Impediments to Interpretation

by T.L. Rickaby

The subject of interpretation has received so much attention in recent books and magazines, and at the hands of teachers, that every musician of any attainments whatever has a more or less distinct idea of its meaning and of its place in our art. In the light of this fact it would seem unnecessary to give a definition of interpretation, but for the purpose of this article, it will not be amiss to state that interpretation in music means nothing more or less than what it signifies in spoken language; viz. making clear to one person the meaning of what is said by another in a strange tongue. Each great composer has given* to men a message, but has given it in a language not generally understood. The player is the medium through which the significance of this message is conveyed to the world. The player therefore, of necessity ought to be an interpreter.

When some foreigner has been unjustly treated, and seeks redress in our courts, and is ignorant of our language, an interpreter is secured, who by his knowledge of the tongue of the unfortunate alien, is expected to state correctly the facts to the court. It will readily be conceded that he must neither add or detract, qualify or modify. To do either one or the other wilfully would be criminal; to do either the one or the other unintentionally would be a grave wrong, for an interpreter should be so well equipped that mistakes would be next to impossible. He must give no personal opinions or suggestions. After the facts are given the judge or jury can act intelligently and the one pleading for justice will be in a fair way to obtain it.

In a musical performance, the player must first of all be so thoroughly equipped with physical strength and keyboard mastery that the technical difficulties of the composition will present no obstacle. Then he must be willing for the time being to sink his own personality into that of the composer, carefully keeping in the background any of his own notions, or idiosyncrasies, remembering only that he is presenting a case to a jury – the audience, and that, for the time being he is a secondary consideration. By far the most serious impediments to the real interpretation of much fine music are the peculiar habits that musicians seem to acquire unconsciously, and it is this particular phase of the subject that I have chosen to discuss here for awhile. Pianists and violinists are not the only, nor the greatest offenders in this regard. Singers are by no means free from disagreeable habits and peculiarities; and there are few concert goers who have not had their pleasure and profit marred by the contortions of a conductor.


ALL peculiarities, habits and movements are positive defects, and very effectual obstacles to musical enjoyment. They are moreover unnecessary, and are due in part to the carelessness or thoughtlessness of the players during their student years, hut more perhaps to the lack of attention or courage on the part of their teachers. Sometimes strange poses and movements are cultivated. Be this as it may, nothing can justify them for the simple reason that they detract from the enjoyment of those who listen and interfere with and prevent a true interpretation of the music. Let pupils watch themselves that bad habits do not get formed and become chronic. It is so easy to develop peculiarities when one is fully occupied with and concentrated on any special work like .piano practice. By careful and regular self criticism a pupil may keep himself fairly free from eccentricities. On the other hand it is clearly the duty of teachers to instruct their pupils as to the proper spirit of interpretation, by making them acquainted with all rules, unwritten and otherwise, governing the matter. It is no less their duty to sec that their pupils do not acquire any habits that will make them conspicuous, and, as is often the case., ludicrous. To cut such antics before an audience “as to make the angels weep” is not calculated to make music enter into the hearts of those who listen. It is the province of teachers to emphasize the folly of contracting any unnecessary movements of the arms, head, or body, and kindly but firmly suppress all symptoms of them at an early period. Surely we have abundant authority in favor of simplicity and repose. Paderewski never moves a hair in the most forcible of his climaxes, but plays quietly and with dignity. The greatest violinists and conductors appear before their audiences with calmness and repose, giving us the messages they have for us without obtruding themselves and their idiosyncrasies on our attention.

In conclusion, if we would interpret truthfully and with due sincerity, self must be eliminated from the equation, or at least be made a secondary factor. What must we think of a builder who struck his name all over a building? Or of an artist who put his signature in twenty different places on a picture? Yet too many players do identically the same thing, saying in effect, “Behold me! I am doing this! Do not overlook me.”

The charm of music should obliterate from the minds of the listeners all thought of the instrument and the performer, and should leave no room for the memory of the labor entailed, and the sacrifices involved, in what the artist presents. When it does this, it is being interpreted as it should be.