Musical ESP: Expressively Synthesized Performance

Dr. Carolyn E. True is currently giving this session. She is our guest artist/clinician for the weekend and her performance last night was delightful. Her sessions today promise to be equally so:


Dr. True began with a performance of China Gates by John Adams and encouraged us to think back to a day when we just played the piano without an agenda, when we were just carefree and stopped to touch the piano keys every time we walked past the piano.

The Five Musical Senses
I. Do You See What I See?
Using Inner and Outer Visual Cues to Ignite Musical Imagination
A. The Outer Visual: The Score
1. Specific Expressive Markings
2. Non-Specific Expressive Markings
Dr. True relates a story of giving a geometric drawing to a group of students, along with three colored writing implements and gave them ten minutes to color the design. She was able to determine that the way they approached the task was similar to the way they approached the musical score. Some started at the center of the design and worked systematically toward the edge with all three colors, others started with one color and randomly colored various segments of the design.

She goes on to discuss how different articulations are articulated and how she uses word games and other resources to help students learn to create the mood of the piece. She shared several ideas and then asked for suggestions of things other teachers do to help students in this area.

B. The Outer Visual: Manipulations of the Score
1. Non-Additive Techniques
2. Additive Techniques
One of the attendees shared that with Etudes, which are primarily numbered, she has students come up with a title for it after working on it for a week or so. Another has students identify a color that the piece sounds like. Another has students come up with a story to go along with the piece.

C. The Inner Visual: Connections between Art and Music
Ask, “What inspired this composition?”
Find photographs that relate to musical pieces.

Dr. True shares a story of how she took them to a gallery and sat them in front of pieces of artwork and tell her what they heard. This helped them develop better interpretive skills in their playing.

Color – what does it mean? Some students see specific notes in certain colors. Other times it is helpful to just ask, “What does the color green sound like?” or “What would it be like if I played this in orange?”

She references the Sabuda Pop-Up Books as an excellent resource for teachers.

II. What Big Ears You Have
It’s helpful to get students off the bench and have them walk and feel the pulse of their music. Students need to experience rhythm at a young age. Use a lot of call-and-response activities with students. There is a difference between playing a song and singing a song. Explore the songs of the composers to help understand how to phrase music.

Can the students go through the music and play all of their cadences? Do they really understand forward motion (not just as if they’re running out of breath and trying to get to the next breath)? Do students really listen to the music and the intervals in the music?

Embracing the style – improvising and playing by ear. Dr. True has all of her students learn to play Happy Birthday in the style of various composers.

There is a balance between playing by ear and using the score. We all have students that play well by ear and struggle with music reading. And then we have students who are stuck to the score and won’t play by ear. Let the students help each other and build on their strengths.

Dr. True has her students do word play with Hanon exercises. She proceeded to demonstrate by having observers call out adjectives and then she played the exercise incorporating that feeling into the music. She used the same technique with a student playing a Bach French Suite, but gave her names of different students in the studio. One of her favorite techniques is to light candles and turn off all the lights and then have the students play something. This helps remove the fear of hitting wrong notes and lets the student connect with the music itself.

Dr. True encourages singing, lots of singing, singing all the time with students in their lessons. She highly recommends the series, Great Conversations in Music.

Bottom line: We are trying to foster the creativity of our students. We have the tools we need. We are privileged to help access the emotions of our students and give them their own space and haven for music-making. Embrace Drama! Have students write out an opera to their first Mozart Sonata. Have them move to the music. We, as music teachers, are the ones who are helping decide what is going to stand the test of time.

Dr. True concludes by sharing her list of artist rules (adopted from Julia Cameron):
1. Creativity flourishes in a place of safety and acceptance.
2. Creativity grows among friends and withers among enemies.
3. All creative ideas are children who deserve our protection.
4. All creative success requires creative failure.
5. Fulfilling our creativity is a sacred trust.
6. Violating someone’s creativity destroys sacred trust.
7. Creative feedback must support the creative child, not shame it.
8. Creative feedback must build on strengths, not focus on weakness.
9. Success occurs in clusters and is borne in generosity.
10. The good of another can never block our own.

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