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Bernstein’s SECRET to instant Success on Stage - Best Music Lesson Ever

If you didn't know that we play all music rather slow compared to the standard of today, this post must have been sent to you by a friend. So welcome! And thank you for sharing!

In case you wonder: why do we play everything slower ? Because we strongly think that back in the days of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, in short in the majority of the 19th century, composers and musicians used the metronome in a different way compared to how we use it today. They didn't correlate the note value in the metronome mark with each click of the metronome, but with each other click. As we still do today, for example in teaching our kids the duration of a quarter note. We let them count 1 and 2 and….

And yes, we even claim that that way of playing is authentic. At least that the tempo, the result of which we call the whole beat metronome practice, is an authentic way of approaching the music of that time. And that's a bold claim because it changes so much.

Sometimes you hear people whisper in the gigantic YouTube basements, that if you play like that, your audience will just fall asleep. Or worse! Singers and wind players who would participate in a recording or in a performance like that will simply suffocate because they would not have enough breath to hold those long notes. Well, as a side note, I can just inform you that the four singers who participated at our recording of the Ninth Symphony are alive and feeling better than ever. And by the way, the reverse is true because the remark we got from the singers was that finally they got time to breathe.

But yes, it's true that in general there is a kind of hesitance to go along with this new way of playing, this way of reconstructing our musical past. Not surprisingly. Since it indeed is a paradigm shift. But sometimes you come along a very famous musician, like for instance, Leonard Bernstein, who suddenly openly talks about something that brings us so incredibly close to what I would call a Whole Beat Experience. In the interview, Bernstein talks about his meeting with Karl Böhm who came to listen to a rehearsal of Wagner’s Tristan. And than this happened:

And then we come to a magical moment in the interview. Just replace the name of Wagner by Beethoven, and you will get a shock.

What Bernstein says here is so close to our own experience when playing in Whole Beat. When you speed music up so much, so much details are lost. With the inevitable result of boring the audience. And the funniest thing of all is that this was true for the 19th century musicians as well. There are so many sources in that time that actually warned musicians and conductors saying that these fast tempi didn’t exist in the Vienna of Beethoven. Of course, those voices were conservative and they didn't make it. The virtuosity game was too important, back than as it is today. But back to Bernstein because now it gets interesting. Bernstein continues explaining the effect this way of playing had on the audience. He talks about the eight beats rest that apparently none of his colleagues dare to count in full because they are afraid, again, of their audiences.

And then Bernstein talks about the Tristan chord, the Wagner chord, that at some place is lengthened at the climax of the piece. And there he actually reverses the idea that singers or wind players will suffocate.

So 25 seconds for the wind players. They simply can do that.

But there is a little twist of the story. There is this other Leonard Bernstein. The Bernstein that actually falls into the trap of what he described: being afraid of the audience. In the fragment below he's conducting Mahler’s Lied von der Erde in a tempo that the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig does not agree with. And she doesn't agree with the tempo for a very serious reason.

Christa Ludwig literally says she can’t sing the words. The answer of Bernstein is surprising: who cares? Nobody can understand the words anyways. It comes to a moment where he has to make a decision. Am I going slower to give my singer the time to breathe and to pronounce the words? At the end, he decides not to do that. Who cares about the words, nobody understands them anyways. When I feature Bernstein here, at one hand, you could say, I’m simultanesously using him to prove my point from both sides. But it isn’t that. I just bring to you two faces from the same man in the hope that you will see that it's never black and white. The Wagner fragment gives us a unique insight in what happens when someone thinks outside of his own personal taste or felt something that wasn’t common practice but became dear to him as a musician. Bernstein, we know that, didn’t care too much about authenticity. He used authenticity as an authority argument to justify his choice. But I'm using that argument here in the original sense. Since he probably is very close to the way Wagner thought his music to sound. And see what an effect it has on the listener. Same can happen with Beethoven. It is right in front of us.

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