Now answer this honestly…
How many of you have actually thought about what the piece of music you are playing is trying the express?
I suspect many of you haven’t. You focus on notes, rhythms and dynamics but beyond that do you really think about what you are trying to express or what the composer is trying to say in the music.
When composers write their music do you think they are just coming up with a string of notes and rhythms that happen to sound good or do you think the composer was actually trying to express emotions and stories through the music they are writing? Composers are doing exactly what authors do, but composers have to tell their stories without words (unless it’s vocal of course!) Now the lack of words obviously makes the emotions and the story less obvious which means we as performers have to interpret what is on the page and make our performance portray the emotions and story.
To try and work out what stories and characters the composers were trying to tell we have to do a bit of detective work. Sometimes the title gives us a lot of information, for example, Paul Reade – Aspects of a Landscape for solo oboe has a movement entitled Birdsong etc. This particular piece gives us plenty of information and it is quite obvious what the composer is trying to depict. Benjamin Britten goes even further in the Britten 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid in that not only does each movement have a title but there is also a sentence describing them, e.g. Niobe, who, lamenting the death of her fourteen children, was turned into a mountain. From this we instantly know it is a sad and very emotional piece. Many pieces don’t give us clear information so we have to use our musical intelligence.
First, look at the title and the tempo markings, these may not tell you much but they will give you a starting point. If it is a slow piece it is more likely to be an emotional piece and if it is fast it could be joyful, certainly likely to be lively, slow or fast it could be depicting something intense or dramatic. What I am trying to explain is there are no real rules, slow or fast it could depict any emotion the composer chose, so, look in more detail as we have only just started on the detective work! Look at the key, is it major or minor, does the piece keep changing key? All these things add character and personality. Play through the piece and think about what it might be depicting. I try and visualise a scene that could be going on in the music, sometimes I can be thinking of something as mad as a leprechaun bouncing around doing daft things and playing hide and seek and other pieces can make me imagine an old person remembering the things they have done in their life and the emotions those things created. Let your imagination run free and take some musical risks.
Once you start thinking about the characters and stories your phrasing will improve, you will start feeling the music and bringing it to life. This will help you communicate better in performances and will help audiences understand the music you are playing. The audience may not come away with the same stories and emotions you thought and felt when playing but that doesn’t matter, the thing you will do is shape the music in a way that will help the listener feel the music and create stories of their own.
There is so much more I could say about this but for now I just want to get you all thinking, this gives us a good starting point. Once you start thinking about the stories and emotions you will start feeling them, when you feel them you can’t help but portray them in the music you play!
Let your imaginations run wild, try different things out. Take musical risks and be expressive!
Enjoy the musical clips for this blog, one is Niobe which I talked about and is performed by Nicholas Daniel. The second clip is the Berlin Philharmonic performing Tchaikovsky : Waltz of the Flowers. Use your imaginations when listening to these pieces. In the Tchaikovsky you can imagine the flowers swaying and dancing in the garden, there is cheekiness, fun and elegance, all very different to the heart wrenching music in Niobe.
Workshops – I do workshops with A level aged students on musicality and performance showing how to develop their musical story telling. If anyone would be interested in finding out more about these please do contact me.