Can you find the Music Hiding in the Notes? Darlene Irwin     April 24, 2014

"Keepsake Mill" from A Child's Garden of Verses by Chee-Hwa Tan.
Poem by Robert Louis Stevenson (published in 1885).
Painting by John Constable

I have told my students many times that lots of people can play the notes but it's much harder to play the music BEHIND the notes. And that's the question that I always ask them.....can you find the MUSIC hiding in the notes?

To explain, I want to tell the story of one of my students....I'll call her Kate. She is 10 years old and in Grade 2 piano. Last month, we were working on a piece called The Keepsake Mill from A Child's Garden of Verses by Chee-Hwa Tan. She was getting the notes, the counting, the fingering....all of the basic elements were there. But the music was missing! So I asked her the same question.....How can you find the music hiding in the notes?

I played it for her 2 ways. First, I played it with the correct notes and timing, but no feeling. Then I played it musically. "I can hear the difference", she said, "But I don't think I can do that!"

"Yes, you can", I said, "but first I have to share some musical secrets with you". I started asking her a few questions and each time, she would try it again:

  • Do you know what a phrase is? It's a musical sentence. Can you identify and play the phrases alone in the right hand? Can you think of words for the phrases? Can you sing the words as you play?
  • Can you breathe after each sentence? Use your arms. Feel as if you are taking a breath with your arms.
  • The left hand is in broken chords.....can you see that? Play the accompaniment alone. Now can you play the left hand in solid chords? Can you name the chords? Can you hear the different colours or harmonies?
  • Can you play the melody alone in the right hand, phrase by phrase?
  • Project the melody. I want beautiful, round, fat notes on top. Send those notes across the room. Ping the notes so that they travel out the window and across the road.
  • Stroke those notes gently like you would stroke a little cat.
  • Kate's idea was to gently roll a basketball over the she was thinking!
  • Now....what is balance? Basically it means that you play the right hand phrases louder than the left hand accompaniment. The right hand is the star and the left hand is the orchestra.
  • First try to shadow the right hand projected melody and only pretend to play the accompaniment? Touch the notes in the left hand but don't depress the keys.
  • Now try playing the accompaniment in the left hand as written along with the projected melody on top.
  • Can you shape the melody (like a rainbow over the water) while projecting the melody over the accompaniment? (I know, I ask for a lot!)

I would play it for her so she could hear the music. Then she would try again. It took several tries and then she said excitedly....."I hear it!! I can hear the difference! I've found the MUSIC!" "That's after just a few minutes of trying". I said. "Imagine how much better it will be after you practice it that way that all week".

She came back for her next lesson and she was very proud of herself. The piece had improved dramatically!

"Now, let's take it a step farther." I said. "Here are some more ideas for finding the music hiding in the notes":

  • What is a Keepsake Mill? Can we find a picture of the keepsake mill?
  • What was the purpose of a mill? What was the purpose of the water wheel? (having a computer or iPad nearby is very handy because you can instantly look up what you need).
  • What did the composer do in the music to paint a picture of the Keepsake Mill?
  • Can you see the wheel turning round and round and round? It never's almost hypnotic. Can you hear it? Can you see the dark water swirling in the pond below? Can you hear it? Can you feel the spray of the water on your face? Can you smell the water and the wood?
  • Now.....have that picture in your mind when you play this piece....make the music come alive....paint the picture with your notes and send it out to your listener.....send it to me and let me see it too!! Play it with balance and phrasing and shaping and FEELING!

There was such a difference. The song was totally different. "I LOVE this song", she said!

Music to my ears!! Kate was no longer just playing the notes. She had unlocked the magic and had found the music hiding in the notes!

♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎


by Robert Louis Stevenson

Over the borders, a sin without pardon,
Breaking the branches and crawling below,
Out through the breach in the wall of the garden,
Down by the banks of the river we go.

Here is a mill with the humming of thunder,
Here is the weir with the wonder of foam,
Here is the sluice with the race running under –
Marvelous places, though handy to home!

Sounds of the village grow stiller and stiller,
Stiller the note of the birds on the hill;
Dusty and dim are the eyes of the miller,
Deaf are his ears with the moil of the mill.

Years may go by, and the wheel in the river
Wheel as it wheels for us, children, to-day,
Wheel and keep roaring and foaming for ever
Long after all of the boys are away.

Home for the Indies and home from the ocean,
Heroes and soldiers we all will come home;
Still we shall find the old mill wheel in motion,
Turning and churning that river to foam.

You with the bean that I gave when we quarreled,
I with your marble of Saturday last,
Honoured and old and all gaily appareled,
Here we shall meet and remember the past.