Gestures in Music

Everyone has their own way of approaching a new piece of music. Most often we sightread through the first time,  just to get the “lay of the land.” Then, if it’s a piece we’re going to dig into, we go back and start the real work.

For young students (depending on their skill level, they may have skipped the sightreading step all together) this means practicing in small sections slowly, hands separately, section by section, and finally adding the crowning touch… the dynamics.

For advanced pianists this time for “getting down to business” may include working out fancy fingerings, analyzing chord progressions, slow practice for a beautiful tone, and untangling inner voices. Some add another layer of mental work by memorizing a piece as they learn it. These are all important steps and no stone should be left unturned when preparing a piece for performance.

However, for the purposes of this project, I’m determined to cut to the chase. This means learning pieces quickly and getting them up to speed before going back and polishing up all the details. Sort of like taking a chainsaw to a big piece of stone to reveal the music rather than building it up bit by bit. In other words, I’m trying not to be too precious about everything.

Part of my inspiration for approaching music this way came from my daughter’s art class where she learned “gesture drawing.”  She’d come home with her huge drawing pad filled with pages and pages of what looked like scribbles. But each one was a figure – twisting, twirling and turning. One of her favorite class exercises was following other classmates around the room, drawing them in motion.

We use gestures in piano when we find the sweep of the phrase, choreograph leaps and arpeggios and gauge our arm weight for sudden dynamic and articulation changes. I think there is a feeling of spontaneity that comes when we learn a piece quickly this way, without stopping to read every single note the first time through. Is it possible that this feeling is communicated to the audience in a slightly different way than when we perform a piece we’ve built from the ground up note by note and measure by measure?

The Brahms Intermezzo Op 119 No 3 is a piece I’ve always loved but never “worked on.” This week I was determined to get it in shape to post quickly. It is still a work in progress and I’m still whittling away to get to the finished product but now instead of a chainsaw, hopefully I’ll be using a chisel.


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