It’s that time of year again when countless music teachers present their students in various recitals throughout the country. Recently I attended a spring recital highlighting the best and brightest from around the Bay Area, ranging in level from beginning to advanced. As I listened, one performer in particular struck me with his playing: it was not only technically flawless; it had a sense of interpretation and original musicality not normally found in a younger player. Usually young performers who can shape phrases and master slight dynamic changes nevertheless sound as if these gestures were things they were taught rather than felt. So no matter how right the style of playing is, it still comes off as wooden and forced.
How do we teach interpretation? Can we? Is it something that we can foster in a player, or is it innate? Can some students progress in their music studies to a level others can never attain?
In an effort to help those who are just not getting it, I try what I have found to be almost a panacea for many pedagogical conundrums: composing. Alongside learning the repertoire, I encourage all my students make up their own music, for it is in that arena that they can truly try and test things and grow without fear of judgment because they are the authors. They cannot be wrong. They are in charge! They can make whatever decisions they want to in order to make their own work more than a bunch of notes on a page. Likewise, because they are the composers, they also are the ones who must create a way for other players to understand how to play their music. Thus, once the young composers have completed their pieces, I am a stickler for making them find the best way to notate their intentions to performers through their scores. They must find what they feel is the best way to notate their rhythms, dynamics, tempo. When this is done, I or another student plays the written pieces, so the young composers can hear how the music is realized in someone else’s hands. As a result, the students gain a sense of how interpretation really works, and it helps them play other pieces they learn.
Another composer-teacher shared with me how he uses composing as a pedagogical tool for developing interpretation by injecting extra-musical ideas into the process. Often when a young player writes a piece, there is an image or story behind it: e.g. it is an angry piece or it is about a sunny sky. While it is natural for these kids to visualize and apply such metaphors to their creations, they often do not make the leap to do such with other music. That’s when my colleague steps in and suggests that they make up an image or story to go along with a piece they are learning, like they do with their own music. The light bulb almost always goes off, and suddenly a student plays with a sensitivity and originality not seen previously.
Helping a musician develop into a sensitive, insightful performer is a tricky thing. There are no hard and fast rules. However, interpretation is, in a way, a type of composing: it is the creation of a perspective and a process from which to perform a piece of music. So, doesn’t it make sense to use composing to unleash a player’s potential?