8 Strategies Musicians Use to Create Their Own Unique Interpretation of a Piece

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From Dont to Yost to the legendary Korguof exercises that Mr. Vamos used to write out by hand every time I “misplaced” them, there are lots of resources out there to help us improve our technique.

But how does one become more “musical”?

As a student, especially in my younger years, I think I pretty much went off of instinct and emotion alone. Just trusting my fingers to do whatever I felt moved to do in the moment.

But that never felt like it could be the whole picture. Because that would suggest that the key to being more musically creative, is to simply feel more emotion. And if that were the case, what the heck was I struggling through music theory for?

Anyhow, all of this came to a head when one day I had to learn a new piece for which there was no recording. And while I could play the notes ok, I discovered that aside from stealing ideas from whatever recordings I could get my hands on, I had never really developed a system for cultivating my own artistic vision for a piece.

So…what do accomplished musicians do when they’re learning a new piece? How do they decide what those lines and dots and squiggles on the page should sound like?

9 guitarists learn Why

Guitarist and Université du Québec à Montréal professor Isabelle Héroux conducted a study which analyzed the practice behaviors of 9 guitarists (with 15-40 years of performing experience), as they each prepared a short new piece for performance (Why, by Andre York).

But no listening!

Aside from having all of their practice sessions videotaped, and being asked to verbalize all of their thoughts and actions as they practiced, there was one big change made to the musicians’ practice.

Specifically, they were not allowed to listen to a recording of the piece. Ensuring that their artistic vision of the piece would be completely their own.

So what did the musicians spend their time doing?

8 strategies

The guitarists utilized dozens of different strategies, but they could all be grouped into eight main categories.

1. Musical structure

All nine guitarists did some kind of analysis of the form, harmony, melody, etc. Although some took it a step further and wrote down musical ideas or notes from their analysis in the score.

2. Musicological references

The guitarists also drew from their past experience with similar pieces, or other works by the same composer.

3. Exploration

“Exploration” was another important strategy utilized by each of the guitarists. Whether it involved trying different fingerings, playing around with timing, rhythm, pacing, tempo, placement of notes, articulation, dynamics, color, or sound, it seems that the process of experimenting with such expressive techniques is an important part of finding one’s own interpretation. As illustrated by one of the participants’ quotes:

“In general, I would say that when I don’t know what I want to do, or if I feel I’m playing mechanically, I’ll start doing some things arbitrarily to rekindle my sense of spontaneity, you know.”

4. Evaluation

The guitarists were also really diligent about maintaining an effective feedback loop. As in, they didn’t just play the same thing over and over without a target to aim for. Instead, they continuously compared their playing with a) what was written in the score, and b) their internal concept of how they thought the piece should sound.

5. Extra-musical support

Many – though not all – of the guitarists also tapped into their own life experience or memories to access different emotions. Some also used cue words or images to access different emotional states, while others created stories or narratives to bring the music to life.

6. Psychological strategies

A number of the guitarists experimented with different ways of focusing – like trying to get their ego out of the way, “letting go,” or “connecting with one’s inner self.”

7. Visualization

A few (not as many as I would have expected) engaged in mental practice and visualization too, as illustrated by this quote: “Since the last practice session, I’ve been working a little bit on the sound in my head, trying to imagine how I wanted the piece to sound eventually.”

8. Incubation

And a couple even took a break from the piece, before coming back to it and preparing it for the recording.

4 takeaways

Guitarists varied quite a bit in the amount of time they spent on the piece as they went from sight-reading to performance (ranging from 2-9 practice sessions, 54-327 minutes, and 2-38 weeks).

And each musician used a different combination of interpretive strategies too.

But there were a few that every single one of the guitarists used. Strategies that would probably be useful to incorporate into any musician’s music-learning process.

Strategy #1: Analysis

Everyone took the time to create an artistic concept of the piece, whether it was by analyzing the piece through a music theory lens, or by tapping into knowledge gained from other repertoire.

Strategy #2: Keep the goal in mind

Everyone appeared to use their musical concept as a guide to help direct their practice. So, practice wasn’t random, and like a sailor navigating by the North Star, they always had a goal to strive for.

Strategy #3: Explore and experiment

Everyone engaged in musical exploration and experimentation too – trying new things to see what might work and what might not. As described by this quote (which, incidentally, is from the participant whose performance I enjoyed the most):

“I play it, and if something comes to me spontaneously or intuitively, well then I will try to verify it [with the score]. Is there something that supports it? If so, well, then there it is, bingo. If not, well, then I’ll continue to look.”

Strategy #4: Link music to life

Many of the musicians also used stories or analogies to help generate ideas and play more expressively. Of course, not all did, so this may not work equally well for everyone.

Honing your “audition ears”

Many of us have had lots of experience auditioning for things. But it’s not often that we have the opportunity to be on the other side of the table or screen. Where we are the ones listening to a series of musicians performing the same exact piece, one after another. Faced with the difficult task of deciding who wins the prize or gets the job.

It’s an interesting experience, as you might find yourself listening in a different way than you normally do. And it can expand the way you listen back to your own recordings too.

So here’s what I thought we could do…

Listen…comment…and a random drawing for Metronome+

Step 1: Listen to the 9 recordings – but just one time only (like an audition)! And if you’re pressed for time, just listen to the first 60 seconds of each video. Be sure to take notes, like an audition, so you don’t forget which one is which.

Step 2: After you’ve listened to all 9, go to the comments below, and share which one you liked the most and why. For example, “#7; I liked the pacing, the way certain notes were placed just so, the subtle dynamic contrasts, and overall flow.”

Step 3: And because random drawings are always fun, everyone who leaves a comment (by end-of-the-day Tuesday) will be entered into a drawing for one of ten fully unlocked copies of the recently redesigned, musician-developed, metronome app – Metronome+ (BTW, the metronome function is free; advanced features like the tuner, recording, setlist, etc. are paid upgrades).

UPDATE (9.12.2018): Congrats to W Tam, George D, Donna S, Christina, Michael W, M Kreipke, Delaine L, Sepp S, Kathy H, and Tatiana B., who were the winners of this week’s random drawing for Metronome+!

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Wondering how your favorite guitarist practiced?

Now that you’ve picked your favorite performance, check out the study (but only AFTER you’ve picked your favorite) to learn more about how that particular guitarist practiced. Or, check out this handy chart that breaks it down in one page.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

64 Responses

  1. #7 was my favorite. Wonderfully flexible rhythm, best use of rubato and tonal variety! Would love to hear this approach a little slower.

  2. I listened in random order. Number 6 (heard seventh) gave me the best musical impression, closely followed by 2 (heard fifth ).

    I liked 6 because the phrasing and dynamics suited the piece – too many others interpreted it as weak and mournful. Whereas 6 gave an impression of stronger emotion.

  3. Number 2 for me without question. It followed naturally as if someone was speaking it and they’d thought about what the actual notes were and what emotional each one connected with.

  4. I was immediately drawn in to #5. I could notice body sensations that reflected a response to the urgency of the question, and felt an aura of mystery in the music, which was exciting. Many of the other interpretations were very beautiful, and it’s a lovely piece, but #5 was compelling, dramatic.

  5. Candidates I would have admitted to next round:
    #2, 5, 7, 9

    Notes:
    Sujet 1:
    -opening rolls weren’t clear
    -nice crescendo in line 4
    -nothing else stuck out

    Sujet 2:
    -Better tempo and intonation
    -Well placed rallentandos
    -overall cleaner

    Sujet 3:
    -tone too “brassy”
    -crescendo not as good as first two candidates’
    -didn’t feel sorrowful. Felt a bit like a funeral you had attend after someone you barely knew died.

    Sujet 4:
    -nice, soft tone
    -echo in mm.3+4 nice
    -m.5 softer than intro, well done. Made it go somewhere
    -Laid back, but feels more like a reflective evening with yourself watching the sunset.

    Sujet 5:
    -I really feel the confusion. The “why?”
    -Well placed tenutos and rubato.
    -Favorite candidate.

    Sujet 6:
    -Too fast. Not sorrowful.
    -Cut this person off before others.

    Sujet 7:
    -Mysterious
    -More experimentation with dynamics
    -Some intonation problems

    Sujet 8:
    -Needs more rubato, too straight in tone, dynamics, and rhythm

    Sujet 9:
    -Rich tone
    -Suspension in line 3 really well done
    -Contemplative

  6. I chose no. 2 because I was taken on an emotional journey. I didn’t notice the fingerings or that it was a guitar — I just felt a thread of an idea from start to finish and I fully trusted the musician to take me somewhere. Even the spaces between sounds had life and direction.

  7. My favorite was #4. The tone was pleasing, not too deep but also not too strident. The 3 bar theme that repeats was played as an echo, and that helped to create the sorrowful mood requested by the composer. Also the notes felt connected in just the right way.

  8. Number 2, 5, and 9 were my top picks. #2 evoked an emotional response from me, it was plaintive, flowed well, kept the line clear and simple for the ear. #5 and #9 had a similar feel to them. If I had to chose a winner however, it would be #9…the voicing was really beautiful, the dynamics were subtle, the rubato felt natural.

    1. #9 was the only one I cared to listen to more than a few minutes. Definitely #9 was most interesting and for me most musical.

  9. Number 4 was the standout performance. This player was the only one to ask the title musically, Why? The rest seemed more concerned about their musical virtuosity instead of the feeling of the piece.

  10. After listening to all of them and narrowing down to 2,5, and 8 I say the winner is 2. I loved the voicing that #2 did in the middle section to bring those out. I think the beginning matched the character of “with sorrow”. I thought 5 sort of missed the boat on that even though they did play it beautifully.

    I did like #8 for it’s tonal variety really changing the tone for the higher register compared to the mid range but it was too even tempered and not emotional enough for me to say it won the grand prize!

  11. #1 had the best pacing, articulation and tone production to convey “with sorrow.” Also followed the mp designation while others didn’t.

  12. Number 2. I liked the phrasing. It felt more restless—like asking a question. There was a different tone quality on the recap, and I liked the ‘slide’ from F to A (perhaps supported by the line between the two notes?). My second favorite was number 7 for the use of dynamics and color.

  13. I chose subject #2 – in fact, it is the only one that I listened to all the way through. Many of the others were too heavy on the chords in the beginning or played at a tempo that was too slow. Subject #2 let the melody float through the piece and it was performed at a comfortable tempo with beautiful dynamics. This musician expressed the emotions that I feel the composer intended.

  14. I connected most with #5. I felt the performer captured the distress of sorrow, as well as the confusion in asking why. The performance felt urgent and dramatic but also fragile at times, and the overall performance was totally engaging.

  15. I liked #4 the best. I preferred the tone of their instrument. It had a very nice sound and was expressive without over doing it. I felt there was a great use of dynamic as well.

  16. My vote would go to #8 because I thought the emotion conveyed was more faithful to the direction “with sorrow.” I also thought the artist was able to create a wider range of dynamics while staying with a sorrowful mood. While I enjoyed #5 also with his/her nice sense of movement and dynamics, I thought there was too much anger, maybe even stridency, in the “Why” and not enough sorrow.

  17. My favorite was #9. His tempo was just right, not too quick. I loved the line direction in each phrase, one note going to the next with a purpose. I think his tone was excellent as well.

  18. I liked #4 best. It conveyed “with sorrow” feeling better than the others. The phrases were long, but there was detailed expression within the phrase, too.

  19. I liked #2 the best: based on the indication “sorrow”, i felt this performance achieved the emotion of sorrow with phrases that matched a human breath (rubato, not strict tempo), used dynamic changes (not written in the music) to exentuate the phrasing, and some vibrato on key notes to bring in emotion (many of the other performances felt too “dry”).

    Two others stood out as musically interesting, but i did not feel they achieved “sorrow”: #5 felt more melancholy; #6 (playing time 1:56 compared to #2 at 2:10) felt angry because of the tempo and dynamics.

  20. I liked no. 7 for the combination of tone quality and variation with a flexible and flowing sense of time. No. 1 was aclose though, as that one might have done the best at conveying sadness.

  21. No. 2 conveyed the emotional content best for me. The phrasing was most akin to speaking or singing, which made it easier to connect with the emotion. No. 1 was also very thoughtful, with good use of micro-pauses to help with the gravity of the content.

  22. I liked #2 the best. It had beautiful long legato lines regardless of technical issues. The colors were varied and rich with a darker, less tinny tone (I wonder how much the recording differences affect tone color, though). There was more rubato throughout, expressive use of vibrato and the recap was played with a different color than in the opening which made it more interesting. It felt like a story with strong mood set and events along the way, asking why? at the end.

  23. All good but #4 seemed more 3-Dimensional with subtle variations in melody, harmony and relationship to each other. And re tempo and phrasing, not as much variety as some, but enough for me to hear different messages.

  24. #2, had the best tone color, did the best job of creating a story with the song — varying tempo, dynamics and tone quality to create different “movements” in the song.

  25. I liked #5 best. The tone was nice. I thought the phrasing was interesting, and overall told a musical story. At the end, I got goosebumps.

  26. My favorite performance was #2. This person brought out a beautiful, deep, rich tone and gave a very expressive performance that captured the character of the piece. I liked the tempo and phrasing and the way he/she contrasted repeated sections. The dynamics and phrasing were carefully considered and executed. Good articulation and bringing out the melodic line.

  27. I felt most with number 8. The question I heard was not just “Why?” but “How could this have happened?” At the beginning, the voice was tentative and hurting, and then gradually found it’s way to further clarify, and demand an answer. In the end, the question remained…

  28. I liked #2 the best. It seemed to me the most personal interpretation. I’m not good at explaining why (Pun intended) precisely, but it just seemed the most expressive to me. I was interested to learn that this person actually created a narrative story to go along with the piece to generate the expressive qualities.
    Really interested to find out which one Noa liked the best!

    1. Ha – I made sure to avoid explicitly revealing my favorite! It was also interesting to listen to the recordings a second time, as my choices ended up changing a bit. What I love, is that people have different favorites. It’s been interesting to hear why – and listen back again to the recordings, paying attention to these different things, and observing if that starts affecting my preferences yet again.

  29. #3 was my favorite. I went back and listened to a few of them again. I liked 7 at first, but then on a second listen, it was not as effective for me. #1 and #9 were also ones I listened to again. 1 had a nice sound, but did not seem to have as much depth in interpretation has #3. #3 was the right balance of emotion and objectivity to the score. It sounds the most “cerebrally heartfelt” rather than just raw emotion.

    This was a fun exercise.

  30. I was close between 7 and 9. I thought 7 made the most out of the phrasing and set the best pacing for this piece. Also great rubato and I liked that they left each phrase feeing like it could go somewhere, but Why?

    I think I’ll give the win to 9. It started off a little slow but the tone was excellent. This one was the most sensitive out of all and I wanted to hear more as the song progressed. This is closest to the interpretation that I wish I could do if I learned this piece. Kudos!

  31. Number 2 was, for me, the one that drew me in the most. I liked the way the performer conceived of the piece. There were nuances that shaped each phrase. The piece, itself, seemed to breath. The tempo was good. Some of the others were too slow and lost the energy of the melodic
    line. Good combination of technical proficiency and ease, with musicality.

  32. #2 is the only one that kept me listening attentively all the way through, even after I’d narrowed it down to 3 selections.. Nice range of tempi and dynamics within the piece, that explored various aspects of the experience of sorrow, including touching on hope. It kept moving without being too fast or formulaic, and the articulation of the inner voices supported the melody while maintaining their own integrity.

  33. I liked #7 the most. It adds some nice dynamic contrast. It’s softer and further away. I like the variety in tempo too.

  34. I was immediately aware of the beautiful tone and warm sound of #4. The minute it started I noted a difference in my response to the music. I thought this recording captured the simplicity and beauty of the selection. It will be fun to listen to them again and see if my thoughts change.

  35. I was torn between #2 and #7, because I thought the musical story they were telling was really clear and drew me in immediately. I liked the varied textures of the different sections of #2, but in the end I’ll go with #7 because I thought the opening asked a question and began to answer it with interesting tempo variations and beautiful tone.

  36. This was a difficult assignment and I narrowed it down to three finalists. These three were #4, 7, and 9. Each of these best captured the mood of the piece which was “with sorrow”. Number 7 and 9 I thought played the most cleanly, clearly, and evenly and would give them the highest technical marks. While number 4 did not play as technically cleanly as 7 and 9 I am still going to select that player. The reason for that is that through the use of dynamics and modulating softly and more strongly and also use of space and silence, thismplauer conveyed the mood and I felt moved hearing it. Number 1 gets honourable mention though in terms of expression.

    Number 4 ultimately gets the nod from me although all are good players

  37. I’m a #9 person and I wrote down ‘clarity’ next to this interpretation. I also liked #5 (fluid, smooth) and #2 (dynamics). They are all excellent musicians but I could listen to #9 many times. But if we were patient enough to listen to each a number of times I wonder if our first choice would hold…

  38. #1 and #2 were my favorites. I don’t think anyone came close to capturing the initial tone and mood of the opening of #1, but #2 had such a story it was gripping. #1 for color and picture capture, #2 for narrative. #2 is also the one that I fear might find themselves on the way out at a competition, because it wasn’t safe and they took risks.

  39. This is a fun exercise, thanks Noa!

    I like #7 the most – for I feel the musician is trying to tell a frustrating story.

  40. Another #7 fan here, for his/her sensitive dynamic shadings, along with an expressive rubato that shaped each phrase and created an over-the-barline momentum that held the piece together . . . unlike many other interpreters, who, despite their plaintive tone quality, turned this simple piece into a “too spacious” if not tedious, fragmented dirge, laden — even stalled — with unwritten fermati.

  41. I like #1 because the performer’s phrasing seems to the best in capturing the feelings of regret, sorrow and wistfulness.

  42. My choice is #5. I think this guitarist found the sweet spot tempo-wise. Some of the others I felt were, relatively, a little contrived in the interpretation, more obvious attempts to telegraph ‘sadness’ through tone and rubato. It looks like tempo was my deciding factor. But I wonder, since I listened to #5 first, whether I developed a confirmation bias as I went through the others in random order. I’d say #5 went against the grain of ‘sadness’, brightening the tone and leaving ‘sadness’ to the composition itself.

    I’d be confident in my selection of #5 if it was up to me. But after that, I wouldn’t trust myself to rank the whole list. I found myself listening more to the structure of the piece as I went through all nine. With the first few, I was listening more to the performance.

  43. I liked #2. The dynamic range was larger than the others, so more emotion could be communicated. It appealed to my heart. It flowed well. Wasn’t too fast or slow. It did sound much like a conversation with much feeling.

  44. I am not a guitar major, I know nothing about guitar. However, #6 was my favorite because it had a little more improvisation when it came to following the melody. The tempo was a little different as well. It kind of created its own tempo. This recording was more of a stand out from the other ones.

  45. Personally, I really enjoyed number 2. This is because it met “sorrowful”, but it also was musically and stylistically enticing. The notes/ chords that added flare and color were emphasized just enough without them sticking out of the overall tone of the piece. Overall, the tone and style of number 2 was, in my opinion, more enriching to listen to.

  46. I like Guitarist 2 the best. They demonstrated an excellent job of not only playing correct notes, but also doing an excellent job shaping the music to bring it to life.

  47. #2, though the latter half of 8 was quite nice.
    I come a performance environment where criticism, comments, and adjudication are the only context in which we play. So, I don’t feel like adding any critiques: it was clear that all performers were seeking to communicate some form of sorrow and pose some kind of question.

    The funny thing is, I suspect that if I were to listen to this a week from now I might find #4 more communicative of that mood being striven for.

  48. I really liked #7 because of the intensity and phrasing. Sorrow can be very strong. Then #4 and #6 are runners up. Thanks!

  49. I liked No. 9 the best, followed by No. 4 and No. 7. Those were the only ones I could bear/have the patience to listen all the way through. For all those I aborted, the mechanical sound of the strings was distracting and ultimately ruined any feeling of the piece (but I am not a guitarist—perhaps, as with shakuhachi, I should learn to appreciate these sounds?). I felt the song needed to be played tenderly; and those metallic sounds were just not consistent. Also, 9, 7. 4, seemed to have more dynamics in terms of volume and speed. Thank you!

  50. #6 was the winner for me. I really liked how they phrased each line. The tempo was really nice. I really felt the emotion.

  51. Though a tough call, I may have to go with #9 as my preference. Subtle, yet effective. Sorrowful, indeed, yet it comes to life a bit as we go. LOVE the C# in the second page A9 chord — bold move, but still tasteful. I only wish this rendition had the same sense of the big picture as #7.

    I liked how #7 felt like a complete, cohesive statement. One large phrase, comprised of a few smaller phrases, each comprised of smaller phrases. Like a well-crafted essay making a single point, constructed using cohesive paragraphs, which are crafted from meaningful sentences. #2 had some of this sense and was very nice, too.

  52. The standout performance for me is #2. This guitarist approached the piece like a singer. The phrasing was exquisite with perfectly placed pauses at the ends of phrases to elicit an emotional response. He/She is telling the story convincingly and making me believe it.

  53. My favorite is #4. I loved the mellow sound of the guitar and how the melody sang above the accompaniment notes, more so than the other players. The phrasing was superb, conveying deep thoughts of perhaps a mourner reflecting over lovely times past, not necessarily from death, but perhaps over a lost love. Very well done.

  54. My preference was for Guitarist #1. I was aurally engaged because each iteration of a chord was slightly different and unique, I felt like the music called for the slower tempo at which he took it, he really brought out the low harmony in contrast to the melody, and his tone was more mellow than the others.

  55. Of all, the only one that captured the obvious direction of the composer beyond the notes on the page was #8 – that performer captured the emotion for me. It was not by far the best recording but was the one that best communicated “with sorrow”. For future comparisons, you should have all the performers in the same room, with the same guitar and mics for an accurate comparison.

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