Teaching Interpretation through Creative Practice—Think Like a Composer!

Teaching Interpretation through Creative Practice

By Chrissy Ricker, NCTM

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then I think it is safe to say that music is in the ear of the beholder. Have you ever noticed that three different people can listen to the same piece of music and experience it in three completely different ways?

One of my favorite things about music is that each performance is truly a three-way collaboration: a merging of the inspiration of the composer, the interpretation of the performer, and the experience of the listener. Each musical performance is different, and each time we listen to a piece of music it has the potential to make us hear it in a new and exciting way.

Many of our students begin music lessons because they have experienced the emotional connection that listening to a beautiful piece of music can bring. A great musical performance is all about bringing the composer’s “story” to life. So, how can we help our students learn to interpret the stories behind their music and to perform more artistically? Let’s teach them how to think like a composer!

Here are a few activities you can do with students of all levels to help them practice more creatively and perform more artistically:

Start by Thinking About the Title of the Piece

Many pieces written for student performers have descriptive titles. Ask your students to practice and listen to the music and decide why the composer chose that particular title. Does the title fit the music? Why or why not? Would your students have chosen a different title?

If the piece does not have a descriptive title, ask your students to give it one! Have them think about the character and mood of the music and choose a title that fits the piece. Be sure to ask students to explain why they chose their title.

Create a Story

Using the title as a guide, create a simple story that fits the music. Ask your students to find at least three spots in the piece where they can describe what they think is happening in the story. As students practice their piece, their goal should be to make the audience picture this story, too.

If your students have difficulty inventing a story, have them choose a verb, adjective, color, or even an animal that they think fits the music and write it in the score. Remember to tell students that in this exercise there are no wrong answers! The beauty of musical interpretation is that each person who plays a piece might interpret it differently and imagine a different story taking place.

Think About The Musical Elements

Once students have written their ideas in the music, think about what musical elements the composer used to create the story behind the piece. For example:

Mode: Is the piece major or minor? Why is this important to the story?

Tempo: Is the piece fast or slow? How does the tempo affect the story?

Dynamics: How do the dynamics make the listener feel? Do the dynamics give us a hint about an exciting moment in our story?

Articulation: Why do you think the composer chose the articulations in the piece? How do these articulations affect the mood of the music?

Now, let’s get creative! Ask students to play the piece again and change one of the musical elements. For example, if the piece is fast, play it slowly. If the piece is marked piano, play it forte. How does this change the story? What title would they give the piece now?

Improvise, Using the Music as Your Guide

Once your students have a good understanding of the musical elements of the piece and the story behind the music, ask them to put on their “composer hat!” A few simple activities they might try include:

Embellishing the piece by changing more of the musical elements they discovered in the score (changing legato to staccato, major to minor, etc.).

Improvising an introduction or a coda to the piece.

Embellishing the melody by changing the rhythm, adding additional notes, or playing it in a different octave.

Improvising a short original piece using the same title.

By doing these activities, your students will not only gain a greater understanding of how their music is constructed, they will also learn how to communicate more effectively as performers. And who knows—maybe you will even discover a budding composer or two hidden in your studio!