Have no fear, I'm here, holding you safely.
In the sky, up high, wafted by clouds the
Moon and stars they sing 'Sweet Dreams', so why don't you
Drift away, I'll stay, rocking you gently, rocking you gently,
Sleep, sleep. sleep.
To develop 'musicality' in performance, I find it helps pupils to engage with pieces in different ways. As creativity breeds creativity, making up a story adds another dimension to the music and ultimately communicates more to the listener. During my career as a literacy and music leader in primary schools, I found that this could work both ways. In music lessons, pictures often provide the background for composition. I would play background music to inspire creative writing. For example, Debussy's Canope was played while we wrote a description of an Egyptian tomb and Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave as the background to a story at sea, There are numerous tracks of birdsong, flowing water effects, and so on, that provide inspiration for words. So, if music can suggest story, writing it down, or at least talking it through, can focus attention to the way music 'speaks' during piano practice. It doesn't have to be syllable by syllable, as in the example above; it could be a series of scenes that match the sectional structure of a piece of music. Just as stories have openings, developments, crises, reactions and resolutions, so often can pieces of music, or at least a 'scene' where the music is being played can be imagined, such as at the Baroque court.
The who, what, when, where and why of literacy can frame many pieces, whatever the age and ability of the student. When studying Gershwin's Preludes for Piano: for me, a young woman enjoying dance in New York's Spanish quarter matches number 1; sitting in the shade of a tree on a sultry evening in Central Park matches number 2; frantically avoiding rush-hour traffic on the following Monday morning while walking to work matches number 3, and so on. It really can become a New York soundtrack. By contrast, whether you believe that it was courtly love or a full blown case of 'Twenty Shades of Yearning' for Clara Schumann, Brahms' Intermezzi (I'm particularly thinking of Opus 118, number 2!) always reflect passion and cry out for lyrics to match...
In previous blogs, I have hinted at imaginary scenes to accompany pieces on the new ABRSM syllabus. There are so many opportunities to develop the artist in ways other than playing the notes, so as to develop a feeling for style, character and mood. Brainstorm vocabulary and jot it down at suitable places on the score; draw pictures and have them alongside during practice; make up some lyrics if you like. Having differences of opinion about what the story might be is very healthy as it helps the performance become one's own. It goes without saying that wrong notes, rhythms and lack of attention to details on the score reflect poor preparation. However, once these essential aspects are under control, try to get inside the mind of the composer, then the spirit of the piece will come through and you will have greater understanding of context, as well as respect for his or her endeavours.
Music, books, film, dance - they all inform and inspire one another. As educators, we know the value of music to intellectual development on so many fronts. Underpinned by sound technique, the learning process as a pianist can also be enhanced by using stories and settings.