Making music come alive
In my early years of teaching I clearly remember commenting about my students' playing to my husband, "All the notes and rhythms are correct, but they don't sound that good. I'm not sure how to help them make the music 'come alive'." I certainly have many more ideas and solutions than I did as a beginning teacher, and have learned a great deal from other teachers through the years, including my favorite clinician Marvin Blickenstaff. After hearing him present at a conference last fall, my younger students now all have a list of "rules that all famous musicians know" in their notebooks. One nine-year-old student was having an especially good lesson a few weeks after the list was created. I asked him if he had done anything different in his practice. He replied that he had really thought about his "musicians' rules" that week, and it really helped him practice better!
Marvin has codified and simplified complex concepts of musical style and interpretation in a way that even very young students can easily understand and immediately apply. I am grateful to him for his thoughtful, and brilliant, analysis of musical interpretation.
Performance practice made easy: Rules of thumb for the piano student
by Marvin Blickenstaff
Snowflakes and musical compositions have one thing in common: there are no duplicates. Composers find creative ways to differ their musical offerings, and the result is an infinite variety of expressions of the musical message. It is staggering to consider that, out of hundreds of compositions, no two minuets or sonatinas are exactly alike. This fact keeps us on the edge of our chairs (or piano benches) as we examine the varieties of ways composers craft their materials.
If there were no norms for musical styles, interpretation would be a dauntingly difficult task. Yes, each piece is unique, but there are common denominators we label for stylistic interpretation. Markings such as the curved line, a staccato, an accent, have a generally accepted meaning and represent stylistic norms.
My students find it helpful to understand that norms are consistent from piece to piece and from composer to composer. I often refer to these as "Rules of thumb." Each rule may have exceptions—aren't rules made to be broken?—but our focus on the general application of these principles has proven very helpful.
My students have a "Rules of thumb" sheet in their lesson notebooks. When a new principle of interpretation is discovered, they add it to their sheet. This gives ownership over their interpretation and provides guidelines for their practicing. Here are some of these Rules of thumb.
Rules for the curved line
The degree of separation of the phrases varies with the context, and can be thought of in terms of a "Catch Breath" (CB), "Normal Breath" (NB), or "Big Breath" (BB). After discovering the appropriate length of the "lift," it is written on the score—CB, NB, or BB (see Excerpt 2).
2. The curved line has dynamic implications.
a. The last note of a phrase is the quietest.
This rule is exceedingly helpful with elementary students, especially when playing lyrical melodies. When students observe this rule, the phrase takes on a natural shape and ends sensitively (see Excerpt 3).
b. Out of four, go for three.
Many phrases are four measures in length. The natural shape of most of those phrases focuses in the third measure. My students use the phrase "Out of four, go for three." (See Excerpts 4 and 5.)
A series of four chords can also profit from this "out of four, go for three" dynamic plan (see Excerpt 6).
c. A two-measure phrase focuses on the downbeat of the second measure (see Excerpt 7).
In Excerpt 7, the first four measures are grouped in two-measure phrases with the focus on the downbeat of each second measure. Mm. 5-8 create a four-measure phrase with the focus on the third measure ("Out of four, go for three.")
A notable exception to this rule occurs when the downbeat of the second measure is the final note of the phrase. As the final note of the phrase, it is played more quietly (see Excerpt 8).
d. A two-note phrase is always shaped: louder to quieter (see Excerpt 9).
Composers often create variety and humor by slurring over a bar line, making the upbeat louder than the downbeat (see Excerpts 10 and 11).
Rules for rhythm
Question: Why do composers not write their music using only quarter notes?
Answer: Shorter values move the music forward to its goal on a longer value.
1. Shorts go to longs.
The focus of a phrase is often easily located by finding the longest value. The shorter values move towards this goal (crescendo). (See Excerpt 12.)
2. Meter assumes an emphasis on the downbeat.
In dance music, a downbeat emphasis clarifies the dance step and gives character to the music. Some dances (sarabande, mazurka) feature accents on other beats, but the location of the downbeat must always remain clear to the listener (or dancer). (See Excerpt 13.)
In Excerpt 13, notice the way Mozart makes the opening downbeats abundantly clear. Variety occurs in m. 2 with an emphasis on beat three.
Rules for harmony
1. Changing harmonies create varying degrees of tension and relaxation.
A V7 chord represents tension and requires resolution. Therefore, a V7-I cadence requires a diminuendo (see Excerpt 14).
2. Emphasize the harmonic tension of I6/4 chords.
The greatest harmonic tension in traditional literature is located on the I6/4 chord. The harmonic sequence frequently found is I6/4-V7-I. The I6/4 chord is the most intense, usually the focus of a crescendo in the phrase. It relaxes into the V7, which then resolves to the I chord (see Excerpt 12, m.7, for its emphasis on the I6/4 harmony).
Sensitizing students to this musical fact is facilitated when they play cadence patterns with changing dynamics emphasizing tension and resolution (see Example 15).
3. Stress the unusual.
An appoggiatura (a "wrong note" that resolves) receives special emphasis (see beats one of mm. 2 and 4 in Excerpt 7).
Composers often place an unusual chord, such as a diminished seventh, in a phrase for special emphasis. (Note the colorful augmented-sixth harmony that begins the final phrase of Excerpt 14.)
Rules for projecting form
It is the performer's responsibility to project the form of the piece.
1. Phrase structure is clarified when there is a slight break between phrases.
2. The end of a section can be communicated with a slight ritardando.
3. The beginning of a new section can be projected by a slight delay of the first note.
Rules for melodic playing
1. Project the melody. Accompaniments are played more quietly.
2. Devise a dynamic plan for the phrase. Play adjacent tones with a slight crescendo or diminuendo.
3. To create a lovely legato tone, play on the fleshy pads of the finger. "Melt" one tone into the next. Emphasize lateral movements of the arm instead of lifted finger strokes.
4. Unusual, wide intervals become more expressive through a slight stretching of the rhythm (see Excerpt 16).
In Excerpt 16, the turn in m. 2 helps delay arrival of the high C. A slight stretching of the downbeat in m. 4 emphasizes the wide interval of a tenth.
Rules for playing accompaniments
As stated above, accompaniments are played more quietly than the melodies.
1. Especially in Romantic Era literature, many left-hand accompaniments must sound as if two hands are playing. One hand plays the bass line, and "the second hand" plays the harmonic filler. The bass note supports the melody and the (quieter) harmonic texture.
A further application of this rule can apply to Classical Era Alberti bass accompaniments where the bass note, usually falling on the beat, is emphasized above the other chord tones.
Rules for pedaling
1. Lift the pedal on the first note of a new harmony (see Excerpt 17).
The typical marking __________/\__________ indicates a change of pedal, but does not show the student the exact timing of that change. A more precise marking would be (see Excerpt 18):
2. When playing waltzes, a helpful generic rule is to lift the pedal on beat three. Depress the pedal on (or just after) beat one.
Considerations for playing Baroque literature
1. Consistency rules supreme. Once an articulation plan is determined for a subject or motive, it must be maintained throughout.
2. Harpsichord playing involved a variety of articulations. One helpful plan for beginning Baroque interpreters is to play legato on step motion and play detached articulation for wider intervals. Depending on the context, the degree of detachment can range from "sticky" to a sharp staccato.
3. Ornaments are played on the beat and do not interrupt the steady flow of rhythm.
4. Avoid playing the ornaments louder than the surrounding notes. Their speed creates the desired emphasis.
5. Detach before a syncopated tone.
6. In general, Baroque phrases drive to their final tone.
Considerations for playing Classical literature
1. As a result of the new dynamic capabilities of the fortepiano, Classical composers wrote phrases that rise to a focus and taper the phrase ending. (See the above rules on shaping of a phrase.)
2. Most composers of this period indicate phrasings and articulations. Follow the written articulation carefully.
3. A slur over a left-hand broken-chord accompaniment implies "finger pedal" (collecting the tones of a given harmony).
4. Small notes are played on the beat (see Excerpt 19).
Grace notes played before the beat are a nineteenth century, or Romantic Era, concept.
The majority of the rules stated above involve dynamic shaping. Effective interpretation involves constant shaping of the sound. We often allow students to play their warm-up exercises with a constant, un-shaped sound while expecting them to turn on their dynamic switch when playing repertoire. Shaping of the sound can be a part of each lesson activity.
These Rules of thumb have been extremely helpful to my students as they work on the interpretation of their repertoire.