This week’s guest blog post features an article on finding musical expression when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken suggests practise methods using examples from various pieces featured within his From the Ground Up series to help you discover an interpretation for yourself from the inside rather than relying on external instructions.

*** *** ***

Where Do We Find Musical Expression?

Some years ago, I took a class and several individual lessons in the Feldenkrais Method, a technique developed to improve physical functioning by imparting an awareness of how we habitually use our bodies. In this training, the instructor doesn’t issue prescriptive instructions (“keep your back straight,” “don’t let your shoulders sag,” etc.). Instead, she guides the students through simple movements and exercises that allow them to experience new sensations. Simply by being consciously aware of these sensations, the students re-program their own brains to learn new, healthier movements and habits.

It immediately struck me that this kind of instruction, in which the teacher is more of a facilitator who creates conditions that allow students to make their own discoveries, rather than a master who dictates the “correct” way of doing something, was of great relevance to music teaching. So much music teaching relies on correcting mistakes (“your left hand is too loud,” “don’t accent that note”) and giving instructions (“make a diminuendo here,” “slow down there”). What if, instead of correcting mistakes, teachers could help their students to discover the logical, natural expression of a piece from the beginning? Perhaps instead of just giving students instructions about how something should sound, we could devise exercises that would help them to experience the music directly and develop their own responses to it.

Why, one might ask, do we require special exercises to connect with the emotional meaning of music? Can’t we just connect with it directly? We can, of course, and we often do, but the challenges of learning a piece of music frequently become barriers to a full and accurate emotional understanding of the music. The difficulty of mastering the technical aspects of a score, the need for prolonged repetition, the complexity and subtlety of the musical language, doubt about how to interpret notation: these and other challenges can mask or distort our emotional connection to the music. That is why we need fresh ways to hear the musical expression, and to reconnect with our own response to it.

What might such exercises be like? The greatest challenge of piano music, and also its greatest glory, is that one musician is responsible for performing the entire musical texture—melody, bass, accompaniment, and counterpoint. The pianist must be the entire orchestra, or at least a chamber ensemble, and its conductor.  It makes sense, then, to do as orchestras do, and hold sectional rehearsals, dividing the ensemble into smaller groups to practise their parts separately. In piano music, this means separating the various strands of the texture to practise them individually. Say we are learning Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, from Op. 9. If we begin our practise by playing everything, chances are our emotional response to the music will be incomplete, or obscured, by the attention we are forced to pay to the left hand leaps.

If, on the other hand, we play only the melody and the bass, we hear the continuity of the bass line, and its relationship to the melody, which we are now able to play with ease, at tempo, and with a greater appreciation of its beauty.

We may then look more closely at the accompaniment by playing it with two hands, in block chords. Now we can really hear the connections between the chords, and the waxing and waning of the harmony. If we sing various lines in the harmonic progression as we play, we’ll develop an even stronger personal response to the expressive qualities of the music.

The multi-layered texture of piano music can make it difficult to hear expressive elements hidden within the middle layers. In the following excerpt from one of the pieces in Schumann’s Album for the Young (no. 30), it can be hard to hear just how dissonant, and therefore expressive, some of the inner notes are against the prevailing harmony.

Using a practise method that I call Repeat and React, we can extract the full measure of dissonance from this passage. Repeating the long notes together with each of the shorter notes allows us to hear more accurately, and therefore react more strongly to, the hidden dissonances. The most jarring dissonances are marked with asterisks.

If you now play the original phrase again, you’ll find that you hear it differently, and that this closer listening will make you respond in new ways: perhaps with a different tone colour, or a certain kind of rubato, or even a new tempo. This is a kind of musical interpretation that is based not on analysis, historical practise, or a teacher’s instructions, but on the direct experience of musical beauty.

Musical expression often arises from unusual events, or departures from the norm. But our ears, which can now easily hear any kind of music from Gregorian chant to hip-hop, are sometimes unsure what the norms of Classical music are, or what constitutes an unusual event. In this way, expressive events can be hiding in plain sight, or in plain hearing, as it were. Take this passage from Grieg’s Arietta, Op. 12, no. 1.

Certainly, we know it’s beautiful, but where exactly, and in what way? We can answer this question by re-writing the phrase as a less innovative composer might have done, in other words by adhering to the norms of common practice harmony. I call this practise method Replace and Restore.

Now if we go back and restore the original, we hear what we’ve been missing: the expression lies in Grieg’s chromatic inner voices, and in his avoidance of conventional dominant-tonic resolutions. Knowing this, we now play the original with a new sense of meaning, and relief!

With these practise methods, we have a sense of discovering the music for ourselves, from the inside, rather than relying on instructions from the outside, whether from editions, recordings, or teachers. Instead of trying to arrive at a “correct” interpretation, we let the music speak to us directly, and allow our emotions to respond to what we hear. We cultivate our imaginations and learn to trust our musical instincts. For in the end (and to answer the question posed in the title), we must find musical expression not only within the music itself, but also within ourselves.

This way of working does not, of course, eliminate the need for piano teachers. Discovering the musical expression within a score, and within ourselves, requires the help of an experienced guide. Like the Feldenkrais instructor, music teachers can create exercises and practise methods that allow students to experience music in new ways and formulate their own responses to it. In this way, the music itself becomes the real teacher.

Ken Johansen

***   ***   ***

If you enjoyed this article then you may be interested in the author’s From the Ground Up series which features reduced scores and walk-throughs of the various works referenced in this article (including a new edition for *** (No. 30) from Schumann’s Album for the Young which can be viewed here on the Online Academy or purchased as a stand-alone, printable PDF from our store).

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series on the Online Academy devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively.

Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down.

Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up or on one of the following links to view the available editions:

The entire From the Ground Up series is available via an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more or on one of the options below if you wish to subscribe:

  • Monthly subscription – Subscribe for £7.99 a month to get full, unlimited access to all Online Academy articles and updates (click hereto sign-up for this option)
  • Annual subscription – Save over 15% on the monthly subscription with an annual subscription which gives you access to all articles and updates for £79.99 per year (click here to sign-up for this option)
  • Premium subscription – Purchase an annual subscription for  £79.99 per year and get an eBook bundle including the complete Practising the Piano Multimedia eBook series and Annotated Study Edition bundle (combined value of £56.00) for an additional once off payment of £20 (click here to sign-up for this option)