Learning musicality - Icing on the cake?

Explore a new topic relevant to piano education monthly

Moderator: Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Jun 14, 2005 8:03 am

It can be enough of a struggle to learn or teach sight reading, technique, memorization, music theory, music appreciation and a host of other essential areas for piano students. It's easy to get consumed in the process of reproducing the notes on the page, rather than making MUSIC. Of course, music is much more than just playing the notes on the page. Arguably, I suppose, the process of really understanding the musical language of a work only begins when it can be played reasonably well.

Most of us have probably been to a piano competition for young students in which some of the best of the competitors have learned only to play the notes on the page without the slightest trace of emotion or individuality in their "interpretation. " Such playing is, all too often, rewarded by judges who seem to feel that "flawless" playing is the only criterion which should be applied. Many times it is apparent that the students who play this way don't really enjoy their playing.

Understanding the musical language of a work is essential, but how can we learn to do it best? Should it be like icing on a cake, added only at the end of the learning process, almost like an after thought? Should it be a necessary part of lessons? Can it be an integral part of piano training or should it be something reserved for a student's own elective study on his own time? If you teach musicality, how do you work it in? Should listening to multiple versions of a work be required in preparing it for performance by a student? Since musicality is difficult to teach within the very limited confines of the lesson, how can a teacher best include it or give at least a sense of it to the student?
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. - Albert Einstein
User avatar
Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed
Site Admin
 
Posts: 994
Joined: Sun Jun 08, 2003 6:46 pm
Location: Rio Rancho, NM USA

Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Jun 14, 2005 2:35 pm

John, you've just about said it all.

I continue to contend that, just as a child learns spoken language and its meanings from growing up in an environment where it is constantly used, so he/she can best learn the language of music by hearing it on a continual basis. Music can and does communicate forcefully--albeit on different levels--to all who are willing to listen, even those who are untrained. The infinite variety of this expression, through different styles, genres and media, will be absorbed, and the listener will learn how to use it just as he/she learns the subtleties of spoken inflections, modulations and pace from his family.

I don't imply that this is the only way to musicality; much can be done by a teacher as well. For one thing, I've had more than 50 years of repeated amazement at how much can be done simply by calling attention to the expression marks on the page--it's astonishing how often students (and even teachers) ignore these. Often they don't even look them up!

It also helps a lot to illustrate different ways of playing the same passage--change dynamics, tempo, voicing, pedaling, all kinds of things. And when the student does this, it can be a terrific boost to both technical control and hearing sensitivity, as well as spark the imagination to feel different moods, styles and so on.

We can also discuss style: why does Brahms sound different from Bach, or Stravinsky? --and bring these attributes into conscious hearing and use.

All these things can be done without necessarily having to play advanced, difficult music; it should also be done by listening and comparing.

Bill L.
Technique is 90 per cent from the neck up.
Dr. Bill Leland
 
Posts: 548
Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2004 5:58 pm
Location: Las Cruces, NM

Postby Beckywy » Tue Jun 14, 2005 8:30 pm

also by analyzing the piece - what period it was written in - Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary- what are the characteristics of the period. Talk about the composer of the piece, and what are the characteristics of music written by that composer - what was going on in the world at the time, and what could the composer be experiencing at the moment he composed the piece.
"The real purpose of studying music-to unite ourselves with our special gifts in such a way that one would add strength to the other" Seymour Bernstein
Beckywy
 
Posts: 193
Joined: Sun Nov 14, 2004 10:33 pm
Location: Mississauga, Ontario Canada

Postby Stretto » Tue Jun 14, 2005 10:37 pm

When it comes to listening to music to aid in playing it, I think it's important not only to listen but to comprehend the 'musical language'. In spoken language, without comprehension of the meaning and context the language is just a "good", "pleasant", "bad", or "annoying" sound. Studying the theory and history (as Beckywy pointed out) behind the piece helps me in comprehension and I enjoy playing it so much more. Hopefully, it also improves my sound. In teaching, I am more concerned with how well my students comprehend the music than how well they can play it.
When it comes to making 'musical language' an 'afterthought' or the 'icing on the cake', I used to be of that philosophy. I always thought one needed to get the notes and rhythm down half-way decent and then concentrate on incorporating the 'musical language'. But this idea takes all the fun out of playing and in the meantime playing becomes mechanical. After all, isn't expressing the 'language of music' the most enjoyable part and a big part of why we're in music to begin with? In my own practicing, I've recently started trying to include more musical elements from the beginning especially analysis of the piece, expression, and articulation. It keeps the fun in it, and I'm practicing these elements way more often than if I made them the 'icing'.
I think, in general, in teaching and learning music we tend to compartmentalize all the elements. Perhaps it boils down to training oneself and students to think about more than one element at a time which is what's so fun and challenging about making music in the first place.
(As far as specific ways to teach 'musical language', using a word picture like sneaking up on someone, a train coming from a distance, a bubbling brook, a flowing stream, a floating balloon, bouncing on a trampoline, a stomping monster, etc., etc. is a good way to get the point across especially in expression and articulation.)
Stretto
 
Posts: 745
Joined: Mon May 16, 2005 10:34 pm
Location: Mo.

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Jun 15, 2005 8:11 am

Stretto wrote:When it comes to making 'musical language' an 'afterthought' or the 'icing on the cake', I used to be of that philosophy. I always thought one needed to get the notes and rhythm down half-way decent and then concentrate on incorporating the 'musical language'. But this idea takes all the fun out of playing and in the meantime playing becomes mechanical. After all, isn't expressing the 'language of music' the most enjoyable part and a big part of why we're in music to begin with?

This is really the crux of the matter. It's neither fun to play mechanically nor fun to listen to mechanical playing. One of the reasons I started this thread is that I've sometimes wondered if it might be easier to motivate piano students, once they have reached a basic level of competency, if they could appreciate the work as "music" rather than a set of notes on a page. It should be more fun for them and give more room for individuality. I'm not suggesting that each student thoroughly research the history of every work they play (though that certainly would not be wasted time), but, rather, that, as the student more or less masters a section of the music, the teacher suggest alternative interpretations of the section or encourage the student to think about how the work might sound better if played slightly differently. This could probably be somewhat Socratic in approach: ask the student relevant questions and let him find his own answers.

Before ending this post, let me give an analogy that may help clarify what I mean by "musicality." I have often heard students play competently, but with all the individuality and emotion they would put into writing a computer program. Writing a computer program takes knowledge and hard work, but I've rarely heard programmers develop any emotional attachment for their work or be particularly proud of their individual approach to the problem - I certainly don't in my own programming. Programming is considered "good" if it does the job, makes efficient use of memory and other hardware, and executes as rapidly as possible. To me, playing the piano should be a lot more than just "getting the job done."

:D




Edited By Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor on 1118844737
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. - Albert Einstein
User avatar
Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed
Site Admin
 
Posts: 994
Joined: Sun Jun 08, 2003 6:46 pm
Location: Rio Rancho, NM USA

Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Wed Jun 15, 2005 2:18 pm

And the most interesting and significant thing, to me, is that practicing with musical aims in mind, rather than merely mechanically, builds the actual physical technique more than plain mechanics can do! I suppose it's because it adds control and variety in addition to strength and dexterity. Equally important, it keeps the mind from going blank as it might if you were working out as if on a treadmill or something.

Horowitz said, "Make your ear decide what it wants to hear." If we do that, we have to have a sound and a general musical idea in mind beforehand.

It occurs to me just now that this may touch on the reason why pianists so often have misgivings about electronic keyboards. On a good acoustical piano you have far more subtle finger control over the sounds than you do on an electronic--so far, anyway.

Dr. Bill L
Technique is 90 per cent from the neck up.
Dr. Bill Leland
 
Posts: 548
Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2004 5:58 pm
Location: Las Cruces, NM

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Mon Jun 20, 2005 8:32 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:Horowitz said, "Make your ear decide what it wants to hear." If we do that, we have to have a sound and a general musical idea in mind beforehand.

Dr. Leland's quote from Horowitz sounds a little Zen-ish ("Be the rock") :D , but is certainly apropos for this topic.

It does bring to mind a question that I think Dr. Leland can enlighten us all on. He has judged numerous piano competitions over the years and, as I know from many talks with him, has heard his share of "mechanical" playing. What do you say on the judging sheets to those students and their teachers? Do you bring up that aspect of their playing and, if so, what counsel do you give them? Should musicality even be a judging criterion for relatively new students?
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. - Albert Einstein
User avatar
Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed
Site Admin
 
Posts: 994
Joined: Sun Jun 08, 2003 6:46 pm
Location: Rio Rancho, NM USA

Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Jun 20, 2005 3:32 pm

In judging auditions, perhaps the biggest reward is when one of those golden moments comes in which you hear that spark of innate musicality and originality from a student--it just jumps out at you. I always seize on that and encourage it enthusiastically as best I can; then I have to take care to criticize the technical pros and cons objectively. I'm sure many of our other Forum members have similar experiences, and I hope they will post them.

When it's just mechanical playing--well, you try to put things positively and say something like, "This is very well-prepared (or very accurate, etc.); try to make the melody sing more", or "imagine you're singing it", or "the C Major Two-Part Invention is a conversation; make the hands talk to each other, don't just hear the right hand." Etc. etc. But if you don't talk in some way about musicianship, then what are we all here for?

I do believe that musicality should be mentioned, even with beginning students, because it can be taught and experienced even at elementary levels. But I'd like to hear from others who have had more experience with teaching young kids than I have had.

And one of the biggest problems in judging is the fact that when you criticize or correct something, you are also criticizing the teacher. So often a student totally ignores expression marks, tempo indications, even accidentals (especially those from earlier in the same bar and still in effect!)--and you think, "Why hasn't the teacher corrected this long ago?"

Dr. Bill L.
Technique is 90 per cent from the neck up.
Dr. Bill Leland
 
Posts: 548
Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2004 5:58 pm
Location: Las Cruces, NM

Postby Stretto » Tue Jun 21, 2005 1:07 am

When I was in college and had to play in juries for a final grade, one professor wrote on his critique almost every semester that I should listen to more music by that particular composer. This goes back to the importance Dr. Leland puts on listening. Ironically, I was always too busy trying to learn
the music to listen to the composer!
:D
One of the big problems in performance situations, I believe, is too much emphasis is placed on hitting a wrong note here and there and also on playing at an exact even tempo. Perhaps the judges aren't so concerned about it, but I think those doing the performing get so worried about hitting a wrong note or some other mistake that everything else gets thrown out the window and it just becomes a matter of getting through the piece. I have had all these wonderful plans for artistic expression which I have even faithfully practiced but have gotten nervous to the point where I hoped I could just get through it without any blunders. I end up walking away dissapointed that the audience didn't get to hear the artistic idea I had in mind. And when it comes to the subject of wrong notes, I wonder how many of us would admit to playing a piece over and over in practice until we can play it without a single wrong note as though that is more important than the artistry.
A lot of mechanical playing I'm sure is a result of the performer feeling pressured to play 'perfectly'. (I remember one of my teachers telling me it's more important to learn how to cover up a mistake and keep going than not to ever make one. The idea that one could practice covering up mistakes was new to me.) My students have a recital coming up and it's obvious that the fear of 'messing up' is on the forefront of their minds. Here are a few thoughts that have helped me that I have passed along to my students as it relates to the how artistic expression should take precedence over 'perfect-note playing':
I asked an 8-yr. old student this week: "If you were to go to watch a Christmas program at your school in which one student did their speaking part in a very monotone manner with no mistakes while another student made a few mistakes but added a lot of character to their part, which one would you say was the better of the two?" Obviously she chose the latter. I said, "If you play beautifully, the audience isn't going to be thinking about wrong notes, but how pretty your pieces sound". It really sunk in as to what was most important.
I also like to use the analogy of figure-skating competitions with my students. In figure skating, when the skater slips, falls, or misses a jump, the performance is not considered a total loss but judged on the overall quality. The artistic marks can still be very high. The audience remembers an impressive artistic performance for a long time after while the slips and falls are forgotten.
Another professor I had once compared mistakes in artistic expression such as music to imperfections in nature. In nature, flaws become something of beauty that can add character. Imperfections and mistakes are a reminder that no one is perfect.
Something else that helps me in making a 'musical' performance is to think about the audience even if they are judges and what I would like them to hear and practice that way. What wasted opportunity it is if one has the power to influence the mood and emotions of those listening and does't take advantage of it!
And finally, yet another professor once said to play the piece the way the composer intended it to be played. Sometimes I play as if the composer were listening. What if you knew they could come up and say, "That was not how I intended this piece to be played!" Wouldn't the master composers roll over in their graves if they heard some of how we play their music. I'm sure many out there have had to perform with the composer present. It probably made a big difference.
When it comes to trying to teach 'musicality' to students, however, there are some that it is probably not totally the teachers fault if they are playing with no expression. Some of my students don't listen to the suggestions I give. Does anyone else have this problem when it comes to getting a student to play more artistically? I have one student who likes to play really fast and the excitement for her seems to be how fast she can play. The music just sounds like a big, fast jumble. Does anyone have any suggestions I could use to help her sound more 'musical'? I would be happy if a judge wrote some ideas to her or my other students on a critique as it may sink in coming from a source with greater 'expertise'.
Stretto
 
Posts: 745
Joined: Mon May 16, 2005 10:34 pm
Location: Mo.

Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Wed Jun 22, 2005 11:03 am

Thanks, Stretto, for a great letter. The two great problems that sabotage spontaneous playing are competitions and recordings.

In the big contests the judges have to hear so many performances in the early rounds that they often automatically eliminate players who make obvious technical errors or have memory slips--it helps things go a lot faster. So of course that affects the performers and their preparation. (At Juilliard School they have a special musical term: a teacher will say, for example, "Give me a competition ritard there", or "make a competition crescendo"--meaning one that's not too much or too little, but just a happy medium that will offend the fewest judges.)

And then, performers are always trying to sound like recordings, which are all letter perfect. But what the general public doesn't know is that recordings by even major artists are corrected and spliced endlessly until there are no flaws left. Sometimes separate movements of a sonata, for instance, are recorded on different days, or a small section will be inserted after being played alone a number of times until everyone is satisfied. I even know of an instance where a wrong note was detected after the artist had gone home. No problem: the engineer simply hunted through the performance, found a C-sharp (or whatever it was) somewhere else, and duplicated it in the proper place.

When a live concert is recorded for later marketing, the players all go down to the hall next morning and have what they call a "patch session", to fix the bad spots.

In pop recordings it's standard procedure for a performance to have as many as eleven tracks, and some of the players perform without ever seeing or hearing the vocalist--they go in later and add tracks by following the song in their headsets. (We have some music faculty at NMSU who do this regularly, and often they don't even know who the solo performer is.)

I don't mean to sound completely negative, but this is what fierce commercialism has done to us. I love people like Richter and a few others, who would record their live recitals and put them on the market "as is", with no monkeying around. And there really are many conscientious adjudicators out there on the state and local levels who will overlook minor flaws if the student is playing with inner compulsion and personal expression. I urge all of us to encourage this as much as we can.

Dr. Bill.
Technique is 90 per cent from the neck up.
Dr. Bill Leland
 
Posts: 548
Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2004 5:58 pm
Location: Las Cruces, NM

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Jun 22, 2005 11:29 am

Stretto wrote:When it comes to trying to teach 'musicality' to students, however, there are some that it is probably not totally the teachers fault if they are playing with no expression. Some of my students don't listen to the suggestions I give. Does anyone else have this problem when it comes to getting a student to play more artistically? I have one student who likes to play really fast and the excitement for her seems to be how fast she can play. The music just sounds like a big, fast jumble. Does anyone have any suggestions I could use to help her sound more 'musical'? I would be happy if a judge wrote some ideas to her or my other students on a critique as it may sink in coming from a source with greater 'expertise'.

You may be interested in one of our Tips for Kids. We have one called something like "There's More to Piano Than Loud and Fast!" Perhaps you can print that off and give it to your student, if you find it helpful.

Students who don't listen constitute a continuous frustration for teachers, but one of the reasons I started this thread is that I've heard several teachers play mechanically as well. Is this a common thing or an exception?




Edited By Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor on 1119534394
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. - Albert Einstein
User avatar
Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed
Site Admin
 
Posts: 994
Joined: Sun Jun 08, 2003 6:46 pm
Location: Rio Rancho, NM USA

Postby Stretto » Thu Jun 23, 2005 8:17 am

I have not heard enough teachers play to know if a lot of them play mechanically. I would suspect that some teachers like myself are not performance-minded individuals. I have done my share of mechanical playing in performance situations. As I said in a previous post, nervousness sets in and artistry goes out the window. One particular performance I gave, I was so nervous that my whole arm and hand went numb. I was lucky to finish without any major blunders let alone be artistic. What has helped me the most is "the more you do something, the easier it gets approach". I'm not a performance-minded person, but all the training and performance experiences I've had have helped me perform more comfortably so that I can concentrate more on being 'musical'. The criteria by which I judge my performance successes now are: Did I enjoy playing? Did I express myself artistically? Were the listeners emotionally moved? I try to stress these things with my students.
Since the competition realm is a little out of my jurisdiction, I was curious: Are all the competitors out to become performers or do some participate only because it's required in their musical training. Perhaps the non-performance types account for some mechanical playing due to not being able to perform as well under pressure. The rest of the mechanical players who really do want to be quality performers probably just need more training and performing experience under their belt. Competitions for students is probably good training ground for learning to play 'musically' under pressure.
Although I'm not a competition expert, I would guess what sets apart quality performers is the ability to play under pressure with BOTH technical flawlessness for the most part AND artistry.
I have read several good performance tips on this site but it would also be nice to hear some more experiences and tips from those who have been involved in competitions and those in performance fields how they are able to play 'musically' under pressure.
Stretto
 
Posts: 745
Joined: Mon May 16, 2005 10:34 pm
Location: Mo.

Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Jun 25, 2005 2:29 pm

One thing that helped me a lot, and has helped my students, is to reconcile oneself to the fact that you're not going to win--at anything--ALL the time, maybe not even a high percentage of the time. Kids have to battle a very high-pressure world, and they are quick to equate "I failed (at some particular thing)" with "I'm a failure". So, along the way and perhaps long before any competitions are entered, I make sure they hear stories about how the most successful people experienced many failures. How Lincoln lost some important elections; how Beethoven was written off as an untalented goof-off by his famous composition teacher; how the best hitters in baseball make outs two thirds of the time; how George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were vilified by many during their second terms; and so on.

Then, if they want to go the competition route, the trick is to enter a number of them and get used to the experience--this is what all the major contest winners do. I tell them to be themselves above all, rather than adopt some phony style in hopes of pleasing the judges--you don't know what they're thinking anyhow. But play expressively and don't expect to win more than some of the time--maybe not at all until you've done it a lot.

Contests are won and lost depending on a lot of variables: who and how competent the judges are, and what they happen to like and dislike; how many people are entered; how good the other contestants are; how difficult the required repertoire is; what kind of piano you get--all sorts of things. Students have to be given an understanding of these variables, and realize that whatever happens the sun will come up the following morning.

One trap I really urge teachers to avoid: don't let the contests rob the lessons of time to explore new repertoire, work out technical problems, hear a variety of music, and generally develop a well-rounded musical personality without the constant pressure of a looming competition or recital.

Dr. Bill L.
Technique is 90 per cent from the neck up.
Dr. Bill Leland
 
Posts: 548
Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2004 5:58 pm
Location: Las Cruces, NM

Postby Dr Roger Hawkins » Mon Jul 18, 2005 6:50 am

I sight read a piece of music until I can memorise it (or at least most of it if it is not too long). This is the mechanical "bit" of getting the technical aspects of the piece; the notes/phrasing/tempo etc correct.

I then play the piece, from memory, and try to input my own interpretation and feeling. This is where the music becomes, I hope, alive.

I went to a recent small "concert" given by my son's piano teacher. She played every piece in her repertoire from the music. Largely technically correct, but very 'wooden' and no passion. I rest my case
User avatar
Dr Roger Hawkins
 

Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Jul 19, 2005 10:23 am

It's funny about memorizing, though. I have always insisted that I concentrate better and play better when I've memorized--in fact, as part of prep for a solo recital I sit away from the piano and go through the music in my head (visualizing the keyboard) to be sure it's all really up there and not only in the fingers.

But one day it occurred to me that I never memorize when I'm accompanying or playing chamber music, and I feel just as comfortable then and just as involved with the music. One thing, I'm sure, is that in a trio or quartet or something the pianist has the advantage of having all of the other parts right there in his own score--and listening to and watching the other parts, blending, picking up subtle cues, throwing the ball back and forth, constitute the most important thing (and the great delight) about playing chamber music. (In a concerto you memorize, too, but you'd better know the orchestra part!)

When you come right down to it, it's not a black/white thing. Even if you never get independent of the score you memorize an awful lot of elements as you're learning a piece--otherwise it would feel like sight reading every time you sat down to play it, right? I'd like to hear some other comments about this.

Dr. Bill Leland.
Technique is 90 per cent from the neck up.
Dr. Bill Leland
 
Posts: 548
Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2004 5:58 pm
Location: Las Cruces, NM

Next

Return to Topic of Note

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests

cron