Who's in the Room?
Hands up if you sometimes struggle to get your average teenage pupil to really "get" a piece they are playing? Even those who practise well and are technically sound often seem to lack a certain something in their playing. I always feel that when pupils "forget to put in" the musical details in their playing, that somehow we have missed the point. If they really understand the music, if it really means something in their minds and hearts, then surely these details would be needed, rather than just added on as an afterthought?
I have often found narrative useful in helping pupils of all ages to connect with what is happening in their music. A variant of this came about when I was teaching the Cimarosa Sonata on the current ABRSM grade 6 syllabus - a very dainty, elegant classical piece with little obvious drama. With no helpful title and quite under-stated musical features, there was no immediately obvious way to draw the character out of this piece. I devised the activity "Who's in the Room?" (accompanying worksheet below) to help pupils conceptualise the music in a more subtle way, and really scrutinise the music for where new "characters"enter.
During the first eight bars, for example, we might be introduced to a young girl at a her first dance - very elegant, but slightly shy and unsure of herself. In bar 9, perhaps we are introduced to a young gentleman who introduces himself and takes her for a turn around the dancefloor. We can hear the sense of (nervously-restrained) fun in the music. In the development section, there is a darker mood - a slight sense of danger. Perhaps a very confident man enters the scene and whisks her off, but she is slightly uncomfortable. She thinks it's coming to an end, but wait - no - he takes her around the floor once again. In the recapitulation there is an undeniable warmth. Perhaps an older, fatherly figure has arrived. The mood is more comfortable and the fun feels safe now, as though our heroine can relax and enjoy the dance without anxiety.
Of course, Cimarosa did not have such a story in his mind when he composed this (if, indeed, he did - this is not 100% certain). But when trying to find a "way in" for young people for whom such music is not a familiar part of their youth culture, I have found this a really useful activity to help bring their playing to life.