Do you ever wonder how to get inside the head of a composer to understand what they are trying to say in their music? Music is a whole lot more than just the dots written on the page and ‘doing the dynamics’. I am not saying these are not important – far from it – but to be performed well an understanding of the composer’s life, history and style can really help you bring their music to life.
- Read about the composer’s life and times. Your local library or school library can be very useful here, especially if the composer is someone well-known like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or Chopin. Lesser known composers may be found in good music dictionaries and the AMEB handbooks relevant to the grade you are studying. Understanding a little of the historical times can help a lot. For example, the dance suites of Bach use many different styles of dance. Understanding the style of the dance – how it was danced, the instruments used to accompany it etc – will help in your performance on your instrument.
- Listen to other pieces by the same composer. Each composer has a fairly distinct style. Bach does not sound like Beethoven and Mozart does not sound like Rachmaninov! By listening to lots of pieces by the same composer you will begin to get a feeling for the style your particular composer wants. You will find that when you go back to the piece you are learning it will make a lot more sense and you will instinctively know how to play it better. Then you must trust your instinct.
- Know and understand all the signs and terms in your piece. This probably sounds like it is an obvious thing to do but I am often surprised at how many people neglect this. Signs and terms are like coded clues which the composer has given to help you play the piece in the style he wants it to be played. If the tempo at the beginning says ‘vivo’ it will sound quite different if you play it ‘andante’! Similarly, if there are staccato dots under (or above) the notes it will sound very different if you play legato (playing all the notes in a smooth and connected manner).
- Listen to other recordings of the piece. I put this last because it really is not the most important thing to do and yet it may be helpful. The idea is not to copy other people in the way you play but to develop your own style and your own way of doing the piece (interpretation). Listening to the way other people play your piece, especially if you listen to four or five versions, can help you see that there is often more than one way to ‘skin a cat’ (play your piece). Make the piece your own and play it how YOU feel the composer wants it played.
So now it is over to you. Be creative!