by Everett Hopfner ¦ February 1 2018
We play music – at least, we do in the English language. Whether performing or listening, participating in music requires playing. The word play has so many other connotations and associations, giving the sense of a listener or performer interacting with the music, forming a relationship of curiosity and spontaneity.
It’s a wonderful idea, and unfortunately one that can sometimes get forgotten among musicians’ commitments as teachers, performers, collaborators, and all the other roles we take in our lives. Sometimes it can feel like music isn’t something we play, it’s something we work, or churn, or endure. When I feel overwhelmed by the growing stack of scores piling up on my piano, or feel daunted looking at a jam-packed rehearsal schedule, the idea of playing all this music can sometimes feel like an ironic grammatical joke.
Thankfully, these feelings are usually short-lived. The process of constantly learning and interpreting new pieces has become routine, and part of my identity. Anything worth playing is worth playing well, and if you look for it, you can find all kinds of things in the music to play with.
Throughout my life I’ve been inspired by musicians who take the idea of playing even further. As a child, my biggest musical heroes were performers and characters who took joy in merging music and humour, exaggerating the act of performing to farcical levels. My family travelled regularly to the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival – I’m sure I spent most of the three hour drive imagining what my favourite performer, Al Simmons, would have in store for me today.
Al Simmons was hilarious. His performances were unbelievably wacky – here was a fully grown man, wearing ridiculous costumes and enthusiastically singing songs full of wordplay with exaggerated mannerisms and characterizations. As a proud member of his fan club, I had received a squirting fish in the mail. I remember he would often finish his shows with “Cry of the Wild Goose” – while singing, he would gradually transform into a goose by adding costume elements, then mount his unicycle and ride through the crowd, finally disappearing out the back exit, honking all the while.
Al Simmons found a way to create in person the kind of anarchic, free-wheeling interpretation of music that I loved seeing on television with the Muppets and Bugs Bunny.
As a teenager, I was primarily interested in Classical music, specifically Baroque and classical-period orchestral repertoire; as I’ve grown up, I’ve been fortunate to have many musically curious friends who have been generous enough to share their favourite artists with me, stretching my ears and my imagination. Thelonious Monk, Owen Pallett, Broken Social Scene, Ben Folds, Kate Bush, and D’Angelo presented exciting new possibilities for me, and sent me down many musical rabbit holes I’m still exploring.
Some of my biggest musical inspirations today are artists who break down the boundaries between performers and listeners: those who are able to make listening an interactive experience, not a passive activity. I think it’s possible to find examples in any genre of music that piques your interest.
Perhaps the most obvious example, at least in my listening experience, is Bobby McFerrin. His unique blend of improvisation, charisma, and outstanding technique has led to some of my most cherished musical memories: I’ve gone to a handful of his concerts, each time leaving the theatre with delight and wonder. McFerrin’s concerts are full of surprises, including spontaneous duets performed with audience members. If I feel like I need a little burst of motivation, poking around the huge archive of Bobby McFerrin YouTube videos usually does the trick. His album with pianist Chick Corea, appropriately titled Play, is absolutely dynamite – two musicians at the top of their game, clearly enjoying each others’ company and playfully challenging one another. It was recorded in front of a live audience, and hearing the audience’s astonishment throughout the album adds another level of excitement.
Another breathtakingly brilliant performer is Cecile McLorin Salvant. She appears regularly with the Aaron Diehl trio, including bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers. This is an incredibly tight-knit ensemble, performing blistering, fresh arrangements of jazz standards and original songs. Salvant’s playful way of manipulating the text—distorting the rhythm or pronunciation—has a way of revealing more layers of meaning, and her crisp command of her voice means you can hang on every word. She’s surrounded by collaborators who have complete trust in one another and never hesitate to take bold new directions. The 2017 album Dreams and Daggers has been a reliable and endlessly refreshing companion on many long drives down the Trans-Canada highway.
An approach of playful performing is just as possible in the world of non-improvised music. For some time, my own artistic performing interest centred around contemporary compositions like Moritz Eggert’s Hämmerklavier: works that expand pianists’ capabilities and play with audience expectations of what a “piano piece” should be. I love performing these pieces, and challenging myself to acquire all the skills necessary to deliver them effectively.
However, I’ve come to understand that this spontaneous, energetic approach to performing can be just as convincingly applied to the classics – or, other modern pieces that don’t require all the extra gear. I think immediately of when Peter Donohoe—the great British pianist known for his robust interpretations of towering 20th-century Russian masterpieces—delivered in 2009, a short program of Haydn piano sonatas. They were utterly enchanting, and laugh-out-loud funny more than once. Just a few weeks ago I heard Catherine Vickers performing Debussy’s études. The first is a well-known take on Czerny’s less-interesting piano studies: one man in the audience was probably experiencing the piece for the first time, and let forth a huge guffaw as the now 100-year-old joke proved timeless.
The process of approaching music with playfulness — sharing ideas, surprises, and characters with audiences as much as notes and rhythms — is something I endeavour to bring to all of my performances and to my own piano students’ musical consciousness. With the right frame of mind, that stack of scores on my piano can look less like a gauntlet and a little more like a big playground of possibility.