‘Little Shoes’

One of the great things about the piano (apart from all the other great things about the piano!) is that it can be “orchestrated”, that is, it can be any instrument or voice, or combination of instruments and voices, you want it to be. In the Debussy pieces I am learning at the moment it is a harp, a flute, a Baroque organ. It is also the wind in the sails of a boat, the chimes of a carillon, a quartet of viols.

When I tell my students the piano can be any instrument they want it to be, they look blankly at me at first. To them, it is just a piano, a mechanical box of wood and wires which makes a reasonably nice sound from the very first lesson. But ask a student to imagine a different sound, instrument or voice and something very special happens. That flat, uninteresting sound is immediately brought to life; a simple string of notes can become a beautiful singing line of melody.

I use a lot of visualisation techniques – both sound and pictures – with my students to help them “tell the story” of the music they are learning. I ask them to paint pictures in sound, to imagine they are playing the piece for someone who knows nothing about it, to “explain” it. For Laurie, working on a simplified excerpt of ‘l’Autunno’ from the Four Seasons for his Grade 1 earlier in the year, we listened to Nigel Kennedy’s admittedly rather raucous rendering of this iconic movement, and looked at Renaissance pictures of the hunt, the dogs straining at their leashes, the horses jittery and excited, eager to be on the move. For ‘African Dance’ (also Grade 1), I asked my students, adults and children, to feel the heat of southern Africa, the sights and smells of the township, the baked red earth and brightly coloured fabrics and costumes. When Harrison requested to learn the William Tell Overture for the summer concert, we fashioned the call of a hunting horn from a simple major fifth (F to C), played up in the higher registers, to sound far away, and imagined William Tell and his horseman emerging over the brow of a hill, in a scene redolent of ‘The Magnificent Seven’. At Eli’s first lesson of the new term last Thursday, he played an extract of Pachelbel’s Canon, a piece he has nagged and begged me to adapt for him, so well I felt my eyes pricking. And when we decided his left hand was a double bass and his right a nightingale (his choice, not mine), the music was transformed again.

Singing Handel with the school, and later, the university choir, the conductor would often say “pretend you’re a trumpet”, and suddenly the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus grew shiny, sparkling, triumphant as one hundred voices considered the sound we were being asked to produce, instead of blindly reading the score.

Working with a couple of students, adult and child, on one of the current Grade 1 pieces, the Menuet from Nannerl’s Notenbuch, I suggested the piece, which dates from the very early Classical period, should be a simple yet elegant dance. We thought about the costumes the ladies would be wearing for such a dance, their corsetted waists and hooped petticoats, their little satin shoes. And there we coined a useful tag for the music – “little shoes”.

As pianists, we strive for a beautiful singing sound, even in the crunchiest, most crashing of contemporary harmonies, or the jagged, spiky, angry measures of a Scriabin sonata: it is the ultimate goal, and many times it seems an impossible one. Lately, I have become adept at “seeing sound”, partly because my synaesthesia allows me to see music in colours and patterns, but also because I am continually training myself to hear the music in my head before I play it. (I also sing it out loud.) Allowing oneself, and one’s students, the time to think about the kind of sound one wants to produce, to hear it in one’s head long before the fingers touch the keys, is an invaluable exercise, and a very useful technique to hone. It forces one to consider the music away from the piano, even if one is sitting at the keyboard, and teaches one that “thinking time” is a fundamental part of the process of learning new music. Too often a student will rush headlong into a piece, without that crucial pause for thought. Learning to be patient, learning to listen, are key skills to encourage – even if one only has half an hour in which to do it.