MTNA 2014 (4) — Bruce Berr: Teaching the Emotional Aspects of the Form

Bruce Berr is the author of many well-loved articles featured in the Clavier Companion magazine as well as the American Music Teachers magazine (the magazine for MTNA members). His session described his method of teaching students how to identify form through hearing and studying the emotional elements in musical works. It was fascinating to see how form can be so clearly heard by paying attention to what Mr. Berr referred to as the piece’s “energyscape.”

Mr. Berr showed a diagram of layered slurs representing the micro and macro elements of form we can study: the sub-phrases, phrases, sections, and finally, the entire piece. It is important to get a large overview of the piece first. Attention to detail is crucial, but ought not be at the expense of seeing the big picture.

The energyscape is the found by paying attention to the energy levels (aka “temperature”) throughout a piece.  Sonata Form, for example, tends to have its own unique temperature pattern.

EXPOSITION: Main Theme has a medium temperature. The energy level picks up but then drops before the Second Theme. “Codetta” means “the end of the tail” — not “a small tail” as some people might think.
DEVELOPMENT: The temperature settles down at the retransition.
RECAPITULATION: Doesn’t get as “hot” as the exposition.

Mr. Berr suggested that for listening assignments, teachers assign students to listen to symphonies instead of advanced piano sonatas to help them become more familiar with those great works, especially if they already hear their fellow students playing the advanced sonatas (especially in the college setting).

If you start watching a movie in the middle, within thirty seconds you can usually tell whether you are in the middle, beginning, or end. This should be the same when we listen to music. Can we teach students to be able to tell the same thing if we “drop the needle” in a great classical work? Yes, we can, although there is certainly a learning curve when teaching students to listen in this way. Their analyzation worksheets will gradually improve with each piece.

Mr. Berr also discussed other form-related phenomenon, including what he called “change of length” — when we hear three sub-phrases: short-short-long. There are some wonderful possibilities for shaping/musicality when students become aware of these oft-used patterns and the energy. Other topics discussed include “inertia” and phrase length.

Rondo form (ABACA) is like camp. A is when you set up. B is when you explore, and then you can back home A. The next day, you decide to go somewhere else C, and then come back home. This analogy helps build students’ curiosity about what the B and C sections will do.

The subsections in rondo form are often in rounded binary form.  Rounded binary form should really be called “rounded off binary form” or “cheated ternary form.”  The A section is 8 measures.  The B section, we expect, would be 8 measures long, but it gets interrupted, cheated, cut off by an A’ section of 8 measures.  To demonstrate this to students, Mr. Berr likes to improvises to make the B section into the expected 8 measure length before returning to A.  Students can then hear how much less exciting the piece would sound as ternary form.

Having students listen to more music and listen for the energyscape of a piece can help them become more musical performers.

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