This week Eli, one of my students who has been learning with me for about 4 years, offered a wonderfully simple, yet insightful description of how we play musically, and ways in which we attempt to “tell the story” or “paint the picture” in music. He called it “making the music 3-D”. It came up as we were working on Requiem for a Little Bird by Gustave Sandré (current Trinity Guildhall Grade 3 piano syllabus), a piece with a surprising emotional depth, which Eli conveys with great thought and understanding.
In this work, the composer uses three main components to convey a sense of mourning and loss: a minor key, an Adagio tempo marking, and dramatic, contrasting dynamics. The notes are not especially difficult, but capturing the emotion of the piece is, and this is quite a sophisticated choice for a young student. Every week, I am impressed by the thought and care Eli puts into his performance.
How do we make our music “3-D”? What is it that we need to do to make the music leap off the printed page and suggest particular emotions or scenes to the listener? Here are some of my suggestions:
- Deep practising: by this I mean a real understanding, through thoughtful practising, of everything that is on the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo markings, expression marks – and how these are used by the composer to convey his intentions in the music
- Further listening: when I am learning new repertoire, I always “listen around” it – to works by the same composer or the composer’s contemporaries, and music of a similar genre or style. And not just piano music either.
- Create visual cues: if the music suggests a particular picture or scene, why not try and find an image and pin it to the score. A visual cue can really help when you are trying to give shape to the music
- Imagine the sound: this is something I learnt from my own teacher. Imagine the sound you want to achieve in your head before you play. Perhaps it is a flute, or a human voice, a violin or a trumpet. Or even a full orchestra. Somehow, imagining the sound can result in a miraculous change in the sound we make.
- Use the right gestures: many students forget that music is there to be performed, whether to teacher, friends and family, or in an exam, festival or concert situation. Our body language can reflect the mood of the music and can help the audience’s understanding and appreciation of it. For example, in a slow, thoughtful piece such as the Requiem for a Little Bird, gentle, fluid gestures, floating the hand from one phrase to another, and not snatching the hands away from the keys at the end of the piece are most appropriate for the mood of this piece.
- Adapting all of the above to suit the mood of individual repertoire. Eli knows that he needs to play in a more upright and lighter manner in Mozart’s Menuett in F K.5 he has also been learning.
Taken all together, these aspects can really enhance our performance, and help to guide the audience in their understanding of the piece as well. These aspects are not necessarily easy to teach, but it is my firm belief that encouraging “musicianship” and learning to play “musically” are crucial right from the earliest stages of musical study.