Shaping your melody

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I heard a curious thing a while back. I heard a young person play two pieces of music. The first one was an extremely technical classical piece. It is the kind of piece that only the top classical music students would tackle. I know it well but I would not touch it with a ten foot pole. And yet she played it brilliantly (on a horrible piano at that). It was expressive and beautiful as well as technical.

Then she played another piece: a hymn arrangement. It was a technical arrangement too but light years easier than the first piece. She played it well in some ways. Technically, it was flawless. And yet, it was empty. The expressiveness was absent. The beauty was non-existent.

I know I talk about the intangible qualities of music a lot here. Technique is just the first step but intangible quality is what makes music and this particular example highlighted that. For example, if I was a betting man, I would bet that pianist did not know the hymn before she started working on it. If she did, she would have played it differently. I would actually suspect that she probably is not too familiar with hymns at all. I am not saying that to judge. I am just saying that her lack of familiarity with the genre intangibly affects her ability to play the genre. The authenticity is missing and all the intangibles that go with it.

That being said, it is important to discuss intangible problems in a tangible way and in her case, I think that is very possible to do. It all starts with the melody. If you want people to believe in your music, the melody is the place to focus first.

That is an easy thing to say but not easy to do. If don’t believe me, give a student a single note melody line and tell them to play it and make something of it. Most of the time, they are going to really struggle. They can play a lot of notes well but have no idea how to deal with a naked melody. Back in high school, I remember fearing single note melody lines that sometimes appear in classical music. I had no idea what to do with them.

Someone who really knows music recently told me something that made me stop and think. He challenged me to name one famous musician who is not a master of interpreting melodies. For example, listen to some old recordings of Sinatra and note what he did to melodies. You might not like Barbra Streisand’s politics but you can’t deny that she knows how to interpret a melody. Indeed, every great performer is a master of melody.

In general, the term we use for this is called phrasing. Phrasing is an art form that goes way beyond the technical definition of grouping notes together. I am referring to moving away from just playing a line of notes correctly to making a line of real music. We do that with a lot of nuance such as dynamics, rhythmic ideas, and articulation.

You see, regardless of how well you can beat up a piano with your technique, you aren’t a musician until you can make music with a single note melody line. And then once you can do that, you have to be able to insert that melodic line into all the other things going on without losing any of the nuance.

The reason the student could not play the hymn arrangement very well came down to the fact that her melody lines were just notes without any of the nuance. The performance was technically good but mechanical.

Now, how do you fix that? First of all, you listen. Listen to masters of melody and note what they do. Don’t steal all their specific ideas but note what tools they take advantage of to get that nuance into their music. Listen to various recordings of the song you are trying to learn too. You have to know the song well to have any hope of being authentic in your nuance.

Second, change your mindset when you practice. Yes, getting all the technical things right is important but you have to put a strong emphasis on interpreting the melody too. Consciously think about it. That is where real music happens.

There is a third thing too. You have to believe in the music. If you can’t believe in it, don’t play it. If you can’t emotionally engage with it, find something else to play. Everyone will notice if your heart is not in it. I can’t really tangibly explain why that is true but they will.