"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."
-Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven, a teacher himself, is said to have given his student this sage advice. Isn't this what we strive to do as musicians: to play with passion, and truly "feel" the music?
Unfortunately, I have found that most of my students don't instinctively play "with feeling." How can we help our students to learn this skill? I think the first step is to help students understand exactly what their music is saying, so they can communicate these ideas to the listener. I like to tell my students that playing a piece of music is like telling a story without using any words. Once students understand how to communicate the thoughts and feelings behind their music, they can eventually begin to connect these ideas to their own personal experiences and emotions and start to feel the music as they play.
Here are a few ideas I use to help my students begin to communicate the ideas behind their music. It isn't always easy, but through a combination of visual imagery, descriptive adjectives, technical movements, and practice, I find that my students have fun exploring the thoughts behind their music and finding an emotional connection to their pieces.
Let the title be your guide! Many pedagogical pieces have descriptive titles to make it easy for students to understand the thoughts behind the music. Ask your students: what images does this title bring to mind? Is this piece inspired by a place, or a particular mood? What adjectives might you use to describe the music? I sometimes help students do an online image search to find a picture that fits the music and offers visual inspiration. If a student is playing a classical piece without a descriptive title, such as a minuet, it can be helpful to look at pictures of classical era art, architecture, or fashion to give students a historical framework for playing the piece expressively. For example, you might imagine someone dancing a minuet in a fancy gown. Create your own descriptive title to fit the music if you like!
Choose the technique you need to create the sound you want. Once students have described the type of sound they want based on the title, discuss what technique you would need to create that sound. Do we need a sneaky sound, as if we are tiptoeing across the keys? Do we need a smooth elegant sound, as if we are gliding across the dance floor? Do we need a bold sound, requiring the use of arm weight? Maybe we need all of these sounds at different points in the piece! Help students to decide which technique is most appropriate at different points in the music.
Mark the music! Now it is time to match our ideas to the music. Mark the score with descriptive adjectives or sentences that describe the story we are telling as we play. Use stickers or different colors to help students visualize the sound they would like to create at different points in the piece. Write in the technical movements students will need to practice to create the sounds they want.
Get into character. The final step in communicating our piece effectively is to remember to get into character and practice truly performing a piece. Take a moment to visualize the story and, like an actor or actress, get into character and communicate this story to the audience. From the first note to the very last note, we want our audience to be able to understand exactly what we are trying to say without words. To paraphrase Beethoven, don't worry about the wrong notes--just play with feeling!
What do you think? Do you have any tips to help students "feel the music"? Please leave a comment below!