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  • Chris Anderson

Bringing Your Music To Life

Music goes beyond the written notes. Music is there to tell a story, paint a picture, provide an emotion, and so much more. One of the things I love to do with my students is helping them access this side of music; the side that isn’t just a technical exercise. Some people struggle connecting with the music while others flourish. In today’s blog I want to explore some of the different ways you can bring your music to life.

Music Without Soul

If you’re literally just playing the notes and following the instructions in a clinical manner, it is unlikely that your music will have much of an impact. Or, if it does have some impact just imagine how much more it’d have. Imagine a piece of music being played electronically by a piece of software. Imagine this software reproduces the sound of the instrument perfectly. The notes have been programmed in along with all the dynamics and articulation. The playback is perfect but it is missing something. Much the same as a digital piano will replicate a sound very well there’s something missing. The missing thing is the soul.

I used to play keys for a tribute band and although we had our differences the guitarist was incredible. He was able to play all the solos note perfect, including the times when it was recorded as more than one guitar! Technically, you couldn’t fault his playing but for me there was always something missing. One day we had set up and done the sound check and there happened to be an acoustic piano there, so I decided to have a play and chose my go to piece “I Giorni” by Einaudi. As I played I started to get emotional and tears ran down my face. The guitarist asked what was wrong.

This question opened an interesting discussion. I pointed out that there was nothing wrong, but every time I play I get so lost in the music that the way I play it changes and sometimes I get emotional. He said he’d never experienced that before so I said that if he let himself go in his big song and actually felt every single note for real rather than for show the response he’d get would be a huge cheer rather than just appreciative applause. He was doubtful but sportingly agreed to try. It came to his song and I could feel the energy and emotion being put into it. The result? A huge cheer and massive applause that went on for longer than we remembered previously.

Playing With Emotion

The sad thing was that even though he got that amazing response it actually scared him. I say it’s sad, but it is also wholly understandable. Some people struggle displaying emotion - especially if it’s a sad or moving one. The thing is though, that as with all art, the emotion that goes into a piece (be it a painting, dance, song, instrumental piece, or play/film) transfers into it. A friend of mine was good at art and tried to copy some of Picasso’s line drawings and they all turned out in his words “rubbish” (well actually the word was stronger but this is a public blog and I don’t want to offend).

One of the reasons was that even though it was technically perfect, it lacked the emotion and intention that Picasso had when he was creating his work. Emotion is the key here, but emotion rooted in truth. Pasted on emotions don’t really work. That is to say, using tricks to get there rather than genuinely feeling them. One trick a lot of people do to convey that they’re really into what they’re doing is they perform with their eyes closed. I don’t mind a little bit of eye closing and I do it myself often with a big breath, but don’t do the whole performance with them closed. You’re shutting the audience out from seeing what’s truly going on and as scary as it may be, they want to be let in.

There is a danger of course that by getting emotional (and please remember that happy is an emotion too) that one gets so lost in the moment that they lose control. I remember playing Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and singing Gethsemane was not only a vocal challenge but it was a challenge to try and keep in control of my emotions and not break down into an inconsolable mess. Remember, all music should tell a story - even if it’s not been written with a story in mind. A composer may write because they’ve got a commission but (if they have any integrity) they won’t just churn out stuff they’re not happy with just to fulfil the obligation and get paid. Mozart hated the flute and he hated the harp, but he still worked his magic when writing for those instruments.

Use The Title Of The Piece

Sometimes a composer will give a descriptive title to a piece. That really helps! That can give you an idea of the character of the piece. What can also help is the tempo marking. However, sometimes it can pay to do a little research. For example if you’re playing Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Farewell To Stromness” finding out why he wrote the piece will help your interpretation. Finding out where Stromness is…and so on. If the title of the piece is in a foreign language find out what it means in your own language. For example, “FreuDich” means “Be Happy”, so it would need to be played with that in mind.

Of course, there are times that a piece is just called “Allegro” or “Sonata in C”. Sometimes there’ll be help in the tempo marking but not very often. A little research on the piece and composer will give you some clues. Did they write it specifically for someone? Do we know anything about the person it was written for? For example Mozart’s “Sonata in F” (no. 12) was written in 1783 and some believe for the purpose of introducing his wife, Constanze to his father, Leopold. Whether that’s true or not, using that information could help you bring the music to life.

A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words

If the title gives you an idea then look for a picture to represent it. For example one of my saxophone students had a piece called “Chanson De Ma Patrie”. We found out it meant “Song Of My Country”. I asked her what that meant to her and she said it meant it was like a national anthem. Using that idea I then asked in what context and she replied “A football match”. Using that information I found a picture of a crowd at a football match and sent it to her. I got her to look at the picture for a while then asked her to play the piece keeping that image in her mind. When she played it the feel of the piece took on a new character.

If you’re into drawing and painting why not set yourself the task of painting an actual picture inspired by the music. This can really help you get under the skin of the music. Alternatively, you can take a picture. One of my piano students was playing a piano piece and one lesson we talked about what the feel of the music was. She said, “It reminds me of the film ‘Happy Feet’”. I could see why, it was a kind of soft shoe shuffle type piece and had a suitably Antarctic title (which I can’t remember). I suggested that she could try and find an appropriate picture to help the music come to life more…she drew one.

Tell A Story

Some people struggle creating a visual image in their mind. When this happens I suggest thinking about a story that could be created for the piece. Sometimes a pieces is written based on a poem or a story - that makes it easier. But where there is nothing try writing one yourself…or finding one suitable. Let’s go back to Mozart’s “Sonata In F” (no. 12). We could use the story of Mozart introducing his new wife to his father. We don’t know much of what happened (though it is referenced in Mozart’s letters), but with a bit of imagination we can create an interesting idea. One boy was playing a march on the piano. Technically it was great, but he admitted he was struggling to enjoy the piece. I suggested he came up with a story and what he wrote was brilliant and really helped him get into the music more.

Play With Colour

Some people have an amazing gift called synesthesia. It is where they see sound as colour. Imagine being able to see beautiful colours swirling round you as you play or listen. One of my violin students had it and she’d often refer to different sections being a different colour based on what she was seeing. The television series ‘Heroes’ featured a character who played the cello and she had synesthesia. Some of my favourite scenes were when she played and the colours eddied around her. Experiment playing with different colours. By that I mean, thinking of different colours. The colour blue is likely to have a different feel to the colour orange. It is also unlikely that a piece will just be one colour.

I am very aware that some of you will be reading this and want to know what I’ve been smoking! I haven’t. I am also aware that you may think that there’s no point in trying to bring your music to life. You are of course entitled to think that way. Personally I find the more invested I am in what I’m playing or singing, the more fulfilment I get from it. Sometimes an audience will respond to all the work that you’ve put in, other times they won’t….but to be honest there is no way to tell because everyone responds to different things. Ultimately though, all the suggestions I’ve given are about helping you to find your intention in the music. It’s another way of looking at a piece and trying different ways to add your own mark to it. It can feel awkward letting yourself go in a music - especially if you’re just playing for fun…but it can be a truly rewarding experience doing so. Whilst I’ve covered a lot of “serious” things in this blog, there is some music that is quite comedic that when given the same treatment can be hilarious! Good luck!

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