Carmencita Aspiras on the Pursuit of Music

From an interview with pianist Carmencita Aspiras

Once, in the middle of her practicing, Carmencita Aspiras rose from the piano as she was moved to tears by what she describes as the “sublimely beautiful slow movement” of Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C major. She recounts this as a moment of transcendence saying, “No other chore, job, or activity can transport someone into the spiritual realm.” It is indescribable; Carmencita quotes French poet Victor Hugo, “Music expresses that which cannot be said.” In this poignant last movement of the work, Robert Schumann instructs Langsam getragen. Durchweg leise zu halten. or “Slow and solemn. Always quiet.” This is a notable contrast to the vigorous preceding movement. It urges a sense of calm and eventual deliverance.

“I came to realize that learning music seeps into the psyche as fertilizer does to a plant to nourish it.”

Carmencita “Chita” Sipin Aspiras

Years after the Second World War, Carmencita’s family moved from Pangasinan to Manila to further her music lessons. “I was eleven years old when I enrolled at the UP College of Music under Juan Bañez,” she recalls. Carmencita would go to UP on Saturdays to have her piano lessons at quonset huts that were used by the US military forces during the war. “Mr. Bañez had converted a rather large quonset hut into a dorm equipped with practice rooms,” she describes. “In the middle of the hut was a cozy recital hall. It was here where I had my lessons. Sometimes it was in the old large quonset hut where the College of Music was then housed.” Carmencita Aspiras flourished under the guidance of Mr. Bañez. She, still an eleven-year-old, was chosen as the soloist to perform the Mozart Piano Concerto №20 in D Minor K. 466 at the UP Christmas Concert. “As a young student,” she says, “I practiced with the goal of merely being able to play the notes correctly in tempo. I was very shy and my playing reflected my shyness. As I grew older, my idea of practice metamorphosed into a multifaceted process that worked towards achieving the mood and style of the music.”

Intrigued, I ask, “When do you consider a music ready for performance?”

“The work at hand is ready for performance if the performer can be the authoritative ‘leader’ of his faculties in making the music beautiful.”

“The musician whose priority is to show off his prowess at the instrument is not doing justice to the music. Without him knowing it, the music suffers.”

The Manifold Process: Technique, Style, Singing Tone, and Memorization

“Achieving this involves enormous hard work, discipline, patience, perseverance, and a positive outlook,” Carmencita reminds students. “The performer should, first of all, be equipped with a technical facility that has been honed through the years.” Studying a piece of music does not end, however, with technical mastery; it is only a step in the manifold process of music-making. “I keep in mind that technical freedom is just a tool in conveying the music’s essence,” she says. She also cautions that, in the pursuit of mastery, the pianist must remain focused on the music, not himself. “The music is of utmost importance. The musician whose priority is to show off his prowess at the instrument is not doing justice to the music. Without him knowing it, the music suffers.”

Once technical ease is achieved, the performer must consider the style of the work by studying its historical period and intended instrument. “Mozart and Haydn sonatas,” for example, “were written for the fortepiano which did not have the rich sonority of the modern grand. They should be played with that in mind.” Imagine Carmencita’s delight when she was the given the chance to play on historical instruments — of the masters, no less. One day, through a friend, she and pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who was then still a student, were invited to play the instruments of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms at the Hofburg Museum of Musical Instruments in Vienna. She recalls this as a “distinct privilege” and an invaluable lesson. “The distinctive sound, action, and feel of each instrument were lessons I will never forget.”

With the understanding of style, Carmencita also underscores the significance of tone, reminding pianists, “The foundational material for music-making is tone. While painters have colors, sculptors forms, and dancers movement, musicians have tone to work on.” She remembers how her teacher in Vienna, pianist Bruno Seidlhofer, would insist on a singing tone. “Sing! Sing!” he would admonish his students. “I don’t care what you do even if you have to play with your nose!” “He did not say how though,” Carmencita says. “As I look back, I now understand that he meant for us to ‘experiment’ and find for ourselves the tone that could simulate the human voice and its inflection. Tonal colors come into play in this regard. If the pianist is able to make the piano ‘sing,’ his feelings become attuned to the music, for the human voice is the epitome of musical expressivity. His imagination and feelings become awakened, making his playing more soulful.”

But preparation is twofold for a performer: he works not only on the music but also on himself. He deals with tremendous pressure, after all, especially when a lot hinge on the success of his performance. “I have yet to meet a performer who is not nervous at all,” Carmencita assures. “Nervousness is a part of public performance. The absence of nervousness is not normal.” The key to overcoming nervousness, she explains, is something musicians are all too familiar with: “Practice, practice, practice — the mantra of musicians — can never be underestimated.” The pianist may also accustom himself to the presence of an audience by frequently performing for a small group. “Days before a concert, I invite friends for a run-through of my program. I encourage them to comment on my playing.”

Among everything that can go wrong in a performance, many pianists dread a memory slip the most. This often sparks a debate: should musicians perform with or without the score? Carmencita asserts, “Memorizing a piece brings it to a higher level of mastery. Memorizing is multidimensional in that it involves analyzing the structure of the piece, thus bringing about a better understanding of the piece and sharpening the auditory, motor and visual memories.” Regardless, “Performing with or without music is still a personal choice. A number of world-renowned pianists play with music, especially at an advanced age. It’s the expressivity of the music that is of utmost importance.”

Artistry

As Carmencita walks to the piano onstage, she thinks, “The piano and I would be one in those one-and-a-half or two-hour moments of spiritual upliftment.” This echoes the profound moment she experienced as she practiced Schumann’s Fantasy. “How lucky can musicians get,” she says. Being immersed in the music does this; there becomes a companionate undercurrent throughout the process that seeps into the psyche. It is a quiet transformative power that has moved artists and listeners alike. In the verse of Friedrich Schlegel, also the preface of Schumann’s Fantasy:

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentraum
Ein leiser Ton gezogen
Für den, der heimlich lauschet.

“Through all the notes
In earth’s multi-coloured dream
There sounds one soft long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.”[1]

[1] Schlegel translation from Schumann Fantasy Op. 17 notes by Nicholas Marston, Hyperion Records (2001).

A writer and musician who has spent most of her career in the arts industry. Joyce now explores the creative process she's been steeped in, in all its forms.