It's amazing how a single, simple concept prompted by imagery can change the way I approach a phrase or an entire piece.
Beautiful Like a Chandelier
A few weeks ago, I began to launch into Chopin's Étude Op. 25, No. 1 during my lesson. The first melody note sounded, and before I'd even gotten to the next one, my teacher Mr. LaRatta stopped me. "Have you ever seen those crystal chandeliers? Yes? Good. Have you ever run your fingers across one and noticed how it just tinkles beautifully?"
He made a motion with his hands, mimicking the cascading, seamless sound of crystals delicately hitting one another in rapid succession. I could hear it in my head. "That's how every single note needs to come out, clear as crystal," he continued, referring to those in-between-the-melody rapid arpeggios that give the Étude its "Aeolian Harp" nickname.
Mr. LaRatta must have seen the dawning realization on my face. "You know what I mean?" "Yes!" I replied excitedly. "Okay. Now, DO IT!!" And he glared at me from over the top of his glasses.
I began again. "Yes, that was it, much better! You got it?" "Yes!" "Okay. Now, always do it this way, for the rest of your life!" He glared at me again, then laughed, a twinkle in his eye. "You got it, kiddo!"
Have I mentioned how lucky I am to be Mr. LaRatta's student?
Thinking in Circles
Similarly, imagery helped me understand Chopin's Étude Op. 25, No. 2. It's a deceptively simple concert etude that evokes the sight of a butterfly flitting amongst blossoms. When I first started learning it, I was tripped up by the quarter note triplet pattern in the left hand topped by eighth note triplets in the right hand. Technically it was fine, but it didn't sound or feel right.
During one lesson, Mr. LaRatta stopped me after I'd played three bars. He asked me to picture a big gear, moving counterclockwise at a moderate speed. Next to it was a smaller gear, turning clockwise at a faster speed. Two different gears, turning in different directions and at different speeds - and yet they worked smoothly together, the grooves fitting perfectly with each rotation. What a difference this gave me for the piece overall!
Moreover, the gear imagery helped me understand how I should phrase the left and right hand parts. Gears have a momentum; they have a flow to their movement. So why would I ever accent beat 1 on the left hand? That'd be one wonky gear! I found that accenting beat 2, gently, gave the left hand the contour and motion it needed.
And the right hand? Mr. LaRatta invoked the gear imagery once again. I pictured the smaller gear rotating clockwise, at a good clip. "The right hand moves in circles, you see," he explained, "each circle builds off the other every phrase; it starts smaller, then swells as it comes around, and begins again." And, suddenly, I got it. By leading up gently to the second triplet, I could feel the gear turning, and the melody flowed more naturally.
Smaller turns, bigger turns. Big wheel, little wheel, opposite motions; the smaller one turning faster. Suddenly the piece was no longer a series of notes to be contended with. It had a shape, little highs and lows, little ebbs and flows. And finally, that beautiful, fluttery sound began to take shape.