What You Can Learn From My 10-year-old Student

A few weeks ago I wrote a short etude for a student. He’s been studying with me for about a year and a half now. The next week, he came back well prepared and practiced, and dropped a knowledge bomb.

My student likened the piece to a drama (which they’d been studying in school). The musical drama had an introduction (first section), rising action (short transition, and part of the next section), a climax (the highest note of the piece), and falling action/resolutions. This ten year old student had stumbled upon a metaphor for understanding form and interpretation that many music students would have never thought up.

The Musical Drama

The clichéd phrase goes, “music tells a story.” It does. A story or drama is a good metaphor for form in music. There’s always some sense of introduction in a piece — something that establishes what the piece is and sets up expectations for what we’ll hear. Then there’s development (rising action), where the introductory material is changed and tension is added. Finally a point of arrival or climax, where the tension is at its maximum then resolved. Then the conclusion, or falling action of a piece.

For those familiar with the Golden Ratio, a lot of the art music canon puts the climax about two thirds of the way through (roughly where the “golden” area would be).

And that means…

If music has sections, and each section serves a different function, it’s our job as performers to clearly indicated to our listeners just what the hell is happening. That means using all of the resources at our disposal to do so. The climax of a piece should sound different from the introduction. The end of a piece should sound different from the end of a phrase, etc. There’s a sense of hierarchy in musical form that we should bring out as performers.

Our Tools

Our tools are not as varied as those of the composer. A composer can play with texture or tempo or harmony or rhythm. These are the things the composer wrote in the score (and are also clues to discovering form if you look carefully).

As performers we have things like tone color, rubato, and interpretation of the various markings on the page. It’s our job to use these tools to indicate the musical form and shape; it’s our job to bring out what we think is important — what the key parts of the story are. It doesn’t take much to make a huge difference. And it’s not hard. Just noticing the form is often enough to alter your interpretation.

What kind of stories are you telling with your interpretations?

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • fjeoas

    The 10-year-old kid was not yet corrupted by conservatory and teaching. The brain-washing has not yet taken place.

    (In other words: be wary of your teachers… hint-hint!)

    • Christopher Davis

      Considering that my student stumbled upon something that most conservatories do teach (form/analysis), but few students get, I’m not sure what exactly your point is. Students should think for themselves, but not all teachers are bad.

  • Marko

    It’s one of the coolest things happening to you as a teacher when a student not only regurtitates the stuff you are feeding him, but shows some independent thinking of his own. At least it is for me. 🙂