Storytelling in Music

By: Coby Schoolman

The idea of telling a story when playing first occurred to me during the master class with Misty Tolle of the Stiletto Brass Quintet, in which the trombone player said to me, “every piece is either a pirate jig or a love song.” That turned some gears in my head. I started to realize that playing music was something far more philosophical than just looking at a Mozart concerto, asking what the guy wanted us to do, and then trying to emulate that. Believe me, we all can relate. 

Music is about interpretation and expression at its core. Sometimes it is done through lyrics, other times it is done through certain patterns, figures and key signatures. I am talking about neither of those, though. Here, I am referring to using the little nuances in playing and musicality in order to create this aural picture on the canvas that is your venue, whether it be your bedroom or a chamber hall. 

Horn playing is about emulating the style of any particular composer. You would not want to play Mozart like Mahler, or Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. But, you also have to make each piece your own.  

Take the two excerpts I have referenced, for example. Each of them are prominent in the horn repertoire, and could be played any which way from memory due to said prominence. Even with that in mind, though, there is much more that can be done with them that will undoubtedly make each play-through of the excerpts your own.   

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 has the gorgeous horn I solo in the second movement, nitpicked down to the letter by the composer, and yet playing what is on the page still sounds bland. The love poem that is the solo has to be filled with pure adulation in order to widen the parameters of what can be done with what is written. The story tells itself in context, as the horn intertwines with the background of strings and the melodic lines of the oboe and clarinet. With that in mind, the solo, as an excerpt, should not just be notes on a page, but rather, a narrative of true love and raw emotion.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony’s low horn tutti passage, however, is far more sinister. In context, it has a hammering piano accompanying it as more instruments join the fray during the build of the excerpt. As an excerpt, it still needs to have story. There are two lines of thinking with this excerpt that immediately come to mind; a brash tone that exudes arrogance, and a sound that may not be so in your face, but is still bold, and also has oddly conniving undertones. The versatility of range needed for the proper execution of the excerpt should represent different stages of the journey it takes. For me, I see the lower half as an invasion or a war march, and as the transition into the higher range occurs, it represents battle and conquest. When the upper echelon of the range is victoriously chanted, it is exactly that – victory. 

To sum up my thinking here, horn playing is far more than notes and phrases, but it is more like a story – just like a painting, a dance, or even a book. The music that you play should tell your own story – one that resonates with your audience, and most importantly, yourself.

September 12, 2016