When I attend adjudicated events organized by my local professional music teachers association, I sometimes get the feeling we are training athletes to win a race. If I wanted to watch or listen to a race, I would go to the Kentucky Derby. I do have an appreciation for athleticism, and participate in 5k runs myself, but I think musicians should have a different mission than athletes. Musicians should seek to create and inspire mood, reflection, and understanding of the mind and emotions.
Why are so many students playing as fast as they can?
Probably because, rightly or wrongly, they and their teachers think they will be rewarded for fast (and loud) playing with a high rating in their evaluation. Oftentimes, that is what happens.
Conversely, students may be given lower ratings with a slower performance, which might have been more expressive and played with more attention to detail.
How did we get here?
Sometimes I think it has to do with boredom. The judges, who were once students and now teachers, and the teachers who send students to adjudicated events, have been playing, teaching, and listening to the same pieces for years. Their original fresh and immediate response to the music is long gone, and sometimes I think the teachers and judges are just running down a checklist: right notes, rhythms, dynamics, technique. Let's get this over and "NEXT!"
In the process, we forget that the piece, written in the Baroque, Classical, Romantic period was not meant to be consumed in a hurry. This was the evening's entertainment, and there was not usually something else the listeners were in a hurry to do. It is not until the Romantic period of music, particularly with performers such as Paganini, that instrumental virtuosity became part of the aesthetic. But even in the Romantic period, long lyrical melodies were not meant to be rushed just to show off the performer's strong and fast fingers.
One piece I like to teach to my advanced students is the Adagio Cantabile from Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique. When I teach this piece, I emphasize expressive playing to the student, and as the sections change in texture, key and mood, we spend time exploring all the complexities of Beethoven's personality. The sacredness of the opening with a hymnlike harmony and long sweeping melody, the almost operatic melody of the second section, the restlessness and understated drama of the Ab minor section and the seamless transition to E Major! It is all in the music, and if it is rushed, it is lost.
I have heard Barber's Adagio for Strings played slowly and at a more moderate tempo. The slow tempo is the one that moves me to tears. Even the famous Bach/Petzold Minuet in G is often played at a fast tempo. Have you ever danced a Minuet? It is not fast, and lacks gracefulness when it is played or danced quickly.
Most pieces can be played well in a range of tempos and still be musical, and I have been known to play pieces on the lively side. However, when I read through adjudicator's remarks at an event, and "play at a faster tempo" is the main criticism, it makes me wonder about the judge. While I am by no means a famous pianist, I am known in circles where I perform as an expressive pianist, especially by those who do not have professional musical training. While some may say "well, they are nonprofessional, what do they know?" Isn't music about inspiring an intended emotional response in others? If the nonprofessional can recognize and appreciate expressive performances, shouldn't we, the professional teachers, slow down and encourage that appreciation ourselves? Playing fast is meant to impress, playing with expression shares our love and understanding of the music and the meaning found within it.
The Flight of the Bumblebee should be played very fast, but even it could lose its charm if played too fast!