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Playing More Musically: 5 Days of Discovery

“​​I just want to play more musically.”

It's a common refrain among students and performers of all ages. We all want to play more musically, but exactly what does that mean?

A musically expressive performance is a result of the performer’s choices informed by his or her understanding. You can probably guess at the kind of choices I mean, like choices of tempo and dynamics. The understanding part may require a bit more explanation.

Musical understanding develops over time. It’s likely that you already have a large body of instinctive musical knowledge that you have accumulated as you have practiced, played and listened to music. Your next step is to raise that understanding from the instinctive level to the conscious.

If you have ever puzzled over whether specific dynamics sounded “right” or not, you have already begun this task. Simply by paying attention to the possibilities open to you as a performer and asking questions about them, you have already taken the first step toward playing more musically.

Pursuing this kind of understanding is the only way to make your music truly communicate to a listener, and I find it to be the most interesting kind of practice to do. This goes beyond practicing your instrument; it is practicing musicianship, the craft of music.

As Part Two of our spring cleaning challenge, I'd like to give you a 5-day program to help you discover more about musicianship and to show you how to develop your musicianship in your everyday practice and playing. (If you missed it, you can read Part One of our challenge here.)

I’ve chosen four general aspects of musicianship for our challenge: Context, Structure, Connections and Dimension. Each day you will have one of those aspects to consider, using one of the pieces you are currently practicing. For each, I have given you questions designed to help raise your musical awareness. On the fifth day, you will look at the choices offered to you with your new perspective and create your newly refreshed musical performance.

Day 1: Context

Learn more about the musical context of your piece by answering one or more of the following questions:

  • When was the piece written?
  • What do you know about the composer of the piece?
  • Does the piece belong/refer to a certain time or place?
  • What was happening in the world when the piece was written?
  • How might learning about the composer, or the time or place when the piece was written influence the way you play the piece?

Day 2: Structure

The structure of a piece includes its form, harmony, melody and rhythm.

  • What are the major sections of the piece and how are they related?
  • Can you find small sections or melodic phrases that occur multiple times in the piece?
  • What role does rhythm play in the piece?
  • Do you notice and can you identify any chord (harmonic) patterns?
  • How can you reflect the structure of your piece in your playing, possibly with dynamics, articulation or tempo?

Day 3: Connections

Creating connections helps take us beyond the notes.

  • What does the piece mean to you?
  • What mood do you want to convey?
  • Can you relate it to a story, a poem or a work of art that you admire?
  • What is the significance of the title?
  • What is your favorite part of the piece and why?
  • How would you describe this piece in words?

Day 4: Dimension

We create dimension in our music with dynamics, expressive tempo changes (like an accelerando or ritardando), accents, tone color changes, and other devices.

  • Look at the printed dynamics on your piece. Do you follow all the composer’s dynamic instructions?
  • Do you need to add more dynamics of your own?
  • Are there places the tempo need to relax or to gain momentum?
  • Where is the “biggest” moment in the piece? Where is the quietest moment?
  • Are there places you might want to change your tone color (perhaps from relaxed to more forceful, for example)?

Day 5: Choices

This is the day when you will put all of those aspects together and bring your musical vision to life. Using your answers from each of the previous four days, create a single idea for your piece. Decide on the context and connections you want a listener to make. Then create an expressive plan that supports the structure of the piece and adds dimension to bring that structure to life.

This isn’t an easy process the first time you do it. But even if you only make one small change in your playing, you will have raised your musical awareness simply by considering each day’s questions.

One final word – this should be fun. There are no wrong answers, only undiscovered musical possibilities. Explore. Push the envelope. And then play the music.

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