I am delighted to publish this guest post from Katrina Fox, a graduate of The Piano Teachers’ Course UK whom it was my pleasure to work with in my tutor group. More details about Katrina at the end of her article…

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Interpretation: can it be taught? Should it be taught? How can someone be taught how to feel and think about a work of art? Defined by Wiktionary as “an act of explaining what is obscure”, interpretation involves making meaningful music from a bunch of notes on the page.

My childhood teachers told me exactly how I should be playing, where I should express excitement or sadness, and as a good student I tried my best to meet their expectations. However, these efforts to force me to “play expressively” led to me expressing nothing at all – at least nothing personally authentic. I felt lost when approaching new music, unsure as to what I should think, or feel, or what I should be expressing. I often felt fraudulent as I saw “better” students playing with a seemingly deep connection to the music, and yet I couldn’t muster any. I began to wonder if I was just completely unmusical.

So, should teachers address the issue of interpretation, beyond an explanation of the various dots and dashes and symbols on the page? Whilst a few pupils come along that seem to connect with the music instinctively and naturally play with expression and emotion, in my experience the majority need a helping hand. However, rather than imposing one’s own interpretative ideas on a pupil, there is a need to provide gentle and open-ended guidance so that pupils can develop their own, authentic musical voice.

Notorious for its narrow, goal-oriented ethos, it is unsurprising that our current school system in the UK produces pupils that come to music lessons waiting to be spoon-fed the “right answers”. This presents piano teachers with both a challenge and an opportunity – getting pupils to invest the emotional capital required to think creatively and intuitively is hard; however, the opportunity for personal as well as musical growth is priceless.

How then does a teacher of a typical adolescent, who grows up immersed in the pounding bass beats of limitless 3-minute tracks and the facility to “Ask Alexa” to skip to the next, make music written 250 years ago by men in powdered wigs relevant and engaging? I have had a great deal of fun and success with using words, stories and images with pupils of all ages and stages to help them connect with the music on their own terms.

Bartók – No. 2 in For Children (volume 1)

A popular piece in the early stages, this has made a good starting point for facilitating interpretation with younger pupils. Simple folk melodies sung by children, perhaps in the playground, are familiar territory for many younger pupils, allowing them to engage their imaginations and make connections with their own lives. Writing simple words that echo the chant-like feel of the piece can help build a sense of style:

Come out and play!
Come out and Play!
Clouds have gone, the sun is out
And here to stay!

When listening to the piece, providing a selection of images from which the pupil can select to represent the different “feelings” in each of the three iterations of the melody, can help a pupil connect with the emotional quality of the different underlying harmonies.