Development Levels

Lack of expressive instructions in classical pieces

Stephen R., California

I’m wondering why there are no expression, dynamic, or tempo indications in the written music, particularly on classical pieces. It seems to me that especially by the Development levels, wouldn’t that be important for students and to be faithful to what the composer intended? I guess I’m really a purist when it comes to classical pieces. I have another copy of the Burgmuller Ballade, for example, with expression markings all over it. The written music language is so vast and I would think we would want to be exposing students to more of the language. I don’t understand why all this is omitted.

Expression, dynamics, and tempo markings are all an essential part of actual score and help guide students with interpretation. The program becomes a hybrid of playing-based and reading-based and I would think this would be discussed at some point because it is important.

Leeanne I., Australia

I am guessing because this is a playing-based program and we are teaching students to be generative, that the intention would be that the students figure out their own interpretation by either copying from the recording or adding their own take on the piece.

Terah W., Kansas

I start at least talking about dynamics, etc. as my students advance, explaining that we are going to start learning Italian in bits and pieces. Perhaps, too, it is all just one more layer of thought processing that one doesn’t want to deal with so much until a piece is completely processed, internalized, and turning into actual music. That’s more when I start paying attention personally.

Robin T., China

I am inclined to let students interpret pieces based on their own feeling about them and present level of experience. They have enough to think about already without adding yet another level of information. Quite contrary to the whole point of SM. In my own compositions, I add very little apart from my own tempo as I want the performers to come up with their own interpretation and would hate to hear one of my pieces played the same way every time I heard it.

Stephen R., California

I’m referring to advanced students in the later or Development levels where I think more of this should be considered. It’s certainly all a part of written music beyond rhythm and notes.

How you delve into nuance, technique, subtlety, color, and expression should be addressed at some point. Most written music guides us in this respect, not that artistic license doesn’t happen. When you encounter “pianissimo” in a piece, you adjust your technique to achieve that. I’m mostly referring to what is needed to play classical music in many respects.

Anna J., Canada

One thought I have is that many times those markings are purely editorial and do not actually originate from the composer. You can find multiple printed editions of a piece with as many different interpretations of dynamics, etc. This is particularly true the older the piece is.

I tell my students this applies to finger markings too, and challenge them to explore their own ideas. When we work with pieces that have such markings written in, I encourage them to try them out, for they often come from an informed position, but they should never feel bound by them if their expressive inclination leads them differently.

Laurie Richards, Nebraska

My understanding is that Neil intentionally left out most of these markings so that the student could interpret it in their own way and make it their own. Many markings in classical pieces were added by editors anyway, unless you are using an Urtext edition.

This is a great discussion topic. In my opinion, markings even by the composer themselves are suggestions, not rules. We’re kind of getting back to ‘obedience to the page’ if we think we are bound to any expressive markings. Music is an art, not a science. If you listen to several professional musicians play the same piece of classical music, you won’t hear it the same way twice.

Those who were in Seattle last year, remember when we looked at Neil’s compositions that we were unfamiliar with? A teacher played one as a ballad, which is how I also ‘heard’ it. Then Neil said he wrote it with a different feel in mind – moving more quickly like a busy traveler going lots of places. But it was interesting to hear it interpreted differently. Is there anything inherently wrong with playing a piece differently than the composer would play it?

Students do need to learn about musical expression and the relevant markings. In a playing-based environment they would learn how to play expressively all along, then later learn the symbols that represent those expressions. I always suggest when they are learning a classical piece in Development levels that they listen to different performers playing it to get ideas of how it could be interpreted and to become familiar with expressive qualities. Then the page is theirs to add their own markings that reflect their own interpretation.

Also with fingering – again they are only suggestions. Although usually good suggestions, students should learn how to figure out the fingerings that work best for them. Neil discusses this topic in one of the Development levels – 10 or 11, I believe.

Robin Keehn, Washington

One thing I like to keep in mind is that written compositions are the composer’s best attempt to translate into writing what was a living, flowing expression. It can never be expressed exactly the way intended, just one’s best interpretation.

Felicity E., Australia

Even when markings are added later as editorial, I view dynamics and ornaments, etc., as flavor in the music. Without knowledge of the right ingredients and how they are used, it’s very difficult to create a dish that comes close to the original or has the sophistication. I agree that technique and articulation define the expertise of the player.

At the higher levels, students are supposed to be working on other pieces as well, right? Maybe these are opportunities to explore the language of music further. These are also primarily classical issues. Other styles will benefit from good technique but if a student is particularly passionate about classical music, learning these things would be more essential. It also depends on their goals. Auditioning for university and not understanding basics might be their undoing.