I suspect that almost every music teacher would tell you that they spend the majority of their time in lessons working on things that are already clearly written in the score. “Why didn’t you play that crescendo?” “There are accents above these notes.” “No, that’s an F-sharp, not F-natural.” “This phrase should be ‘piano,’ right?” Why don’t students just follow the directions on the page? Sometimes they look so incredibly shocked to see a dynamic marking or articulation, it’s as if it magically appeared on the page when they walked into the lesson. That couldn’t have been there before, could it?
Lately, this has been a focus of my teaching. I want my students to be self-sufficient, and I think that this idea is a huge part of it. First of all, eventually they’re not going to HAVE a teacher, they’re going to BE the teacher. That means that there won’t be anyone to stand over their shoulder and point out the things that they are missing. They need to hold themselves (and their own students) accountable when they’re at that point. The other reason is that the more prepared a student is, and the more of these details that they’ve already incorporated into their performance, the faster we can move on to talking about the more in-depth, advanced levels of playing. Artists aren’t just worried about notes and rhythms. We need to get past that point, too.
What I’ve been encouraging my students to do is to make sure that they are familiar with every single word and marking on the page of music that they’re working on. After all, when the composer started, the page was completely blank. Everything that’s on there was put there for a reason. That reason is simple, it’s to help the performer realize the piece in the way that the composer intended. They’re trying to help you! About the only thing that the performer can’t gain something from is the publishing information. But, pretty much everything else can tell us something useful. For example, here’s a page out of the Goldenberg keyboard book that I was working on with a few students recently.
Putting aside the actual music, let’s see what information we can get from text on the page, starting from the top…
“Melodies in 6/8 Rhythm” – I see two useful things in this title. First, the world “melodies.” That automatically implies that these short etudes are not meant to simply be technique builders. This isn’t an exercise in accuracy. There are lots of things that make something melodic: appropriate articulation, subtle phrasing/inflection, having a clear sense of direction that ends with some type of cadence, etc. All of these should be present as we work on this page. The second useful idea in the title is “6/8 Rhythm.” Obviously with six eighth notes in each bar, Mr. Goldenberg could have written in either 3/4 or 6/8, but he chose the latter for a reason. 6/8 is a compound meter, meaning two groups of three beats. It has an inherent light, dancing quality to it. The emphasis/pulse should be on the bigger two-feel, not spread equally among all six eighth notes in each bar. So, from just the first line of text, we can see that there is a lot of information to be had. Without even looking at the music we now know that these should be light, dancing melodies with clearly defined phrases emphasized through articulation and dynamic shading. Now onto the next line of text…
“With lower neighbor” – So, from our music theory training (yes, that stuff does come in handy sometimes) we know that a lower neighbor tone is a half step below a given pitch. It serves as a sort of leading tone. This is going to help us in two ways… First, from purely technical perspective, it can help us as we sight-read this page, knowing that many of the notes on strong beats (the first and fourth eighth notes in the bar) will be directly preceded by a note that is a half-step below can give us confidence and allow us to anticipate what is coming when reading. If you see an E on the downbeat, there’s a good chance there’s a D# pickup. The other way that this line of text can be helpful is in knowing the function of a half-step. Half-steps usually mean a cadence or some other form of resolution. Once again, if you skim over the page, you’ll notice that the lower neighbor tones tend to precede strong beats. That’s for a reason. This type of tension and resolution helps to reinforce the compound, 6/8 meter that we were discussing above.
At this point we haven’t even looked at the first measure of music on the page, but we already have a clear idea about what these four melodies should sound like. Obviously, we also want to incorporate the markings that are attached to the staff, as well, such as the dynamic markings and ritard in the third and fourth etudes.
Doing this type of work with students has led to another important discussion. It is incredibly important for students to build their musical vocabulary. Some terms we know better than others (allegro, crescendo, ritardando, etc.), but there are plenty of things that we are still unfamiliar with. Obviously, knowing what all of the instructions on the music mean can be helpful, as we saw above with the Goldenberg example, but first we need to know the definition of all the words on the page. Here’s an example out of Cirone’s Portraits in Rhythm:
I love doing this etude with students because it forces them to know the terminology, as he goes through a number of different styles. In case you’re not sure about what each marking means, I’ll help you out…
Maestoso – stately, dignified, majestic
Allegro con brio – fast, with spirit
Waltz – fast triple meter, with one beat per measure
Largo e molto pesante – slow and solemn, very heavy
Vivo – lively, animated, brisk
If you’ve read the paragraph above the etude, and you’re familiar with the performance instructions throughout the page, you’ll be well on your way to a successful and insightful performance. If not, you won’t have any idea how the piece should sound. It’s really that simple.
Does that mean we all need to start memorizing lists of musical terms? No. Well, that would be helpful, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I tell my students to learn musical terms the same way that they buy mallets. Memorizing hundreds of terms is like going on Steve Weiss and buying every single stick and mallet that they have, hoping some day you’ll need it. The more logical, and cost-effective, method is to buy mallets as you need them. You got a part in wind ensemble that needs swizzle sticks? Buy them. Your percussion ensemble music requires you to use brass glock mallets? Get a pair. You build your collection over time, and with things you’ll actually use. The next time you need swizzle sticks or brass mallets, you’ll have them, and you won’t have had to spend $10,000 equipping yourself with every mallet made. Do the same with musical terms. When you get a new piece, scan through it and look for terms that you are unfamiliar with. If you find something you don’t know, take 30 seconds to look it up online. Almost everyone has a smartphone, so put it to use. Then you’ll forever know what “meno mosso” or “cantabile” means.
I hope that some of these ideas help you and your students. And to the experienced players/teachers, we’re not off the hook either. I have to constantly remind myself to do the same things that I tell my students to do. If we make an effort to make use of all the information we’re given, we’ll be that much closer to giving the great performances that we all strive for!