The key element to this discussion is context. The word context refers to an autonomous whole, but the word content refers to smaller parts. According to Webster, the two definitions of context are:
1. The parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.
2. The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.
Below are a couple of examples of how important context is:
For a musician, there are two key ideas here:
1. The varying parts of a composition are interrelated!
2. Someone else’s part can shed light on what you are doing!
Sometimes the difficulty in music has nothing to do with the notes and the fingerings; it has much more to do with how you treat them, and the relationship that you create between your part and the larger ensemble. For example, expressive playing is a beautiful skill within reason—and within the boundaries of the composer’s work. Some liberties are acceptable and some liberties are expressive, but there are other liberties that are considered overboard, gaudy, ineffective, or inappropriate.
There are innumerable examples of how the context of an excerpt changes the performance of it, but the Overture to Rossini’s La Scala di Seta is a perfect example to point out. The oboe part below was excerpted directly from the orchestral score and includes all of the dynamic and articulation markings in the score.
The bottom line is: Don’t play like you are in a vacuum! Be expressive and play beautifully, but make informed decisions about phrasing!