Telling stories, painting pictures

Music is all about story-telling and painting pictures. Pop music helpfully has titles and song lyrics to tell us what it is about, but Classical music can be more difficult to interpret unless the performer or performers give us “signposts” to help us understand the composer’s intentions.

The simplest “signposts” in the score are tempo, dynamic, phrasing and articulation markings. Often a piece will have some words, usually in Italian, at the beginning to suggest mood or tempo, such as Con fuoco (with fire), Cantabile (in a singing style) or Dolce (sweetly) [many more terms can be found here]. After that, it is up to the performer to transmit the composer’s intentions to the audience, literally, to “tell the story” of the music.

Many Classical pieces do have titles to help us. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Opus 27 No. 2 is more commonly known as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’, though this was a nickname given to the piece after Beethoven’s death. The composer marks the score ‘Quasi una fantasia’ which means “like a fantasy”, and this can certainly help the performer shape the music.

Early and intermediate pieces for students usually have clear titles – Vampire Blues, Tarantella, Summer Swing, Military Minuet, Saturday Stomp – which tell us a good deal about the music before we have even heard a single note. But, as the performer, it is up to you to “tell the story” of the music to the listener and, through your performance, paint a picture of the music. When you are performing, always imagine the audience has never heard this piece before, knows nothing about it at all.

  • Look at the score carefully before you play: what “signposts” (dynamics, musical terms, articulation etc) has the composer given to tell you what this music is about?
  • Think about the mood of the music – is it happy, sad, slow, quick?
  • Have a very clear picture in your head of how you want the music to sound, what kind of story you want to tell in it, before you begin to play.
  • Take time to think of descriptive words for your music – write them on the score if it helps (see my earlier post on describing music)
  • Use your body to help tell the story – for example, snatching your hands off the keyboard at the end of a slow, gentle piece will look wrong. Lift your hands off the keys to draw sounds out of the piano (I encourage students who are studying ‘Fanfare for the Common Cold’ (Trinity GH Grade 2) to play the glissandi at the end with a true virtuoso flourish, which creates a brighter sound as well as looking great!)
  • Find out more about the composer and the context in which the music was composed. Listen to other pieces by the same composer, or other music written at the same time
  • What pictures do you imagine when you play your music? Find images on the internet, print them out and stick them in your score if it helps.
  • Remember – the audience knows nothing about the piece. What do you want to tell them about the music in your performance?

Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov plays Rameau’s ‘La Poule’ (The Hen). Look at the way Sokolov uses his hands to suggest the chicken pecking – the image is clear in the music, but the pianist’s gestures undoubtedly help “tell the story”:

See some “sound images” here

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