I’m applying for a place on a music summerschool next year and one of the questions on the application form is “Please describe your playing and your music”. That may sound like a fairly simple question, which of course it isn’t. I’ve spent a few days with the question running through my mind, and I’ve got a typically me sort of answer.
When I think about how I approach a tune, I want the way I play it to reflect something of myself. Of course everyone will say that a tune is more than the notes on the page. It’s in the way you interpret the tune and the way that you choose to play it. All fairly uncontroversial. You can draw on all of the techniques that you know – for the accordion there are those little cuts and twiddles, embellishments, different bass techniques, holding onto notes and double-stopping, using treble chords, emphasising particular beats, playing legato or staccato, vamping basses, droning basses, giving the tune a bit of swing, dropping out particular phrases, changing the dynamics… the list is quite long. That’s before you even consider adding in other instruments into the arrangement.
All of these different techniques are very helpful to create variety and if you’ve mastered the techniques you can apply them wherever and whenever you choose. They allow you to give depth to music you play and give your interpretation of a tune a bit of personality. Some people will complain at this point, saying “yes, but there are certain tunes which are just played in a particular way”. That’s fine too, but it doesn’t help me answer the question.
Over the last couple of years, when I started learning or arranging a tune, I used to try to find ways to make it different from the ways anyone else played it, to give the tune a bit of a personal expression. I didn’t think about why I was doing this, it just seemed a natural way to approach a tune so that I could play it as “authentically me”. I would deliberately find a way of arranging a tune which was unusual. No-one else plays it that way, so that must be good. I’m being unique and giving it an interpretation.
I think to a degree I’ve been missing the point.
I still draw on all the different techniques in making my arrangements, but I’m thinking much more critically about how I arrange a tune these days. When I start a tune, I try to imbue it with meaning from the very start – I think I touched on this in an earlier blog post about the way I play Trollpolska. Trying to convey a meaning through a tune is by no means an easy thing to do, and takes me a long time to do. I used to play the Bear dance just like everyone else did (basically, just fast and loud), until I thought a bit more about the tune. What would it be like to actually watch a dancing bear? It would be quite a horrible and disturbing thing to watch – a bear controlled and subdued, half-starved, its teeth broken and claws ripped out. A broken animal. I wouldn’t express that image with an aggressive, fast loud tune. (Incidentally, you can hear a version of how I’ve chosen to arrange the Bear Dance here ). Thinking about the meaning I want to convey has become centrally important for me to try to do and it has changed the way I play.
Imagine that those techniques which you’ve got at hand are not embellishments to dress up your shiny lovely tune. Imagine instead that they’re tools that you can use to construct a meaning in your tune. At one point you use a hammer, another you use a plane or sandpaper or a chisel. These all shape the tune you have in your hand. You’re shaping the tune to your design, not concealing the tune in pretty decorations. This doesn’t completely describe my music or how I play, but it comes close to a broad approach. The difference I think, is in the intent.