The Playground

The Simply Music blog

The Poetry of Playing Freely with Nancy Reese

Found in: Coaching

DSC_0067-e1424819412619Gustavo Dudamel, “The Dude”, and Dreams Come True have a lot in common. When he was a child in Venezuela, this dynamic conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic would line up all his toys on the floor and then conduct his “toy orchestra”. By watching him conduct his real orchestra playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, we can gather insights into how we might gain more poetic flow and self-expression in our own piano playing of Dreams Come True or any music of our choice.

As pianists, we are the conductors of our own playing and we can express ourselves as our very own jazz band, orchestra or soloist. But while we play, if our movement, attention and listening are focused on a note-by-note finger-by-finger progression, we will feel and sound tight, stodgy, stilted or halting… when what we really want is to freely express joy, fright, energy, drama, tenderness, regret, angst, excitement, anger, or the lilt of a dance. So the result we get often doesn’t match up with our desire to express ourselves musically! It is as if we are heading out on a car trip, excited about and looking forward to arriving at our destination. But if we stop and park for a while at every single exit along the way, we have lost sight of where we are heading. Our trip becomes a series of stops and starts without purpose or flow.

We have a vehicle and a tool for our pianistic journey to keep us moving toward our musical destination. The vehicle is our upper arm (humerus) and shoulder mechanism. Because our upper arm moves freely in our shoulder joint, it can continuously move us along to our destination without any parking. “Outlining” is a Movement Tool that will help us listen to and hear what’s important along the way. The following will help us actually experience this in our playing.

Away from your instrument and with a flowing tempo, sing expressively the repeated Sentence #1 of Neil Moore’s Dreams Come True:

Sitting here with you…,

Nothing much to say…,

Now stand, with your arms in “air piano” position. While you sing the Sentence, you will “conduct” by a making a small backward swing of your upper arm bone (humerus) as you sing “Sit, you, noth–, say”. These words/syllables correspond to where the hands/arms play “together” in this Sentence. This is your Outline.

Next, at the piano, sing all the words while you play only the Outline, using the same backward arm swing that you just used while “conducting”. Finally, play the piece as you have done with the Outline, but this time, tuck in the missing notes.

Playing with this Outlining Tool serves both physical and musical purposes. Our arms really learn to feel where they swing “together”. The more vigorously they swing, the more sound we get and vice–versa. Our upper arms never “park” so we don’t get a feeling of being “stuck down”. We are always en route to a musical destination and we listen “ahead” by phrase and pulse instead of focusing note-to-note. We are conducting our orchestra. Below, watch Dudamel conduct his. Imagine that he is outlining… what do you see?

Now watch Valentina Lisitsa play Fur Elise and pay particular attention to her upper arm and shoulder – our “vehicle”. What do you notice?

By experimenting with these techniques in various pieces we can alter the way we hear, feel and sound. Our playing will have more flow, fluidity and grace and we can experience Poetry of Playing Freely.

Many thanks to Simply Music teacher Unmani of Australia for her poetic coining of the term “The Poetry of Playing Freely”.