What’s Your Interpretation?


Yesterday, I discussed creativity in the music classroom. When children perform music, and when I say perform I include practice, rehearsal, and concertizing, they need freedom to explore the interpretive possibilities before them. I think it is an unfortunate result of our pre-service training and perhaps also of our experience playing and singing under some conductors, that we prepare a particular interpretation and then go about training our students to carry out our interpretation. The trouble with that approach is that it relegates all of the creative activity to the conductor, and reduces what the students are doing to little more than following a set of how-to directions. I’m convinced that we take a lot of the fun out of music making, and indeed miss the point of including students in music-making activities, if we dictate a one and only interpretation.

Leading student musicians should be a lot like being a good listener in a conversation. It’s not good to do all the talking, or to not really listen to what the other person is saying because we’re eager to refute what they haven’t even finished saying. When our students are playing or singing music, we must really listen. The object of our listening shouldn’t be to catch all of the mistakes and tell them how to do it right, it should be to catch what they are trying to do with the music and help them to do it better. If I am leading an ensemble, and they are struggling, I may ask “am I going too fast?” If they say yes, it means I’m making it too difficult for them. If they say no, we want to go faster, then the rhythms may not be falling into a groove for them at the tempo I’m going, so it’s worth trying a faster one.
At other times, it’s worth just giving them choices. For example, “we could diminuendo to the piano and then crescendo after the piano, or we could sing forte up to the piano, and then suddenly get soft. Let’s try it both ways, and see which way we like better.” The students can try it both ways, discuss the differences, and then agree on one or the other.

It is also a good idea to share with your students how you arrive at an interpretation. I concentrate on three aspects of the music. First, I like to consider the meter, and how the composer has used the chosen meter to create the different levels of beat. I want to discover how the music feels in my body, how it urges me to move. My conducting should reflect those urges so that it will serve as a model for my students, helping them discover how the meter feels in their bodies. Second, I look at how the phrasing is structured. I discover the length of phrases, and how they are marked off in the music. For example, do phrases tend to end on relatively long notes? Do phrases end with a change in articulation? Do several phrases have parallel characteristics that show me the should all be described the same way?

Third, I look for the most important note in each phrase. This note will be the destination of the phrase, and will be the one I want to build up to and release from. Each phrase has one most important note. Parallel phrases will have the same most-important note, so again it is important to recognize similar phrases so I can interpret them in similar ways.
When my students are sensitive to these three aspects of music–meter, phrasing, and most-important notes within each phrase, they are equipped to interpret the music, or at least contribute to the interpretation. In doing this, they are applying analysis techniques to creative decision making. As Richard Rodgers once wrote, “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” To make an interpretation, there must be something to interpret. Analysis shows us what is there, and informs creative decisions. Student-centered interpretation is another dimension of creativity in the music classroom.

Interpretation can be challenging. On the one hand, when a composer writes expressive directions in practically every bar, as, for example, Mahler did in the first movement of his fourth symphony, it takes skill in avoiding making the music sound stilted or forced. All of those tempo and dynamic and articulation changes should sound as if they are being played the only way they logically could be played, and not simply because the music says so. Or, as is often the case with Bach, the challenge is quite the opposite. Many times Bach left no indication whatever as to how he wanted his music played. In that case, it is entirely up to the performer to decide what Bach meant by studying the entire score, making every note fit into the most likely expressive context. I will conclude with an example of such an interpretation, one in which two fascinating musical interpreters collaborated in what turned out to be a remarkable performance. Here is Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052. The introductory remarks are wonderful, and the performance, even more so.


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