Emotion in Music

I once had a 7 year-old student who had been taking piano lessons for a few months.  One day at her lesson we were going over her theory book assignment she had done in pen.  When I showed her a few corrections, she realized couldn’t erase her errors.  In a gentle, whispered tone I suggested she always use pencil in piano, even when she gets older, so that she can always erase as needed.  I even showed her my Beethoven sonata book, and the piece I was working on, where I used pencil.

Somehow in this conversation she wanted to hear the Beethoven sonata I was working on.  So I told her a little about Beethoven and how he went deaf later in life, and this sonata was composed when he was deaf.  I told her the sonata had two movements, like two mini-pieces, that go together.  I said I think the first movement sounds like his anger over being deaf.  I played a little bit of it, and she agreed.

I asked her, “If this were a dog, what kind of dog would it be?”

She responded with a harsh tone to her words and a bark.

Then I played the second movement, and I said, “I think in this movement he’s at peace with being deaf.  It’s like he’s saying it’s o.k.”

As I played the gentle, delicate melody, her head tilted one way as her eyes were drawn to my hands, and she listened intently.  Seeing how mesmerized she was by the music I kept playing until it came to a natural stopping place.

She said, “That was so pretty.”

I responded, “Isn’t it just beautiful?  Now, what kind of dog is this movement?”

She gave the best imitation of a floppy puppy face, completely relaxed and at ease.

She just loved the second movement and wanted to play it someday.

I said, “Well, I’ll show you what notes you can play, and we’ll improvise on it right now.”

I gave her three keys she could play that would fit with the music, and we improvised in the style and key of the piece.  As we went along, I realized I could probably start playing the sonata movement itself with her improvising.  So I let the Beethoven melody intertwine with her improvisation.  The music that had moved her earlier, she now was participating in creating.

After we finished she took the three keys I had given her:  e, b, e, and said the following after each key:  (e) “I“, (b), “Am“, (e), “Deaf“.  Then she started creating something new all by herself.  She switched one of the notes and the pattern became minor.  I was about to interrupt her doodling on the piano, but I saw her focus in what she was doing, so I sat back and let it unfold.  After a few minutes she was done creating.

She looked at me and said, “Was that sad?”

I responded, “What do you think?”

She replied, “It’s sad.”

It’s wonderful to see a young pianist, just starting out, begin to understand and experience emotion in music.  It’s the emotion that reaches out and touches us and moves us.  It’s why we still hear Beethoven’s music today and understand what it means to be alive and a human being.

To hear a recording of the Beethoven sonata mentioned above, click here.

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