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A few years ago, my husband and I took a daytrip to Madera Canyon, near Tucson.

At 5000 plus feet, the aspens were just losing the last of their leaves. I was totally re-amazed by the sound of a single leaf falling in a quiet forest. How could I have forgotten???

Not long after, I found myself calling on that very illustration to help a student who was working on Schumann’s lovely Arabesque. All the accents were sounding poked and out of relation to the line and mood he was trying to create.

“One leaf falling can be an accent in a quiet forest,” I said. We clearly needed a discussion of relativity—both aural and physical. And, we had one. I have have had countless versions of this conversation with students over pedaling releases, staccatos, dynamic markings, and more.

Many students have real trouble with relativity. In my experience, many of them are transfer students. Perhaps it is a developmental thing—students tend to transfer at specific points in their musical journey if not forced to do so by a move or other issue. When students transfer at the intermediate or early advanced levels they often hit certain issues head on. Perhaps they have not previously cared to attend to that level of detail or their home instrument or practice situation is lacking. Perhaps nobody ever challenged them to think about music in this way.

Of course, there are students who want instant right/wrong answers. These students can become frustrated with the necessary trial and error process. The right/wrong crowd wants more than anything to be correct, and they very wrongly think that there is one way to release the pedal, one kind of staccato, one kind of accent, one kind of p, one kind of ff, one kind of ritard, etc, etc, etc. In reality, it is the sound and the context of each element in relation to the others that must be correct.

So, here are some ideas, in no particular order, for helping students understand the theory of relativity as it applies to music. Warning: experimentation (aka trial and error) will be needed. Experimentation can be very threatening to some people.  You may need to ease a student’s panic by reminding them that we play the piano and this is the playing part—play like a child does with a favorite toy.

1. Improvise a little. Try playing the piece in a polar opposite context. If a passage is slow and lyrical, play it fast and staccato. If a passage is virtuosic and loud, play it lyrically and delicately. If a ritard is requested, play an accelerando instead. If there is a gradual crescendo leading to an accent, play the passage softly with a sudden sharp accent.

2. Sing through the passage with wild abandon adding gestures or props as needed. Try the opposites activity with this too. Is the piece Russian? Then sing with a Russian accent and make up Russian sounding words.

3. 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 use 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 the students color in what they heard. Always consider context. How is an orange f or different from a green f? How is a pale pink staccato different from a red staccato?

4. Draw the phrase shapes in the air. Use everything from small, delicate to huge, whole body gestures. This also works well as a listening activity. Dancing freely to the music is also a good way to illustrate context, but things can get a little crazy and the focus of the exercise can easily be lost.

5. Try playing and releasing one key or chord repeatedly allowing the release to become longer each time to develop the connection of the ear and body and to help the student fill the releases compartment in their musical toolbox. This can work with pedal too. Releases are the hardest to hear and feel in context. This is true for both the keys and the pedal. So many students release both like an on off switch no matter what is happening in the music. Once a student is attuned to the concept of sound in context and comfortable applying it within the larger phrase (as above), it becomes much easier for them to hear and feel releases in context too.

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