More Than Just the Notes

by Laurel Ann Maurer

Many years ago, I attended a master class given by my teacher, Julius Baker. A college-age student was performing a very difficult and powerful work called Chant de Linos by Jolivet. She could play all the notes in good rhythm with a decent sound, but after a few minutes, it was obvious that she felt nothing about the piece. Her performance was mechanical and uninteresting. Mr. Baker eventually stopped her and said, “You are dealing with an art form that deals with feelings.” I have always remembered those words, and I hope that they made an impression on her.

What is music about and why do people work hard to play beautifully? These may seem like obvious questions, but they are questions worth exploring. The history of great music and great performers leads us to the conclusion that music is a great art form that is capable of expressing all types of emotion.

The Purpose of Art

Art is life. The human condition in every aspect is channeled through some people who are able to give it form. We marvel at the beauty and sensuality of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, we delight at the charm and clarity of an early Mozart work, we are amused at the sardonic wit of a Prokofiev Symphony, and we are deeply moved by the profundity of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End Of Time — written while Messiaen was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.

Art provides humanity with the opportunity to experience its emotions and to relate to the rest of humanity. People attend concerts to experience the beauty and the power of music and all that goes into the music — not just the notes. As an audience member, our job is to keep an open mind so that we can allow the music to affect us, and so that we can experience the emotional content of the music. This deep artistic experience can enhance our lives! This does not take an education in musical analysis, it only takes an open mind and a receptive heart. Music is written for people, not scholars. When the performer can understand the feelings of a piece and convey these feelings and the audience is receptive, the relationship between composer, performer and listener is complete and satisfying.

The ability to convey the emotional content of music is the responsibility of the performer. It is an essential part of the work that we do. It is what makes the music come alive. Performances that are emotionally weak will create audiences that lose interest in the performer, the music or even in attending future concerts. A performer must explore his or her own emotions in order to understand and project the emotions in music. This takes effort. How can teachers encourage this type of development in their students’ musical education? And how can parents support this process?

For Teachers

Engage the student in discussions concerning the music. Allow the student to express the feelings of the piece, or his or her feelings about the piece. Have the student make up a story about the piece. You will be surprised at the imaginations of your students.

If the student seems reticent, show him or her by example. Express how you feel about the piece. Demonstrate how you can project your interpretation. Allow the student to try out his or her idea — even if you think it is “off.” The student will probably come to the same conclusion, but the process of exploration allows the student to develop the ability to relate to the music. If an interpretation is misguided, gently (and without judgment) explain why. It is essential in this process that students feel safe to express themselves. Make sure that the student has the necessary skills to execute his or her interpretation.

For Parents

Be involved in your child’s musical education in a positive and loving way. Ask your child about the music he or she is working on. Let your child know that you enjoy hearing him or her play. Talk to your child about your perceptions of the music and converse about his or hers. Listen to your child and honor his or her feelings and interpretations. Provide your child with excellent musical examples. Listen to music together. Listen to your child’s practice session. Be encouraging. Attend concerts with your child. Show your child that his or her musical development is part of your family’s life.


It has been scientifically proven that music study at an early age will develop a person’s intelligence. Studies show more advanced brain development with music students as opposed to non-music students. It is no coincidence that most doctors studied music. In New York, there is actually a doctors’ orchestra. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has an excellent orchestra that has made recordings.

The Suzuki Method also maintains that music study will create a more sensitive human being. It is my interpretation of this claim that they mean the study of musical content. When the student can feel and relate to the emotions of music, we hope that he or she will transfer this attribute to the rest of humanity.