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Music Lesson by Lord Frederick Leighton

There are a number of steps in transforming the little black dots on a piece of paper into a splendid piece of music ringing out in the air–and that doesn’t just mean playing the right notes on your instrument of choice. Yesterday afternoon while I was in process of a music lesson, I came up with these five points to try to quickly explain the various steps in interpreting a piece of music.

But before anything else, when playing anything, both the context and the content must be taken into account. That means that both the piece as a whole and its intended setting, as well as the various phrases within it, must be considered.

This, then, as I discovered yesterday, is generally how I “interpret” a piece of music as I am learning to play it–I start by asking lots of questions (like usual):

1) What is the style? Is is Baroque or Romantic? Is it a hymn? If so, does it have the Baptist gospel sound, that old Reformation sound, or that certain nineteenth century aura to it? (How I’m going to play the harmony on hymns differs somewhat according to the general style of the piece–and that is something I definitely would like to know more about!)

2) What is the name and purpose of the song? Does it need a light touch, or a heavier, more majestic feel throughout my use of dynamics? In other words, is this piece up to a broad spectrum of dynamics, or does it need a very simple palatte?

3) How does it sound as a whole? Does it have dramatic breaks in it, or does it all flow so smoothly that it is difficult to pick out the separate thematic elements? Is the tenor of the whole piece loud or soft? This really doesn’t have anything to do with exactly how loud I play it–but it does have to do with the proportionate use I make of my dynamic range. (I really learned this by playing the same song on different types of instruments…it isn’t exactly how loud or how soft it is–the key to good dynamics is how they are proportioned….)

4) Can I distinguish the separate parts? Most of the time this is fairly evident, so now I need to work on the separate parts of the whole in such a way that they accent the whole, while maintaining their own uniqueness. And I don’t always play a repeated section the same way the second time around….

5) How can I polish the phrases and sentences to make clear paragraphs, so I can tell a whole story with this piece of music? (Admittedly, I usually don’t have a specific story in mind every time I play a song, but I do–when I stop to think about it–try to let the song itself be a story…though that may not actually be a very accurate use of the word “story”.) How can I take these four separate phrases and work them into a harmonious sentence? Now, how can I transition from this “musical sentence” into the next one? Is it supposed to be a gentle break, or sharply distinguishable (both of these can be quite dramatic)? And then there are the “paragraph breaks”, where there is key change, a tempo change, or simply a very evident new section.

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And those are the things I think about when I sit down with a goal to play this song well, to the glory of God….

In the above listing, I left out the questions on performance, many of which are related to this one: “What kind of instrument will I be playing on when I play this in public? How is it going to be different?” (I think about this one because things sound so very different on keyboards that don’t have dynamic capabilities–it is easy to either overdo or underwork the harmonization on a hymn by simply removing all dynamics….) Then there is the inevitable issue of dressing for the occasion: “On this instrument, the buttons on my sleeves don’t bother anything, but on that instrument, they clack…I think I’ll wear something else…. ”

Oh yes, don’t forget to cut your fingernails! :-)

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