It is human nature to think that everyone finds musical inspiration just as you do. The way we think and feel is just so intrinsic to who we are that we often can’t imagine doing things differently. Yet, there are many ways to reach the same ends and, if you go out of your comfort zone a bit, it is possible to discover surprising things about music and yourself that deepen both a specific performance and the way you view all music.
Connecting to an instrumental piece can be challenging, no matter what instrument you play. But, fear not, there are ways to get yourself past the notes and rhythms to the actual music within. One of my students calls it “creating with her composers.” Most of us find that we use various techniques and that the method that succeeds depends on the piece (and, possibly how the stars are aligned).
The examples below are taken from my experiences as a pianist and teacher because that is what I do. But, these approaches are helpful no matter your instrument, goals, or level of experience.
Characters and Written Works
Imagining how various characters might play a piece is a great way to experiment when you are feeling a bit stuck. You can find out what the music isn’t on the way to what it is.
- I first discovered this connection to music when working on the Menuetto of Mozart’s K331. An operatic argument jumped into my imagination. I could hear it all—whining, squabbling, mansplaining, sweet-talking, finger-pointing, and more.
- Bach’s Eb Minor Fugue from WTC Book 1 has always quite literally been the 23rd Psalm to me. I can hear parts of the text spoken as I play.
- Multiple students of mine have connected the first movement of Kabalevsky’s Sonatina 1 to fairy tale scenarios. Each story has been unique but they all contained a rather bumbling hero, a villain, and a damsel in distress.
The intellectual and emotional sides of playing aren’t necessarily thought of together. In fact, some musicians purposefully keep them apart. But, sometimes knowing the circumstances of a composer’s life helps you connect to and understand the emotion in music.
- A student who was working on Schumann’s Papillons found that these dances worked best for her when she imagined melodramatic scenes of the romance between Clara and Robert as her father vainly attempted to keep them apart. Fantabulous 1800s style skirts with exaggerated hips swirling about the dance floor did absolutely nothing for her.
- While studying Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 15 No. 3, another student made a connection between the longing of the opening, the anthem-like chorale, and Chopin’s exile from Poland.
- Years ago, my husband and I attended a one-man show in which the performer portrayed the contrast in Beethoven’s violent and nurturing musical elements as his relationship with an abusive Father and protective Mother. This influences how I hear and teach his music today.
Symbolism & Metaphor
This way of connecting also requires some factual knowledge of a composer’s life and thought. That factual knowledge becomes a springboard to a deeper interpretation.
- I always imagined that Messiaen had something to say about the Nazis who imprisoned him (aka earthly kings) as I played his Regard of the Prophets, Shepherds, and Magi.
- One of my high school students found that the mechanistic feeling of the Khachaturian Toccata represented the relentlessness of the Soviet regime, which she was studying in history class.
- Other students have found connections to life’s ups and downs and the creative process in pieces such as Schumann’s Soaring and Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude.
Color, Images, Movement
Some people experience music literally as colors. Each tone and key has a color associated with it. But, those of us who are not blessed with this ability can still use color to help us connect with and share musical ideas. One important note about color: color is quite personal. A character one person connects with pale pink might be green to another. Images and movement are closely associated with color to me, as it is a critical element in both.
- A student of mine was having a frustrating time finding her voice in the G minor Fugue, WTC Book 1. One week I asked her what colors she associated with each section of the piece. Orange! She used colored pencils during the week to shade each phrase—from neon to tangerine to pastel peach. I don’t know where she found so many shades of orange but it worked. She found her voice and won a medal with a program that included that piece.
- We use crayons or colored pencils to shade the music (you might want to use copies of the score for this). If the piece is delicate try pastels to shade in the crescendos and phrase shapes. Use a contrasting color for accents and high points. This works well as a listening activity. You can play a phrase and have students color in what they heard. Always consider context. How is a brown f different from a green f? How is a pale pink staccato different from a red staccato?
- Drawing or finding images that illustrate a piece or section can be very helpful. One December, I performed several movements of Messiaen’s Regards of the Infant Jesus on a recital and projected paintings—one for each movement—as I played. I chose mostly Baroque paintings because I loved the juxtaposition of the eras. One of my friends couldn’t understand it though and said, “there are so many great modern religious paintings you could have used.” Oh well…
- Taking photos with your phone and using one of the many filtering apps available allows for lots of creativity and customization. One of my students even creates Instagram Stories for her pieces. But, you don’t have to share your photos with the world. The connection between you, the imagery, and the music is the important thing.
- Years ago, we attended a recital by Olga Kern in which she played Chopin’s Bb Sonata. I was struck by her rubato and how she was able to slow down until the music was nearly motionless without the music dragging or grinding to a halt. It reminded me of this passage from Madeline L’Engle’s book, A Severed Wasp, “Sometimes you’ll see a dancer move up into the air so slowly you wouldn’t think anything that slow could be up; and then the coming down is even slower.”
- A student in my studio envisioned Debussy’s Snowflakes Are Dancing entirely as a ballet. She knew where each move happened and even imagined a troop of small ballerinas as the snowflakes. Here’s a video of Arthur Rubinstein’s and Maya Pliset’s interpretation of a Chopin Etude.
Choosing words to describe phrases or sections can be a helpful tool no matter which of the above techniques work to forge a connection to a piece. One way to start out is to simply write words that describe sections or phrases of a piece directly on the score. Start with large sections and then gradually move into finding the character in smaller sections. As each person matures, they will be increasingly able to describe subtle differences between phrases, motives, and repetitions.
- During your warm up or cool down, try choosing words to illustrate a mood for a passage, scale, arpeggio, progression, or short improvisation. Warning: imaginative descriptions such as, Playful but never giddy with a mere hint of brooding, may happen. On the serious side, not only do you really have to know your musical elements, you must also simultaneously conceive of the sound you want and make it happen.
The KISS Method
Sometimes it works to just keep it simple. Some pieces simply don’t demand that you dig incredibly deeply or get too complicated about them. Keeping things straightforward works for both performer and listeners.
If this happens to you, as a performer or teacher, you have to decide if this is a genuine connection or a personality issue—i.e. taking the easy way out. However, when there is true voice and a genuine connection to the music, the best thing I have found is to get out of the way and think or talk about what works and what doesn’t and why.
Keep in Mind
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon about clouds that I love.
“…If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formations… What do you think you see, Linus?”
“Well, those clouds up there look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean… That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor… And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen… I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side…”
“Uh huh… That’s very good… What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”
“Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind!”
Let’s face it, most of us resent being told what to hear and feel. Imagination and imagery are very personal. Just because you imagine the 23rd Psalm, shades of the color purple, The Brothers Karamazov, Thomas Eakins, or a ducky and a horsie does not mean that you should impose that view upon others. In fact, that expectation will likely leave you unfulfilled and bitter. The important thing here is that you and others heard and felt something beyond the notes and, most importantly, discovered surprising things about music, and yourself.