October 2018
Transforming the Music:
Rethinking our Approach to Practicing
by ARS Board Member Jennifer Carpenter
Why do you play recorders? Take a moment and think about what inspires you. Is it because of the music that you want to make come alive? The challenge of learning the intricacies and subtleties of a specific instrument? The joy of playing with others and creating something vibrant from the notes on the page? All of the above? Something else?
Sometimes something old speaks to us in fresh and inspiring tones and I found this to be the case with a TED Talk presented by noted conductor Benjamin Zander (pictured). Originally produced in 2008, Zander’s witty and motivating talk “The Transformative Power of Classical Music” addresses the multi-faceted subject of why classical music is for everyone. In only 20 minutes!

As a recorder teacher, I often encounter a student who hears a piece of music, enthusiastically brings it to me and desires to play it with the same beauty with which it initially struck them. I love when this happens. My job as a teacher is to empower them to find what it is in the music that awakens their spirit and to help them bring it to fruition. Zander speaks to what hits the listeners’ ears when it comes to hearing a piece of classical music. First, the beauty. But then...what’s for dinner, did I let the dog out?

Why do some performances of musical works render us speechless and other performances find us with wandering minds?
The Power of the Pulse
Zander zeros in on one important aspect of keeping our audiences listening and keeping us as performers engaged: pulse . Think about your journey in learning to read and play music on the recorder. Perhaps it looks something like this:

  • Stage 1: Pulse/emphasis on every note in a phrase. Perhaps uneven in presentation, not very musical, but you’ve accomplished learning the notes!
  • Stage 2: Pulse/emphasis on every other note in a phrase. You’re getting more comfortable with the music; you’re not deathly afraid of playing a wrong note; you’re beginning to relax.
  • Stage 3: Pulse/emphasis on every 4 notes in a phrase. A continuation of the journey from stage 2. You’re getting closer!
  • Stage 4: Pulse/emphasis on every 8 notes in a phrase. Now you’re beginning to understand how the phrasing works and where the notes are leading.
  • Stage 5: Pulse/emphasis on 1 note in the phrase. You understand where the phrase is leading and the relationship between the notes in the phrase. You’re making music!
When we reach stage 5, we are now armed with the tools to keep ourselves and our listeners engaged throughout the piece. How do we get there? By understanding that every note either comes from somewhere or goes somewhere. We find the pulse, the note worth emphasizing.

Having some familiarity with the fundamentals of music theory is important. Your teacher may help you with this, or perhaps enrolling in one of several free online theory courses can spur your journey (look into MOOCs*). Listen often to music and performers you love. Start to think about their phrasing. Listen to where they are leading the phrases and in turn, you. Start to analyze your pieces: mark phrases, cadences, musical gestures. Determine if they fall on strong or weak beats in the measure. Think about the ways our particular instrument can emphasize the pulse.
Discovering the Pulses in Your Music
It is easy for many players to feel satisfied in learning the notes of a piece. But is that what drew you to the music? As you approach your next piece, whether it be a solo or a part in an ensemble/consort:

  • challenge yourself to move beyond the notes and find the phrases;
  • identify the musical gestures that may lead us to interesting notes/harmonies;
  • determine if the composer plays with the timing of the pulse--delaying it in order to delay our sense of satisfaction. How do you handle that as a performer?
  • discover ways to emphasize the pulse, some of which are unique to our instrument (articulation, phrasing, dynamics, space, etc.);
  • engage in conversation with your chamber/consort members about how you want to interpret the phrases and how the phrases relate to one another;
  • have fun experimenting with different interpretations!

I encourage you to watch Ben Zander’s TED Talk and think back to the questions at the beginning of this article. Being able to answer these questions can help us find the motivation to understand what draws us to the music and instruments that we love and how we can realize that beauty in our own practice and performances.

Jennifer Carpenter is a member of the Board of Directors for the ARS and a freelance performer, workshop instructor, and teacher on recorders located in Colorado Springs, CO.

*What is a MOOC?
A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, aimed to provide unlimited access to a wide variety of topics. They are set up as courses, frequently by video or audio instruction, often provide printable materials, and many are taught by respected university professors and scholars. Search for “free online music theory course” and you’ll be amazed at the options available!
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