Performing, Piano teaching, Practising, Students

Describing and imagining music

My students will remember we did an exercise earlier in the year called The Musical Adjectives Project, where we each wrote down 5 words to describe a piece of music we were studying. You can see the results of this fun exercise here, together with the Word Cloud I created from the all the adjectives we came up with.

Using descriptive words to help you understand the music you are learning, and to help you perform it in a different or better way is an extremely useful exercise. I regularly ask students to think up descriptive words when we are working on a piece together, as well as imagining the sounds different instruments might make, or thinking of the music in “orchestral” terms. The great thing about the piano is that it can be any instrument you want it to be – a shiny, brassy trumpet, a rich, smooth ‘cello, a mellow clarinet – and if you imagine these sounds in your head before you play, you will often find you can create a completely different sound or effects.

First, create a list of, say, 25 descriptive words that could be used to describe the music you are learning – exciting, shiny, sparkly, mysterious, spooky, soft, gentle, moody, for example. Put a star or tick by 10-15 of your favourite words and then narrow that list down to about 5. With these words in mind, experiment with playing a small section of your piece – or even the whole piece, if you like – and think about the effect you created. How did you feel when you played the piece? Did you notice any changes in dynamics, articulation (staccato/legato etc), shaping?

Next, imagine you are performing the piece to an audience, or play for your family or friends. You want to encourage your audience to imagine the same adjectives you thought up without actually revealing them. Compare the results afterwards and see if your audience came up with the same words as you. And if your audience suggests some new adjectives to describe your piece, add them to your list.

You can also use pictures to help you “visualise” what your music is about. Keep a scrapbook of pictures if it helps, or pin a picture in your score.

Remember, this is not just an exercise for early students or children. Some of the greatest pianists use this technique to help them create particular sounds and emotions in the music they are playing. A piece of Beethoven may sound like a grand general marching at the head of his army, while a Nocturne by Chopin might suggest a tender lullaby, or a night-time scene in a quiet, candle-lit room at the end of the day. The key thing is to experiment with descriptions and images when you are practising and to note the effect this has on your playing. You may be surprised by the results!

More on The Musical Adjectives Project here

Create a Word Cloud from your adjectives here


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