Spot The Difference

“Originality is the return to the origin.” Antonio Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926)

Recent deliberations upon technique as the servant of expression, leave me feeling that perhaps a few words on what is meant by expression (and how this is put across to pupils) are required.

What is being expressed? The performer or the music? A person playing their own music could be said to be expressing themselves. Someone playing another’s music is interpreting the work of another. Most of the time in school, pupils are playing someone else’s music.

How do we encourage pupils to decipher the intention behind the notes, and to deliver it expressively? I feel that this should be split into several categories – each delivered in a separate post (over the next four days). These are: contextual reading; dynamics; articulation; flexibility of tempo; marks of expression.

Contextual Reading

The playback function of score-writing software never sounds human. What is missing? The missing human dimension could be described as contextual reading. There are two very common manifestations of this:

1. Surprises caused by variation of a previously heard phrase (sentence). This usually takes the form of a change in one or more notes of the tune, or of a re-harmonization of the tune

Happy Birthday, for example, could be labeled: 1 1a 1b 2

Numbering the phrases to highlight similarities and differences can be a great help in pinpointing such moments. There are additional spin-offs such as:

  • outlining the structure of a piece
  • breaking it up into bite-size nuggets for home practice
  • enabling a group of pupils to find the place confidently

The surprising moments in the tune feature in the 2nd appearance of “to you” and the 3rd appearance of “birthday.” Such surprises have to be highlighted for the listener to avoid the piece sounding inexpressive.

Software is not, as yet, programmed with the necessary critical faculties to take account of what has already been played, when meeting what is about to be played. The human mind seems all the more amazing when you realise that, in addition to playing in the present, the internal ear is aware of the past and looking out for the future. Such points of surprise are often not flagged up, as the music would be cluttered with words. Therefore, the player has to hear them and to decide how to draw them to the attention of the listener, using the other aspects mentioned above (more of which on other days).

2. Surprise caused by the appearance of something uncharacteristic of the piece; the composer; the style, the historical period.

Spotting surprises caused by uncharacteristic ingredients requires pupils to build up knowledge of style and musical history, harmony etc. Equivalent surprise in a normal text or image – aka anachronisms – are often more obvious than musical incongruities. Chaucer’s “The Astronaut’s Tale” might stand out, as would the scene where Juliet thrills to “c u @ ur blcny l8r. ur * xd lvr”