Teaching Artistry

How does one learn artistry? This is like asking how one learns good taste.

The easiest way is to be born with it.

Since that doesn't happen very often, the next easiest way is to be surrounded by it all your life so you acquire it by osmosis.

As teachers, we know that few of our students are born with musical artistry, although a few more do grow up surrounded by examples of it.

Having scoped out the territory, it now falls to teachers to convey, somehow, the elements of artistry. No easy task! If the teacher is diligent and observant and rarely misses an opportunity to point out what is good and why, however, soon the student will begin to "see" and hear those same details by himself.

Here are some suggestions. The first four, even applied as a matter of course in learning a new piece, will make a extraordinary difference in the musicality of the student's playing. After a while, the student will "hear" what she's doing and will learn to "feel why" it is good to be sensitive to these aspects of the piece.

Use of a tape recorder is excellent in the pursuit of artistry. The student performs and then listens to herself play.

One of the simplest things you can do is to teach the student always to look for the melody. And then to bring it out.

Another is to insist the student follow the dynamics. Some composers are copious in their directions for dynamics (usually these are late romantic or contemporary composers; the "earlier" the music is, the less specific the notation is). Sometimes, of course, dynamics seem "wrong" (and probably are a printer's error, perhaps as far back as the first edition and perpetuated!). You - - and, increasingly, your student - - will sense markings that don't seem right, don't seem musical, or don't seem to be in step with what you know about the rest of this composer's oeuvre or other music of this period. Those markings you ignore or change. This is ok!

Observing feminine endings is a third thing to teach students. This one makes a huge difference in the music of Mozart and Schubert.

Delineating between phrases is critical. Where does the phrase end? Where is the climax of the phrase? The student must know where these points are and then must play them so the listener does, too.

By extension, where is the climax of the piece? The student wants to "bring" the piece toward the climax and then recede from it. In general, there is only one climax per piece. Ok, -sometimes- two, especially if it's ABA form! More than this is like a clown suit made of a wild array of colors, patterns, and adornments: distracting and not coherent.

What is the form of the piece? How does the structure guide performance? How should the recap be played, relative to the exposition?

If you wish to go into greater detail on form and analysis, this is fine, but save college-level work of this nature for older teens and adults. I'm thinking here of how composers effect a modulation, enharmonic "tricks," episodic material, motivic derivations, and so on.

Ear-training is another way to increase students' artistry.

Therefore it follows that listening, in general, is a positive contribution toward the same goal.

By this I mean listening to all kinds of music. Not just piano music. Not just the student's favorite composer. Listening, for the keyboard student, should encompass not only keyboard music, but also vocal music, concerti, orchestra forms. And music from all periods, please (from plainsong forward). Where did that V - I cadence first show itself? Is there some other V - I relationship which occurs even earlier?

The kind of music that is "in the environment" does a great deal to shape artistry. If the student listens to music which challenges her brain and offers avenues for musical growth, she will develop artistry much more quickly.

Therefore, as early as the interview stage, stress to students/parents that music in the home - - and the car! - - should be classical music or "good jazz," not Top 40, Christian inspirational, country, oldies, R&B, rap, or rock. In your newsletters/memos, repeat this suggestion every couple of months. At holiday time, suggest musical gifts that have long-lasting rewards, such as specific CDs by artists you feel worthy of emulation.

Singing is of vast importance. Every keyboard student should sing, regardless of how good a natural voice he has. It is in singing that concepts such as breaths (phrase lifts) and accentuation (text SHOULD not BE clum-SY like THIS) are put to immediate physical use. Encourage all students to sing in groups (school, community, church).

Rubato is best taught by example, I believe. A good piece to use is Für Elise. It has a real "ebb and flow" to it, especially the opening material. The second time the RH comes to rest on the E is a good time to pause just a tad there, as if teetering on a rock, and then to "roll down hill" and make up the time spent teetering. (I don't have my score here and don't know what measure number this is, but it's after the LH has played its first set of am - EM - am arpeggiations).

If you have group classes, play examples of the same piece played by several different artists and lead discussion of how the interpretations differed and whether one was better than another. This is something for late intermediate or advanced levels, of course. For earlier level students, play the original and then a transcription for another instrument and ask if they can hear some differences beyond the change of instrument(s).

Although acquiring artistry is not quick or easy, it can be taught. Actually, it can be -incorporated- in the student's musical language and understanding if he is immersed in examples of artistic playing and learns a few basics that can be applied mechanically at first and then with true understanding later.

You may wish to read the student file on this subject.

copyright 1998, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.


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