Joshua Bell on Telling Great Musical Stories
Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!
“When you play [a piece of music], you are a storyteller, and you’re telling a story.”
Joshua Bell, violinist
When we begin a new piece of music, we learn the notes. Then, we polish the tricky spots and master the shifts.
But all this is not the point. These acts that make up practice are in service to a larger purpose.
In the end, the goal is to tell a musical story. The aim is to play such that a listener feels something.
While still in the beginner and early-intermediate phases of learning guitar, this idea may be abstract. We think of a story as something with a good guy and a bad guy. It has a plot.
But musical stories don’t always follow this formula. Musical stories point toward emotions we already know. And while they may bring up images in our minds, they work more with feelings.
Musical stories can bring emotions at a faster rate than can visual or verbal stories. In music, a single note can bend the mood this way and that.
So how can we move more towards telling musical stories? How can we move beyond just playing notes and start creating emotion?
The language of musical stories is called “phrasing” and it uses four main elements. The ingredients of phrasing are pitch (the notes), rhythm, volume, and tone quality (timbre).
We mix and match these elements from one note to the next. We curve each line of music as we see fit so as to create the effect in mind. We get louder here. We separate the notes there. We dial the tone quality, making the sound bright and tinny, then warm and rich.
Playing music this way demands consistency and control. Our hands have to make small adjustments in pressure and speed. This is called “technique.” Technique is our ability to make the sounds we want to make when we want to make them.
The best daily guitar practice leads us toward telling better stories. This means we work to build the skills involved. We strengthen our mechanics and technique through increasing challenge. And we stretch our ability to use volume, rhythm, and tone quality.
As we work these skills over time, we become better able to sculpt our music. We hear more possibilities for beautiful moments in the pieces we play. Our standards rise, and we aspire to bring more intent to our music.
And if ever we stumble or become frustrated in our work, we can always come back to the prime directive: Tell a story. Then we can set to work on the elements involved. As we embrace finite challenges of, say, volume or rhythm, our practice revives and we feel the sense of meaningful work.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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