The Devil is in the Details

“Moonlight” Sonata Op.27 No.2 by Ludwig van Beethoven

INTRODUCTION

When approaching new music, either as a performer, composer, or even an educator, musicians often become overwhelmed by the endless amount of detail there is to take into consideration. If we hope to “not suck” as musicians, we need to better our craft. Furthermore, in order to better our craft, there is much patient and detailed study that is involved in becoming a more skilled musician. This act of obsessing over detail is known as minutia, and the following is an attempt to provide insight into how the obsession over desperate nuance(s) dwells within all areas of music study. Each of the three fundamental forms of music have the potential to exercise such an obsession.

THE MUSICAL PARADOX: MUSIC VS. MINUTIA

composer, who is methodical enough to do so, will consider numerous aspects of a piece before they ever write a note. Such facets include, but are not restricted to, their cause, the purpose of the piece they hope to write, the instrumentation thereof, perhaps the venue, their target audience, and most importantly their motivation. I am not nearly this methodical about my writing. However, I am aware of composers who are/were, and even without having a methodology I always contemplate the infinite, chaotic amount of detail there is behind the music I am writing.

I will be the first to admit that teaching is quite low on the list of attributes that ascribe to my musical identity. Nonetheless, I have come to understand how the minutia that ails us as performers and composers can easily transcend into the work of aneducator. Music teachers are some of the most important people in our society, let alone our musical communities. They have to approach their students with the understanding that they are just as, if not more, responsible for the students success. They have the burden, and pleasure, and honor of holding that student’s musical future in the palm of their hand. It is a huge responsibility. Not to mention the planning and level of skill  that is required to teach music. They have plenty of their own nuances to concern themselves with.

A performer, one who is seemingly patient enough, may first analyze the piece of music that they hope to learn (most of us skip that step). Next, they are likely to approach the notes, but not without at least first considering the dynamics, style, articulation, phrasing, fingerings, tempo, rhythmic characteristics, melodic contour, harmonic functions, et cetera. Lest we not forget about our warm-ups, etudes, or scales before we ever get as far as playing any “real” music. No wonder most beginning musicians develop a distaste for practicing. I for one, can attest that practicing is a rather lonely and patient process. This is for certain. I am one of the few people in my immediate musical community that actually loves practicing. Naturally, this is a mindset that we need to grow into as we mature musically and mentally. As performers, we approach music in this way from the beginning because we want to learn the piece “properly.” Most musicians have heard the phrase “practice makes perfect.” A lesser population of us are aware that practice does NOT make perfect. Professional and semi-professional performers understand this as they become more serious players, merely because they are taught “perfect practice makes perfect.” Of coarse, perfection can be a double-edged sword for a performer, but that is a topic for another day. The point is that performers have their fair share of nicety as well.

A STORY

I recently encountered one such experience when I re-approached a piece that I had first learned nearly four years ago. In an effort to instill some personal sentiment into my Junior Piano Recital this semester, I decided to pull out the first piano piece that I ever learned in my private lessons with Dr. William Lipke. This piece, more popularly known as “Moonlight” Sonata (Sonata No.14, Op.27 No.2, I. Adagio sostenuto by Ludwig van Beethoven), was the perfect way in my mind to frame my development as a pianist during my four years at Adams State College. My poor assumption was that the piece would be easily refreshed in my mind and my fingers would magically play the music that I had memorized three years prior. However, as to be expected, it was not that simple. I played the first four measures and then had no clue where to move next. As if I were cracking a code, each measure became an enticing new puzzle for me to solve. The editor’s fingerings became tools to better facilitate the musical character of the piece. Layered part-writing and the articulation therein became a challenge to overcome. To make a long story short, I essentially had to relearn the piece from scratch and approach it with the methods that I had learned in the years since that first semester of piano lessons. It makes perfect sense. However, due to the new obsessive style of learning that I have seemed to develop, there was an unruly amount of detail that I decided to take into consideration this time around. Three weeks later, I now have the piece virtually relearned and seemingly re-memorized. I better understand the structure of the piece and could likely start playing at any major section without hearing what came before it. This was a rather fulfilling moment for me as a performer and pianist.

BALANCE

However, in retrospect, there were a few ideas that adorned my thoughts after going through this process. One fortunate realization that occurred to me was that I am obviously progressing and maturing as a musician. I have developed a higher level of patience when it comes to music that I did not have four years ago. This is reassurance that music will be a lifelong journey and I await what a similar experience may feel like in another four years. Another, more troubling, thought occurred to me as well. It seems, especially for someone like myself that has an almost Obsessive-Compulsive approach to learning, music could become so wrought with minutia that a musician could then easily lose themselves and the art in the process. I recently told a friend of mine, through a light-heated analogy, that 66% of the purpose of music is for others, 33% is for intrinsic value, and what is done with the last 1% is where the magic of music exists. At first it seems somewhat silly to assign a measurement to the amount of magic that occurs when we make music. However, we cannot lose that 1%. I believe that, though it is a small measure, within that 1% exists the reason we became musicians in the first place and if we lose sense of that 1%, what is the point in making music? The 1% percent is the reason WE are musicians by trade and others are not. It is the inexplicable facet of this artform we call music that cannot be controlled or explained through details, reason, facts, or figures.

IN CONCLUSION

I suppose the point I am trying to make is that while perfect practice makes perfect and attention to detail pays off, it seems that the devil dwells in those details and finds a means of distracting us from the 1%. Funny–it is a rather ironical and paradoxical concept when you think about it. I am advising that we not obsess over the details, but somehow in the process managed to assign a specific, detailed measurement to the most inexplicable facet therein. It is both fascinating and frustrating how the brain works in circles sometimes and manages to create connections that otherwise would not be made. In any case, I hope this article has inspired you to find your own 1% and never lose sight of it. Please, cherish it and think for a second, “Why and how did I become a musician in the first place?” You may be amazed at how revealing the answer to that question can be.

SPECIAL THANKS

I would like to extend my thanks to all my friends and professors in the music department at Adams State College for providing the inspiration for this article. I would not be the musician I am today without you. I would also like to thank my best friend and mate, Tamiya. I thank you for allowing me to vent all my inspirations at you regardless of how daunting and scattered they are at times. I thrive on your support.

Thanks for reading Musik Modus Mémoires!

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6 Comments

  1. “…while perfect practice makes perfect and attention to detail pays off, it seems that the devil dwells in those details and finds a means of distracting us from the 1%.” Possibly my favorite part of this post. Thanks for the insight!

  2. I think of it as “practice makes proficient”. The level of proficiency a musician (as described above) is up to that person. One may be perfectly content with miserably playing one song on an old guitar with no training, but if it makes them feel that 1%, who’s to judge? That 1% is so very crucial. To me, that’s where the emotion, the definition, or whatever one might attribute to it comes from.
    So very interesting 🙂

    • Thanks Deacon. I really appreciate your turn of phrase. I think I will expand upon it even further to state “proper practice makes proficient.” One may practice for months, even years, without ever making any certifiable progress, unless they understand how to practice properly. In some cases there are even those who make things worse when they practice improperly. Thanks for reading, and thanks for embracing the 1%. We need more of that in our modern music society.

      EDM

  3. I have a good friend who speaks about the “devil” being not only in the details, but specifically in the details that are rather tempting to us. It seems that this concept has a place in musical practice. I know that when I am practicing I generally don’t get caught up in the details that I don’t have a passion for. For example, I have a hard time focusing on diction because I think it distracts from what I love: the actual act of singing, therefore when I am practicing or performing, often the singing and line of the piece are well rehearsed, but the diction is lacking slightly which takes away from the overall perfection of the piece. So, when we practice, as well as perform, let us have the energy to pay attention to the 1% that we are easily distracted by, as well as the other parts that we know we need to pay attention too but are maybe less enjoyable.

    • Balance. That most certainly is the key. I appreciate you sharing that perspective. However, it becomes difficult to balance out the equation when the three parts are so important to observe in our music making.
      Thanks for your comment.

      EDM

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