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Fundamental Tradeoffs

As a performing musician I am often plagued with the task of trying to have my cake and eat it too. We want to play cleanly and accurately, but also with energy and emotion. We want to be able to have the best possible tone, but also as large of a tonal range as possible. We need to have both finesse as well as power. We want an impeccable sense of musical time, as well as spot-on intonation. To many, the ultimate performer is the sum total of every conceivable musical goal.

After hundreds and thousands of hours in the practice room, few of us can honestly carve out even half of those goals at the same time. We can play faster, but inaccuracy begins to creep in. We can play louder, but we lose control of pitch. We focus on precise time and we lose the ability to phrase. Some of the greatest performers in the world have merely become experts at knowing which tradeoff to make and when. One might hear them say something like, “don’t worry about pitch too much here, rhythm is more important in this passage,” or “always bring out the legato line, even if it’s a little bit out of time.”

We will always debate how much of a tradeoff is really necessary. After all, isn’t it always possible to have our cake and eat it too? Is the reason we are forced to make tradeoffs just because we haven’t spent enough time perfecting our craft?

Surprisingly, the answer to this is a resounding NO. In fact, some tradeoffs are fundamental. For example, there is a fundamental tradeoff with instrument design between response and resonance. This is built into the laws of physics. Resonance is a matter of an instrument absorbing, concentrating and radiating sound energy over a time interval. An instrument with a great deal of resonance takes a bit longer to “get going.” A great example of this is a tam-tam. A tam-tam can be played very loudly, but it takes quite a bit of time to make it ring.

The very act of generating that amount of resonance is what dually makes an instrument slow to respond. A very resonant instrument by definition has difficulty articulating sound quickly. The modern grand piano has been designed to maximize resonance, and as a result has difficulty executing many complex ornaments as easily as a harpsichord, which has very little resonance.

Likewise, a fundamental tradeoff exists between precision/evenness and expressiveness. As time progressed from the 19th into the 20th century, performers sought to find ways to play louder, faster, more accurately, and with greater control. In order to play louder and faster with more control, manufacturers modified instruments to maintain a similar tone quality from top to bottom and from loud to soft dynamics. To be able to articulate fast passages with exactitude, performers were forced to make articulations more even. To be able to execute more complex meters, performers began to subdivide rhythms obsessively.

The inevitable result of this was that performers gave themselves fewer parameters for expressivity. The tone quality of one performer began to sound very much like that of the next. Loud and soft dynamics began to sound very much the same. Rubato styles began to blend together. The inevitable result from seeking perfect evenness and precision of performance became the abolition of expressiveness and individuality of performance. It was a fundamental tradeoff.

Here is a recording of Vladimir de Pachmann (1848–1933) playing Chopin’s famous Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9, No. 2:

Here is a recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) playing the same piece:

And here is Alfred Cortot (1877–1962):

These three recordings couldn’t be more different. Each performer uses a different rubato style and phrasing to give a unique and personal interpretation. By the middle of the 20th century however, in search of greater evenness and precision performers ended up with more similar interpretations.

Here is a recording of Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) playing the same piece:

Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy (b. 1937):

Here is Li Yundi (b. 1982):

The last three recordings have far more similar interpretations compared to the first three, and are also considerably more even/precise in terms of rhythm and phrasing. Rather than debate which interpretation is best (that is for listeners to decide for themselves), we should merely make note of the fundamental tradeoff.

(For the record, my favorite two interpretations are the Pachmann and Rachmaninoff, and lots of historical evidence exists that they are probably the closest to how Chopin taught his students to play a piece like this.)

Another example of a fundamental tradeoff involves playing at fast tempi. After a certain point we must choose between fluidity and precision. A common mistake many players make is in assuming that anything worked out perfectly at a slow tempo can just be sped up without consequence to a faster tempo. While this may be true in some instances, it is not true in general. As the speed increases we often become victims of inertia.

Take for instance the trombone slide. As we play faster and faster, it will become nearly impossible to rapidly change the direction of the slide. After a certain point we are better off using large sweeping motions of the slide in a constant direction, approximating the correct positions, and using the embouchure to bend the pitches into tune. This sounds like horrible technique, and it certainly is at a slow tempo. However, it will sound far more precise at fast tempi than struggling to move the slide back and forth very rapidly to navigate all of the correct positions. After a certain point, the fluidity of articulation and the connection of tone from one note to the next will be more audible than the correct intonation of every single pitch.

Another example relates to piano technique. While it is quite possible to move the wrist/arm behind every articulation at a slow tempo, inertial resistance prevents this from working at a faster tempo without incredible strain in the wrist and fingers. However, resorting more to finger technique at the faster tempi works well due to the decreased inertia of the fingers. It is considerably sloppier at a slower tempo, but at faster tempi the fluidity and connection of tone achieved is more audible than the evenness of articulation.

The best way to learn how to play fast is to practice at faster tempi, and thus learn how to master the various techniques necessary to facilitate fast playing. Instead of learning music by first playing it slow and then speeding it up, it’s often more useful to break a fast passage into “chunks” and learn just a few sixteenth notes at a time. Gradually, as greater facility is gained one can piece together the chunks.

These are only a few examples of fundamental tradeoffs. There are certainly dozens more. We must realize that while we are working very hard to obtain some musical goal, no matter what it is, we are simultaneously working away from some other musical goal. Proper balance of our practice time is necessary to develop the skills necessary to survive in the greatest number of musical situations.

In order to achieve something we must always be ready and willing to sacrifice something else. We must be equally ready the next day to sacrifice that which we achieved the day before to gain that which we sacrificed the day before!

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