I feel like I learn pieces fairly quickly and have the technical ability
to get them to an acceptable level for performance. What I would like to ask you is your advice for kicking it up to the next level-- making the music mean something and actually making the audience feel something???
David Johnson's answer:
In order to say something to the audience, which is, of course, the only reason to play music in the first place, it is necessary to understand how the audience feels while you are playing and why the audience feels that way. In other words, we must learn to "manipulate" the audiences perception of our playing.
I am a strong believer in musical tension. There are many types of music making, but for me the most powerful musical line is the one that has no "dead time", meaning that it is either creating or relaxing tension. A line that does not do these 2 things, although not necessarily unmusical, is certainly less powerful and will be less and less interesting to the audience the longer the piece wears on.
The most basic way to keep the line from losing tension is to hold notes full value without tapering notes that do not represent ends of phrases. Generally speaking, lines that don't taper at any point don't relax tension. If we proceed one step further with this line of thought, lines that not only do not taper but actually make at least a slight directional crescendo to where ever the musical climax of the phrase may be, create tension. Performances adhering to this basic premise will be instantly perceived as more interesting than performances of equal or even slightly better technical ability that do not.
The next step to promoting musical power in ones playing is to analyze each phrase, deciding how long the phrases are and where their climaxes are. Most music is written in 4/4 or 3/4 etc. for a reason. I believe this reason is to make sure that beat 1 always has a prominent role in music making, ergo beat 1 is the first place to look for the climax of the phrase. Although all first beats will tend to have more importance than the other beats in a measure, one beat 1 will ultimately be more important than the others within the same phrase. To quote George Orwell's "Animal Farm" - "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." If we systematically comb through the works we play, notating each long phrase and its climax, we can then create tension from the beginning of each phrase to the climax and then relax tension after each climax.
After learning to create and relax tension, the next step is to try to create the longest possible phrases. Assuming that musical tension is the key to musical power, it is logical that the musician that sustains tension the longest is ultimately the most interesting to listen to. To this end, we purposely try to play more 4 or even 8 measure phrases and to play fewer 2 measure phrases. I have chosen the first solo phrase in the first movement of Mozart's Horn Concerto KV447 as an example. By playing the opening line of the solo part and making permanent "directional" crescendo (creating tension) to the indicated D2 and then pushing the phrase no further or perhaps even making a slight diminuendo (relaxing tension), we ultimately play the longest possible phrase with one obvious climax, which is for me the most powerful form of music making.