Making up stories has been something that I have always used to study. When I was in high school, memorizing was a very hard task for me and I often ended up feeling very overwhelmed and unmotivated, as I couldn't find a way to connect all the concepts in my mind in a way they made sense. Soon, I realized that I had to do something about that and find a way to make it easier for myself.
As I love reading (and even more if it is fantasy books), I tried making up stories related to the content I had to learn: a storyline with characters who did certain actions related to what I had to learn. To my surprise, I could retain much more content by following a story in my mind because I imagined images which I could easily remember.
When I started teaching piano, I related to a lot of my students who felt frustrated when trying to memorize or understand a piece. Some other students had the problem that when they already knew all the notes of the piece they were working on, they were stuck and didn’t know what to do after that. At this moment, I realized that these students had a lot of lack of imagination, or they didn’t know how to boost it.
Therefore, I tried making up stories or visual elements with them so they could learn the pieces from a different perspective, which was the perspective I already tried out with myself. After using it for some years, I found out that this method had multiple benefits which I will explain further.
Making up visual timelines to learn dynamics
Timelines are a great tool to make plans. Sometimes, it is very hard for students to make a plan with dynamics and they tend to be very “flat” in sound, playing around mf most of the time. Telling them “Here you should play more forte” or “This diminuendo leads to a pianissimo” is ordering them to do something (which is written in the sheet music and “should” be done), but I feel that this way we are zooming in a lot and going to the detail, instead of making a plan which boosts their imagination and allows them to have a “landscape view” of the story they want to transmit with dynamics.
This is a picture I took from the sheet music of one of my students, who is working on a piano arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon because she loves this piece. She played it very beautifully but without any kind of plan with dynamics. Then, we drew an abstract timeline based on a curve which goes up when it is more forte and down when it is more piano.
The picture above is a clearer image of the drawing in the student’s sheet music.
After making this timeline together, she played the piece again and the results were surprising:
She had a clearer idea of the plan she wanted, as she knew that there were two very clear climax moments in the piece and she had a crescendo to prepare these climaxes.
For the first time, she played the beginning of the piece in a piano dynamic, as she saw in the timeline that she needed to have space for the two forte and, by starting more piano, she could plan this better.
She was much more engaged and, after playing the piece, she admitted she enjoyed it much more.
This experience was very enriching and fun at the same time. We drew this timeline on my student’s sheet music (shown above) and, suddenly, she said: “Ana, this dynamic plan actually looks like a frog!” and she was right! So now we have a pet in the class, which is called “Froggy”.
Making up stories to work on multiple musical and technical parameters: articulation, dynamics, tempo, phrasing, etc.
I have observed that making up stories or timelines has benefits which can stimulate more than one musical/technical parameter at the same time. By inventing characters in a story, we are deciding how we are going to perform different parameters. On the other hand, by deciding the actions these characters are going to perform in the story, we are making a formal or structural plan of the piece.
“Learning in the context of story comes naturally, since the human brain is wired to resonate with narratives.” (Green and Brock, 2000)
“Learners recall facts more accurately and are prompted to think more deeply when those facts are presented in a story, as opposed to presented in a list.” (Kapp, 2012)
Down below I will explain some examples.
Inventing characters in a story to define different parameters at the same time
Examples with animals:
Elephant: It is big, heavy, walks slowly and stomps. This evokes very specific characteristics in the sound and technique the student will use:
Heavy: use of more physical weight, forte, powerful/majestic.
Walks slowly: lento/adagio/andante, not light.
Stomps: marcato, forte.
Blackbird: It is small, light, quiet, fast, agile, etc.
Small: piano, leggiero.
Light: piano, leggiero, use of less weight from the arms and light and agile.
Fast: fast tempo, leggiero.
Agile: fast tempo, leggiero, not heavy, avoiding extra or unnecessary movements with the body so it can really be agile.
Swan: It is majestic, moves elegantly, slow and smooth movements.
Majestic: full and present sound.
Moves elegantly: andante/moderato, legato, expressive. This concept can also help to phrase: with the concept of “elegant” students tend to automatically take more care of the phrasing (opposite to the typical accentuation at the end of every phrase which is so common in students when they are beginners). Also, when an articulation of two notes slurs appear, they shape it better due to this “elegance” mindset.
Examples with princes/princesses stories:
Princess: happy, in love with the prince, delicate.
In love with the prince: appassionato.
Delicate: smoothly playing, not pushing or using too much weight. More playing from the fingers than with all the weight of the arms or trunk/core.
Prince: brave, in love with the princess.
Brave: extrovert, power in sound (using more weight from the arms).
In love with the princess: appassionato.
Wizard/witch: mysterious, tenebrous, warning that something bad is going to happen.
Mysterious: articulated, keeping tension by not playing very loud.
Tenebrous: piano/pianissimo, articulated, accumulating tension by keeping the piano dynamic. Very useful when the students have problems building up a long term crescendo and they grow too fast.
Warning that something bad is going to happen: same idea as above.
Castle trumpeters: alert, call your attention.
Alert, call your attention: accent, forte/fortissimo, present sound, subito (surprising).
Elf: playful, naughty, cheerful, small.
Playful: staccato, exaggerating articulations.
Naughty: staccato, fast, contrasts in dynamics.
These are some examples of characters that can be chosen as part of a story and that I use when I make stories with my students. What I find more interesting is to find a point in common with the student’s tastes as a tool to engage him/her. For example, I have a student who is a Harry Potter lover, so in this case we chose characters from these books, which had characteristics that fitted with the character we wanted for certain fragments of the piece.
All these characteristics help the students to do a certain articulation, volume, speed, phrasing, etc. much more naturally than when they think about physical or technical concepts. Of course, this method applies more to beginners.
The next step comes when these characters develop certain actions in a storyline. It is very fun to do this together with the students. Normally, I play the different sections of the piece myself and I ask them “What does this part evoke to you?”. I give them different possibilities of characters and then they have to choose. And they are always right with the option they think that fits better with the character.
For example, if we are making a story with a princess in a castle and I am playing a passage of a transition which accumulates tension until the theme comes back again, I play very articulated and mysterious, keeping the soft dynamic as much as possible to accumulate tension and then grow. Then, when the student has to choose a character, they choose the witch, which is the character which better represents this mysterious mindset. After this, it is their turn to play, and it is amazing how this method can change their interpretation so effectively just by using their imagination.
After doing this with a lot of students, I have found out that it helps them to characterize the themes, to be more aware of the articulations, dynamics, tempo and phasing they choose and why, and it even helps them to memorize the pieces because it is easier for them to remember a story than to remember a lot of notes out of a context. But the biggest benefit I found out with this method is that students are much more engaged and motivated to find new stories in every piece they play.
Green, M. C. and Brock, T. C. (2000), “The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79:5, pp. 701-21.
Kapp, K. (2012), The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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