imagination to have to adjust ensemble expectations and performances to the lowest common embellishment denominator. The alternative, to leave the trills alone and let everybody play as they want, common practice alas, is a horrible compromise. Finally, Baroque trills and their proper execution need a lot of attention in any case. How is one supposed to agree upon appropriate trill shapes, trill speed and trill intensity, if part of the musicians don’t even recognize what kind of trill they just have played? It should be clear that good cures for healing trill weakness are absolutely essential for the professional Baroque musician. So what possibilities are there?

Typical reaction patterns when trill issues are being discussed are to get upset or defensive, to laugh the matter off, or to doggedly try out a requested trill shape in half tempo, but to relapse into one’s previous whatever!-mode during the next tutti tryout. The mention of defensive behavior leads us directly to the core of the problem. If one closes one’s mind to an analytical approach to trills, or to helpful remarks or detailed requests by colleagues, one cannot possibly learn anything new about a trill. Instead one’s experience remains circular: The discussion is bound to end in frustration and seems to support the claim that reasoning and analysis, and embellishments, are opposed to each other.

The Baroque trill’s function as an embellishment that (most of the time) should blend in with the music and not draw undue attention is the direct cause for our fear that intellectual penetration could destroy our artistic approach. However, quite the contrary is true: An indistinct trill start, a failed trill body, a rushed conclusion or a misplaced suffix that needs half an extra beat all draw more unwanted attention from the listener than any well sought-out trill. The claim that one’s analytical brain activity would destroy whichever inspiration one happens to have is a hoax, and a very silly one at that. We are very well able to cope with both these elements: the intellectual and the emotional. We do it all the time. The only condition that very effectively subdues inspiration is, in fact, unresolved frustration.

One must know which shape one wants to give to a trill in order to play it properly

If I, for reasons of style, for example, decide that a certain trill in a descending line needs an upper-note start and a turn at the end, I would need to find out which finger plays its first note, which by nature is the repeated previous note of the passage, and decide upon an appropriate arrival fingering. I would have to find out how many notes, including the suffix, fit into the beat at my chosen tempo, and I would then have to work this shape out at a tempo that makes a flawless execution possible. At the end of this process, I can take that trill and knead it, like the creators of Wallace and Gromit shape their puppets in order to give them their human-like expression. So I could decide upon a fittingly elegant acceleration towards the turn, I can experiment with a hesitant beginning, etc.

It is during this phase of giving life to a trill that most premature speeding-up occurs. In order to give a proper perspective to the issue of trill oscillation speed, I ought to get rid of one trill myth. True, some people are capable of quicker muscle movements than others, which theoretically supports their virtuosity. In playing trills, however, this should not make a huge difference. Since the fingers alternate, each individual finger only stands for half the task. Instead, the true problem of producing quick and regular trills is to make the alternation work properly.

Where does this alternation need to “work”? Surely not in one’s hands. Try one of these piano exercises where all keys are depressed and then only one finger moves up and down – likely only the fourth finger will have problems with producing the repetition speed of half a trill. All the other fingers will be well up to the task. So, having decided that the hand needs no, or only little mechanical exercize for speeding up a particular trill, we have to look at the unit that is responsible for the alternation: the brain.

We cannot perform a trill a tempo, if we cannot think it a tempo

Thinking a trill is one of the easiest exercises of mental musical training, much easier than to imagine the sounds and technical movements of a complicated bar in a fugue or the sound of a piano score page of a Mahler symphony, when reading the score away from the instrument. Your main task here, that of mentally speeding up the alternation of the trilling fingers, will probably make your head pretty warm, but it will yield results; infallibly and quicker than you would have imagined. These results remain inaccessible if you try out a trill slowly, and then jump wildly to an attempt of playing it a tempo. Too many musicians seem to have trills embedded in their minds as frrt, squork, trr’daga and prp. While these shapes are pretty similar to real trills, their mental evocation is not ‘thinking trills’ at all. These frrts and prps function in the mind like unchangable characters or place-holders. They do not yield access to the notes played, the music expressed; instead, they obscure the very thing we want to master. Eliminate the squork in your mind and you can build something real, using sounds, notes and finger movements.

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