Every piece has a shape. A feel. And while some music exists only for its own sake, we can identify with parts of it. The music’s struggles become our own, and as we delve further into a piece it transforms us and we develop an interpretation — we take ownership. The piece takes shape.
The overall affect should be the primary concern of a performer. What is the overall sense and feeling that you want to convey? Kevin Gallagher discussed this in our interview.
“The mood should justify everything else you do.”
From there you work down to smaller details. You figure out the phrases and sections, and how to give each it’s own shape while still staying true to the original mood and overall sense of the piece.
Reginald Smith Brindle discusses this concept, for composers, in his book Musical Composition. The general idea is that change is inevitable in a piece of music; it evolves as the piece unfolds. Change is necessary to capture and maintain listener interest. But that change should be related to what came before it to give a sense of coherence and wholeness to a composition. Even in the most complex of compositions this is true.
This advice can carry over into interpretation. The overall mood and shape determines everything, but the smaller details may contrast — not so much so that the coherence is ruined. Some things take importance and are brought out. Others are pushed to the background. A piece that you consider to have a mood of singing melody is naturally going to bring the melody to the forefront while pushing the accompaniment to the background. In piece where the rhythmic drive is everything, the lines become secondary to rhythm. The examples go on!
Figure out the overall sense of a piece first, then work down to the smallest details.