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How wonderful would our practice sessions, rehearsals and performances be if we allowed free rein to our imaginations?

How much fun could we have?

This business is about creating sound. Sound is intangible! I think that, confronted with printed symbols, we forget that sometimes. When we do, the wonder of music gets lost.

We become so attached to the page that our playing can become tedious, academic, and boring. No life. No fun.  We need to present something much more engaging to our audiences!

What does the music say?

What is the piece about? Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometimes not. Sometimes we have to live with the music for a while. And sometimes we have to make something up!

The biggest mistake, to my mind, would be deciding there is no story. If there is no story, then how do you play the piece?

A recent epihany

This is a narrative about an aria for soprano and orchestra.

The Soldier Tir’d by Thomas Arne

The first few practice days

When looking at this piece (unknown to me) for the first time, I noticed the long orchestral introduction and interlude right away.  The piece looked like it had to be fast, and I wondered whether I could play it.

So I learned the notes, and after a few read-throughs, found fingerings that worked.

That meant that I knew the piece, right?  Um… no… everything was the same volume!  It’s a long aria.  Can’t get away with that.

The next level

I looked at how the piece was written.  There were florid passages alternating with chords.  What was that about?

The words say, “The soldier tir’d of wars alarms… But if the brazen Trumpets sound…”

I decided that the florid writing was for trumpets, the chords for strings.

Practicing at that point involved making a clear difference in sound on the piano between the different instruments in the orchestra.

That worked well… but each compositional section had repeated phrases.  They couldn’t be played twice in a row the same way… we’re back to boring.

The string parts were easy enough to vary:  length of sound, legato sometimes, 2- or 3-note groups within longer phrases, dynamic changes.

The trumpet parts were more difficult for me.  For a day or two I attempted a loud trumpet sound, then a softer trumpet sound, without too much luck.

After struggling with that several times, a light went on in my head.

An imaginative interpretation

I am so happy that I’ve always had a good imagination!  Although it was not encouraged until my late 20’s, I never stopped enjoying my inner life.

The light that dawned was about the placement of the trumpet soloists in my imaginary orchestra.  Until that happened, the entire orchestra was in front of me.  But why did it have to be that way?

I kept 2 trumpeters on stage, and moved 2 more players offstage (stage right, to be specific).  Now 4 trumpeters were employed, and things became a lot more interesting and fun.  And easier.

Before the players moved offstage, I had been telling myself, “No!  You have to play softer!”  That didn’t work especially well at all.

Channeling imaginary players placed strategically in a hall could be the answer to all sorts of technical challenges.

In thinking further about this, it becomes obvious that calculating incremental variations in the weight with which we depress the keys doesn’t work, not to mention that it’s boring.  We’re playing music.  Sound.  A practice session, rehearsal, or concert is not an illustration of a scientific experiment!

Use your imagination!  No one can take it away from you.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


Learning a new piece? New program? Back in school? Looking for teaching ideas? Read “Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer!”

Goal-oriented Practice

August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

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