When we perform, we aim to take our listener on a musical journey. As custodians of the score, we illuminate the salient features of the composition as we have come to understand and appreciate them. We do this by shaping the work as a whole by highlighting the main arrival points and climaxes, shaping individual phrases, dwelling on those magical moments that are special to us and generally communicating our passion for and understanding of the piece. No matter how many times we have played the piece, each time we play it things will be slightly different in the detail.

Some journeys are more straightforward than others, but it always helps to have planned our route ahead. I would like to offer you a very simple mapping tool to organise a performance using a numbering system from 1 to 10 (where 1 represents the place of least intensity, 10 the greatest intensity), applied to the most obvious parameters of musical performance.

The  Parameters of Musical Performance

Insofar as these are quantifiable, here they are:

  • Main arrival places/high points/climaxes

The main arrival point (as you see and feel it) might get an 8 up to a 10, depending on how strong a climax it is. Secondary climaxes or cadential points would score less. In this rough map of Chopin’s B minor Prelude, I feel the main climax is in bar 12 (Neapolitan harmony), with an anti-climax in bar 18 (the interrupted cadence). You may well feel it differently, and this is fine. Since I don’t want this prelude to have a large feeling of climax, I only assign it a 5 (OK, so it may go a 6 if I’m feeling especially generous one day). The place where the music calms down to its softest point is the very end, which gets a 1.

Chopin B minor score

  • Range of intensity of notes within each phrase

You might want to use this discriminately, but the general idea is to identify the high point of each phrase and assign it a number. If the phrase has a strong feeling of climax, give that note (or area of notes) anything up to a 10; if the phrase is more level, the numbers will reflect this. If you want to expand your expressive range in a phrase that feels a bit dead or wooden, give each note a number. As you practise, carefully grade each note according to your scheme. You can do this in your head, but if you choose to write this in the score you will have to find a way of doing so that doesn’t conflict with finger numbers (perhaps using a different coloured pencil, italics, or putting the expression number in a circle to distinguish it from a fingering, and so on). Here is my range of expression map for the first phrase of the same Prelude (click on the image to enlarge):

Chopin B minor phrase

  • Timings/rubato/tempo flexibility

You could use 5 for the average tempo within a phrase or section, increasing the number as you push the tempo or decreasing it as you pull. If you want to add a ritard (or if it is marked), ask yourself if it is a gradual ritard. If so, consider a range from 8 – 7.9 – 7.8 – 7.7, etc. Is it a sudden change of tempo? If so, the drop may be in whole numbers. If you want to add a timing scale to your score, you might consider colour coding it. Perhaps red for climaxes/high points and green for timings? Use something you’ll remember, and preferably on a photocopy for this purpose.

Having a visual map of our intended shapings for a performance can be extremely useful, especially if we are undecided about what we want. Once we are really familiar with the route, we can deviate a little from it here and there without losing our bearings or general sense of direction. The paradox is the more concrete our performance decisions, the greater the room for spontaneity on the stage. Rather than restrict us, having a definite plan allows us even greater expressive freedom.

In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts,  practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

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