Taming the Beast: How to Deal With Strange and Unusual Music

Yoko Rosenbaum on October 3, 2013

For the past two summers, I have been faced with the daunting task of embracing and performing music that I wouldn’t have otherwise dared to tackle.

Last year, when I was 13, I participated in my third summer at Music@Menlo. For my third week repertoire, I was assigned Schnittke’s Homage to Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich for one piano, six hands. Setting aside the pure logistical difficulties that ensued with trying to fit three pianists at one keyboard, the music itself was something quite alien to me.

I’d always considered myself a lover of composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin and while they were certainly revolutionaries of their times, their styles still coincided with what a non-classical music lover would perceive as conventional classical music. As a still-budding musician, I had little exposure to more contemporary composers that I would soon be highly involved with.

At the time I received my repertoire list, I vaguely knew of Alfred Schnittke, a contemporary Russian composer, whose Concerto Grosso No. 1 is arguably his best known work. And though I had certainly been faced with music I was not immediately comfortable with, I had never been unable to connect with a piece of music. That is, until Schnittke’s Homage.

Jumping from one style to the next, measure after measure, merely sight-reading the score set my head spinning. I was completely lost as to which method to use in order to tackle this piece; it was unlike anything I’d ever encountered.

After listening to multiple recordings of the piece several times a day just to study the complex rhythms that intertwined with each of the three parts, I finally learned the basic framework well enough to begin to understand the piece. And much to my surprise, once I was able to rehearse with the other two pianists, the week we spent on Schnittke’s Homage became one of the most memorable experiences that I’ve had at Music@Menlo.

All musicians are faced with challenges throughout their careers and I know without having to stretch my limits, I would never grow.

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to have another similar experience: I was assigned to play the first part of The Rite of Spring, arranged for four hands, alongside one my Schnittke partners. But this time, I was prepared to tackle the musical beast. By listening to an orchestra recording while simultaneously following along with the piano score and marking which specific instrument I was imitating at any given point, I was able to bridge the gap between the highly diverse orchestral version and what some might call the stripped-down piano transcription.

While there is no singular way to approach music that we aren’t comfortable with, getting to know the score inside and out is a good initial strategy. Listening to several high-caliber recordings helped me become acquainted with the sound of the music before facing the challenge of making the piece my own. Although I may not immediately love the work, I feel it is a musician’s duty to overcome whatever resistance might arise, solely focus on the music, and always keep an open mind. All musicians are faced with challenges throughout their careers and I know without having to stretch my limits, I would never grow.

Currently, thanks to my up-close and personal experience with the first part of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky ranks as one of my favorite composers. It is now time for me to learn the second part!