The Language of Music:
In Theory & In Practice
Q&A Interview with Cameron Fuhrman
2/26/2021 • Reading Time: 17min
Credit: Nadine Photography
About Cameron Fuhrman
Dr. Cameron Fuhrman began taking piano lessons at age five and teaching them at age eleven. She completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Piano Performance and Literature, with a minor in Chamber Music, while studying under Natalya Antonova at the Eastman School of Music in 2020.
Dr. Fuhrman currently performs in venues across the country, ranging from traditional concert halls to museums to school assemblies, and maintains a private piano studio, while serving as an instructor of theory and aural skills at Georgia Southern University. Her scholarly research focuses on pedagogy and on the relationship between performance and music theory. She lives in Savannah, GA, with her husband, Jacob.
Credit: Nadine Photography
If I remember correctly, you completed a Master's in theory before beginning your Master's in piano, while of course continuing to study piano privately. What led to your initial interest in studying music theory? Do you feel that initial interest led to pursuing further studies in piano, or, perhaps vice versa?
My loves of theory and of piano are definitely mutually reinforcing. My interest in music theory began during my undergraduate. I studied at a small liberal-arts school; the music department was quite tiny, but the theory professor there at the time was excellent. His training was primarily as a pianist, and he brought his experience as a performer to bear in the theory classroom — frequently introducing some possible performance implications of a concept along with the concept itself. In other words, he used the elements we learned to teach us about musical language. He posited questions such as how an understanding of secondary dominants and the tension they bring might impact how a performer voices them, or how the construction of a particular sonata form might influence the pacing and arrival points of that sonata. His instruction opened up a new world for me, giving me the tools to understand musical language deeply and to develop a nuanced, artistic view of a musical work. My theory homework made me impossibly excited, as through it I learned to clarify and develop my vision of the music I was studying. I learned to see the potential expressions of the music — the differing impacts something as simple as a cadence or a suspension can have, depending on how you play it — and how to make choices between these varying expressions. But, at this point, all of this was taking place inside my head; I didn’t have the pianistic skills to realize most of what I crafted in my mind.
Following my undergrad, I entered the MA in Theory Pedagogy degree program at the Eastman School of Music. I loved this degree; those two years were probably the most exhilarating of my life. But my inability to play, to realize all the potential I saw in music, began to consume me. The art that my mind could create far outstripped anything my hands could even begin to realize. I gradually recognized that I would be happier as a pianist actively engaged in theory than as a theorist who could kind of play the piano. This prompted my change of direction into piano degrees instead of further pursuit of theory degrees. And gaining more skill and experience in piano has solidified my ongoing interest in theory.
Music theory involves an analysis of the score. Ultimately, the analysis should not be analysis in and of itself but an analysis towards larger statements & more overarching conclusions. As a performer, I always find myself going back & forth between the two: small-scale details & the work of creating one continuous line. It’s difficult not to sacrifice the latter for the former in performance. Is this balance also something to contend with when writing about a work from a theoretical perspective?
Definitely. It’s tricky, because the “big picture” is constructed from all those small-scale details. In writing about a work, as in performing a work, you don’t want to lose the forest for the trees, and yet the existence of the forest depends on the presence of trees. And, to stretch the metaphor perhaps a bit too far, the identity of any given forest is formed by particular placement of particular trees, just as the identity of any given musical work is formed by particular placement of particular musical details. So great care must be taken of those details… but never without the perspective of the whole piece in mind.
Knowing the details intimately and insightfully is, I think, what ultimately facilitates a paper that is not bogged down in them. The creation of a successful paper (and a successful performance, too) nearly always includes some version of the following steps: know all the details; use that detailed knowledge to clarify the overarching concept; determine how to use the details to convey that concept compellingly. We need familiarity with all the details in order to know how to convey the large-scale concept they form, and that includes knowing which details to leave in the background. In both writing and performing, some details absolutely take higher priority than others. In writing about a work from a theoretical perspective, we must distinguish between details integral to the main point of the paper and those superfluous to it.
One of the easiest traps to fall into when writing an analytical paper about a work is the blow-by-blow description: “This piece opens with an arpeggiated tonic harmony. A IV chord with the same arpeggiated texture at the beginning m. 2 changes to a first-inversion ii harmony on the third beat of m. 2”… and on and on for measures at a time. Including so much detail, particularly without any reference to why it matters, obscures rather than clarifies the large-scale concept. Is it helpful to state that the piece begins with a tonic harmony? To make an exaggerated point: if you’re writing about a work that only contains three clear instances of tonic, then probably it is; if you’re writing about developing variation in the second theme, probably it is not. Know which details you need to make your point, and present those details in a way that makes their relevance to that point easily apparent.
A question I find helpful in working on both papers and performances is this: Does what I am doing — or not doing — with this detail support and clarify the work’s “big picture,” or does it detract from or obscure it? If the choices you make about the handling of details are geared towards the creation of a compelling, clear main “point,” then focus on those details in writing and in playing will serve that point, rather than distracting from it.
Piano playing is physical in nature. Everyone has unique ways of learning & approaching a score; each one has its own Achilles’ heel. When I envision a score away from the piano, I not only see & hear it, but I feel very tangibly what my hands are doing. Unfortunately, highly developed muscle memory can be dangerous in performance: the ear & mind must also be present … But not too actively present! Do you find the cerebral aspects of studying theory can "get in the way" during performance situations, when one must not be actively thinking but more objectively listening?
Yes! Each type of memorization, including the three you mentioned (muscle, auditory, and conceptual), is particularly suited to certain aspects of memorization and less suited or even detrimental to others. Types of memorization are like tools in a tool box: strategic use of each tool yields the best results. A hammer is not well-suited for every home-maintenance task; similarly, no single type of memorization is well-suited for the entire scope of memorization. As performers, it is important to know how and when to use each type of memorization. The ideal arrangement varies from person to person, but I think there are some generalizations we can draw. Since your question focused on cerebral aspects (conceptual memory), I will focus my comments there.
Conceptual memory proves highly effective as a means of knowing a work intimately, but tends to fall short when used as the primary means of realizing a piece from memory during a performance. Like you said, engaging too actively with the cerebral mind during a performance can get in the way. Trying to remember and realize an exact succession of harmonies, counterpoint, etc. in real time is extremely difficult and risky, particularly when nerves set in. I have caused memory slips in my own performances by focusing too heavily on an element of conceptual memory. In the heat of the moment, performance anxiety caused me to forget some aspect of that memory — the next harmony, motivic variation, etc. Because I was so focused on conceptual memory, I froze; if I had included more use of muscle and auditory memory, I probably could have avoided those slips. Consequently, I now plan my use of conceptual memory more carefully. In real-time performance situations, I rely on it only for things I know so well that they are second-nature, things I can recall with absolutely no hesitation at any moment in any situation. For me, these include things like descending-fifth sequence basslines, dominant to tonic harmonic patterns, and 4-3 suspensions. These things give me moments of extra security in performance without distracting me with too much cerebral complexity.
But memorization has far more scope than merely “that which allows someone to perform without a score”; it does much more than that. Memorization, particularly conceptual memorization, is part of the process of knowing a piece intimately, of forming an interpretation of it. Reaching a deep knowledge of a work — the kind of knowledge needed to create an intentional, compelling, cohesive conception of it — is nearly impossible without some amount of memorization. An actor will struggle to develop their character if they do not have some memory of all their lines. How they deliver the lines in the last scene of the play, for instance, will depend largely on the drama’s content leading up to that scene and on how they interpret that content. To make decisions about the ending, they need large amounts of the entire play at “the tip of their brain,” so to speak — accessible for consideration without having to see it on the page. Similarly, in order to make cohesive, large- and small-scale interpretive decisions about a musical work, a performer needs at least some level of conceptual memory of that work. They need to recall the content of the piece, with understanding of that content, in order to fully grasp any given moment of it in context.
So, conceptual memory plays an integral role in interpretation. And note that conceptual memory can involve recall of any number of aspects of a piece. It doesn’t have to mean the ability to recite the Roman numeral analysis of a piece. It can take the form of knowing themes, counterpoint, bass lines, textures, registers… the list could go on and on. The more aspects involved and the greater one’s understanding of them, the richer the benefits derived from conceptual memory and the more complete one’s knowledge of the piece will be.
In addition to its usefulness for developing interpretation, conceptual memory is also incredibly helpful for recovering from those moments we all hope never to experience again: huge memory slips, the kind where you stop playing or improvise while trying to find your way back to the score. Conceptual memory provides a fantastic framework for getting back on track after such slips.
In sum, yes, too much focus on cerebral knowledge of a piece (conceptual memory) can prove detrimental when used as the basis for memory in real time, particularly when nerves are involved. Use conceptual memory for performance, but rely on it wisely and sparingly. Where conceptual memory really shines, in my opinion, is in the role it plays in developing a considered, cohesive conception of a work.
You have a wealth of pedagogical experience teaching theory & piano, in both classroom & private settings. Let's talk about the latter. What has been your experience with incorporating theory into private piano lessons?
For me, the purpose of incorporating analysis into private lessons is always the same: to help students see different interpretive options and make decisions about those options. At its core, analysis is really just noticing things and then (ideally) drawing some conclusions based on the things noticed. The “things noticed” don’t have to be things we learn in theory class. Perhaps a composer brings a melody back in a different register than in its initial statement or with varied articulation; noticing this and developing a hypothesis about the reason for or effect of the change is a kind of analysis. The knowledge we gain in theory class — about inversions, harmony, counterpoint, form, the list goes on — provides us with more things to notice in the music we play and, by extension, with more information from which to craft an interpretation.
One of the most helpful lessons I’ve learned as a result of incorporating theory into my private lessons is just how uncomfortable many students are with making their own interpretive decisions. It’s not only that they don’t know how to use information to draw an interpretive conclusion (though frequently that is also the case), but more pressingly it is a fear of being “wrong” that holds them back. I’m not sure when or where it developed, but at some point, the idea arose that there is a “right” way to play a piece. Go to YouTube and find a recording of a famous, modern-day pianist playing a standard work; read the comments, and you will likely find some variant of the following: “I am learning this piece, and now that I’ve heard this recording, I know the right way to play it.” This attitude is pervasive among (and paralyzing to) students. They find an expert and copy them, or they wait until their teacher tells them how to play. As a result, many students are fantastic at copying a model and following instruction but are paralyzingly insecure about making their own musical decisions. Their aim in playing is imitation. Imitation has a place and often requires great skill, but I don’t think replicating a supposed “right” way of playing a piece should ever be the end goal for a performer. In my opinion, imitation is not art in the fullest sense. Part of the genius in musical masterpieces is their ability to be interpreted in multiple ways, to be seen from many perspectives. Each person brings a different perspective to a piece; artistry is developing and clarifying this vision and then realizing it at the keyboard. Observing this “one right way” tendency in my students has helped me become much more attentive to developing independent artistry in both my students and myself. Knowledge of musical language, which involves theory and analysis, is integral to such independence.
The success of incorporating analysis into private lessons depends largely on how well it is crafted to the experience, knowledge, and personality of the student.
Experience: Students with less experience noticing things and making their own decisions tend to respond best to simpler, clear-cut questions, whereas students with more experience and comfort making their own observations and drawing their own conclusions can be well-served by tackling more ambiguous, nuanced questions. For an example, consider the first eight bars of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, B. 150. These eight bars split into two four-bar phrases. Let’s say that I have two students, both with beginning knowledge of theory. One has less experience with noticing things, particularly with using what they notice to make musical decisions. I might ask that student which of the cadential resolutions is more conclusive — m. 4 or m. 8? They will presumably identify m. 8, which will prompt follow-up questions from me, to which there are multiple good answers: why is it more conclusive? how might the knowledge that m. 4 isn’t a very conclusive cadence change the way you play it? and the knowledge that m. 8 is a conclusive cadence? For the student with more experience, I might draw their attention to the bass line, comparing mm. 1-4 with mm. 5-8 and asking questions such as: how does the contour of these two bass lines differ? do their differing contours put emphasis on different harmonies within each four-measure phrase? What role does register play in this? Do the differing contours (and possibly harmonic emphases) impact how you shape each phrase or where you take time? Of course, these are just hypothetical questions to hypothetical students, but the point remains: my questions to both students are aimed not at getting them to identify a single “right” way of playing these eight bars but rather toward helping them learn to examine music — this music and all music — for information that their intellect, in collaboration with their instinct, can use to clarify their vision and understanding of the work.
Knowledge: it is difficult to draw conclusions from information that you do not feel confident about. If I try to get a student to form an opinion based on a concept they learned just the day before, they will likely struggle. To the best of my ability, I try to have a fairly accurate assessment of a student’s theoretical knowledge and to use only topics with which they are quite fluent in helping them make performance decisions. For a student in their first year of undergraduate theory, for instance, secondary dominants are a risky choice, while chord inversion is more likely safe.
Personality: Every person functions differently. Some thrive on structured analytical processes; others flourish with a more experimental, impulsive approach. The type and amount of aid that analysis provides varies with each student. As a teacher, my job is to help them learn to use all the tools at their disposal, including analysis, in the way most beneficial for them.
While students often find this process uncomfortable at first, most come to see its value, at the least, and to pursue it eagerly and independently, at best.
Brahms Op. 118, Nos. 5 and 6
I've noticed that you play Bach & Scriabin particularly well. These two composers share distinctive harmonic personalities. How do you feel harmonic language plays into the "personality" of a composer? By "personality", I mean the qualities that all great composers have of being immediately distinguishable from anyone else.
That’s an interesting question. As one of the fundamental building blocks of music, harmony is certainly important to a composer’s “personality,” to that which makes their output distinctly their own. But the role it plays in creating that distinctive voice varies in size and type. By size, I mean size of the role harmony plays in a composer's “personality” in comparison to the roles played by other musical elements such as rhythm and meter, texture, melody, etc. By type, I mean the varying aspects of harmony and harmonic treatment that can help define a compositional “personality.” These aspects include the harmony itself (that which is represented by a Roman numeral or pitch-class set, for instance), as well as the ways it is manifested — considerations such as harmonic rhythm, voicing, spacing, etc.
To consider the two composers you mentioned, Bach and Scriabin, I think harmony plays a smaller role in Bach’s “personality” than in Scriabin’s. Harmony is, of course, hugely important in Bach’s music, but it doesn’t play as large a role as some other elements in distinguishing his music from that of his contemporaries. Several types of harmonic usage appear often enough in Bach’s music (and rarely enough in that of his contemporaries) to be considered trademarks of his style, such as the use of a vii fully-diminished-7 over a tonic pedal at a final cadence, and relatively quick harmonic rhythm for his time. In my opinion, other musical elements play an even larger role than harmony in Bach’s “personality,” particularly counterpoint and stylistic combination — both geographical (French, Italian, and German) and chronological (from the Renaissance to the early Galant).
Harmonic language definitely seems a larger factor in Scriabin’s “personality,” particularly in the form of his “mystic” chord and its variants. Try playing a dominant seventh chord with a lowered fifth, for example; the sound immediately brings Scriabin to mind, particularly if the chord is voiced to include as many open fourths as possible. Even his student works contain this harmony in abundance, typically as a dominant-function chord. As his style progressed, he used similar harmonies more abundantly and added extensions more frequently (9ths, 11ths, 13ths, as well as varying alterations to the 5th), and the chord lost its dominant function, essentially becoming a consonance employed for its color. So, harmonic language factors into Scriabin’s “personality” both by way of the harmony itself (again, the “mystic” chord is a good example) and by the ways the harmony is presented and used. He relied increasingly on quartal voicings, for example, and his later style used harmony largely for its color and apart from traditional functions, employing a strikingly Symbolist approach. Other musical factors, in addition to harmony, certainly contribute to Scriabin’s “personality” — for instance, his use of complex, improvisatory rhythms that skew and obscure metric impulse, particularly in his later works. But I find it hard to imagine any music seeming “Scriabin-esque” that doesn’t incorporate some of his trademark harmonic language.
Josef Hofmann & legendary pianists of his time were all very much educated in the academic arts of music making. So, how does music theory play into truly great piano playing?
Spend any time with the writings and interviews of legendary pianists from the first half of the 20th century, and you will quickly encounter these pianists’ reliance on and value of the academic arts of music-making. Indeed, they often rate these arts as of more fundamental importance to a pianist’s education than physical training. (Read, for instance, the interviews in James Cooke’s Great Pianists on Piano Playing.) In my listening experience, the common thread throughout all truly great piano playing is truly great music making, based on a deep knowledge of musical language. Any list of truly great pianists will feature musicians with different levels of technical ability, contrasting interpretive styles, varying educational backgrounds, and diverse pianistic priorities. But they all will possess a cultivated understanding of the musical language and how it works.
Music theory and analysis is the study of musical language. The ability to recognize harmonies, identify phrases, and perceive form is akin to knowledge of word definitions and grammatical structure in spoken languages. The knowledge itself doesn’t automatically create art, but it provides the tools to do so. Say two people were told to prepare a recitation of a poem by Pushkin; the first person has limited knowledge of Russian, while the second speaks it fluently and has studied it thoroughly. The first person might be able to pronounce and understand the general meaning of the words, and they could perhaps listen to a reading of the poem by a skilled orator and imitate their inflection and timing. Their recitation might be entertaining, but it is unlikely to be insightful or particularly compelling (and a minor slip in the memory of inflection or pronunciation could produce disastrous or even hilarious results). The second person, however, has the tools to understand the beauty of the word choice and arrangement, to comprehend the text and subtext, to appreciate the subtle differences in meaning that result from emphasizing one word versus another; they can clarify and develop their view of the poem, based on a thorough understanding of the language, and craft a recitation that reflects that view.
Truly great piano playing rests on a foundational knowledge of theory, of the elements and construction of musical language. The pianists may have gained this knowledge in a classroom, through analytical study of scores, from listening to other master players, or any number of other ways. But they all possess a musical literacy that informs and guides their instinct. Intellect provides inspiration with both fuel and foundation.
Who is your favorite legendary pianist & why?
Alfred Cortot. His playing reveals a deep insight into the musical language, complimented by fantastic freedom and scope of imagination. He is one of the rare ones — those whose goal is to present the music, not their own expressions or skill, but who, in the process, reveal a stunning and unique interpretive voice. His recordings make so much musical sense to me; his decisions about nuance, time, color, and so on always seem grounded in the score, and yet they are usually decisions that never would have occurred to me. Listening to Cortot inspires me when I am stuck in a rut in my own playing and emboldens me when I find myself making musical decisions based on what I think people expect to hear rather than on what I believe to be true to the music.
I have two suggestions for listening. The first video is a clip from a masterclass Cortot gave on Schumann’s Kinderszenen in 1953. This video reveals his poetic imagination, as well as the careful and clear intention he gave each phrase he played.
The second is his 1937 recording of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze.
About Maryam Raya
Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.
Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.