The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Zara’s Interpretation Tricks


When practicing music, one of your most important jobs is crafting an interpretation.

Sounds very nice, but how do you go about it?  A lot of the time, an interpretation develops organically, as a musician studies a work of music, experiments with different ways of playing it, thinks about how she would like it to sound, and makes decisions accordingly.

Sometimes, though, that organic process needs to be kick-started.  Many people have noted that learning about other art forms can enhance your musical interpretation (for example, see Paula Robison’s interpretive guide to Frank Martin’s BalladeWhile I do recommend that approach, it requires that you leave your instrument and head to the library, museum or internet.

I think that it’s important to have a repertoire of ways to get the creative juices flowing in the practice room.  Here are a few tricks that I’ve developed and learned over the years:

1. Play as if you’re a movie soundtrack. Even the most abstract or dull music can sound deeply meaningful when it’s in an emotionally packed movie.  Picture yourself as Helena Bonham Carter in A Room with a View*, tempestuously playing the piano, and see what comes up musically. 

2. Imagine it as a conversation. This is a trick from Paula Robison, and it works best if you can practice with a friend.  You play the first phrase, he plays the next, then you play, then he plays…etc.  It can instantly transform a narrative into a dialogue (and it’s fun too).  Then, when you are back on your own, just imagine that you are two people having that same conversation.

3. WWID? What would I do? If you are stuck on something in a piece that seems weird—like you really don’t know what the composer was thinking when she changed the rhythm of this one passage—change it to what you would have done if you were the composer.  Then compare the two versions—yours and the composer’s—and see if that reveals anything about the composer’s intentions.

4. Start with your favorite part of the music, and work your way forwards and backwards from there.  What’s the best way to build up to your favorite part?  What’s the best way to recover from it?**

5. What is the craziest or silliest way you can play it? Play the phrase at the wrong tempo, or change tempo half way through.  Try it with extreme dynamic shifts.  Try to be as schmaltzy as possible, then try to be as deadpan as possible.  You will often find a grain of truth in the crazy versions, which can then become the basis of your “real” interpretation. 

6. Free association. Just asking yourself “What does this remind me of?” is often enough to engage your imagination.

7. What’s the story? This is a slightly more elaborate version of free association.  Let free association set the scene, and then create a narrative to go with the music.

8. Pretend you’re a musician you admire. How would your teacher play this?  James Galway?  Richard Goode?  Jon Bon Jovi?

9.  That Old Song and Dance. Even if you can’t do it very well, singing or dancing a phrase is sure to help you get an idea of how you really want it to sound.

10. If all else fails, just keep playing it until you get an idea.

The common theme running here is engaging the imagination. You can use any of the above techniques as gateways to your own musical creativity.

*Or Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues, or what’s his name in Tout les Matins du Monde, or Wilhelmenia Fernandez in Diva…! It doesn’t even have to be a movie about music. Leave a comment below with a movie that has inspired your playing.

**I learned this “trick” from coach Nancy Garniez.  She has even more interpretation ideas up her sleeve.  Check them out here.

Photo credit:  Hamed Saber