Ferrucio Busoni on the Small Details in Music
Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!
“In my own development as an artist, it has been made evident to me, time and time again, that success comes from the careful observance of details.”
Busoni (1866–1924) was one of the top pianists of his era. His piano arrangements of pieces by J.S.Bach are considered to be some of the finest ever.
While his name as not as well known outside piano circles now, he was widely known and respected in his time.
And like most true artists of any field, he was mindful of small details. The way each note related to the notes around it. The volume and tone fitting in or standing out according to the intention.
Nothing careless, nothing inconsequential.
He spoke to this point himself. “It is often perfection in little things which distinguishes the performance of the great pianist from that of the novice. The novice usually manages to get the so-called main points, but he does not work for the little niceties of interpretation which are almost invariably the defining characteristic of the interpretations of the real artist—that is, the performer who has formed the habit of stopping at nothing short of his highest ideal of perfection.”
Many hobbyist players may be tempted to dismiss these types of ideas.
“Highest ideal of perfection?” This can seem so far away that it doesn’t apply. This type of artistic nuance may feel only fit for prodigies or professionals. Not for me.
But regardless of ability level, we can always pay attention to small details. The quality of attention and curiosity is more important than the complexity of the music.
Even a beginner can listen to the notes as they play. They can hear each note’s volume. They can notice any buzzes or muted notes.
Sure, the solutions may feel out of reach at the moment. But this awareness is one of the key ingredients to fine playing. We can plant the seed early and nurture it with regular care.
Or we can plant the seed at any point further along the trail.
Guitarists often stop work on a piece once they have learned the notes. In the passage above, Busoni called this getting the “main points.”
We can take a small section and bring it to a higher level. We can choose to work the small details. For example, we can balance the melody so it is louder than the other notes. Or we can work on the melody alone so that it sings in just the way we find most beautiful.
Likewise, we can explore other elements of rhythm, tone, or volume. We can always look and listen more closely.
We can practice like we have all the time in the world, and like the current piece is the only one that matters. No hurry, no rush, crafting.
Minding small details, paired with active listening, brings the music alive. It elevates it. This is true both in the practice room and in performance. It is the path forward to mastery, and the surest way to progress to the next level in our playing.
Playing notes is one thing—playing music is another. And the music is in the small details.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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