How metaphors can improve musical practice


I first began to appreciate the power of metaphors to help musical practice when my daughter was learning the the Martini Gavotte in Book 3 of the violin repertoire. Martini Gavotte is what I like to call a “death trap.” It’s in a rondeau form with lots of material between appearances of the theme. And there are lots of ways to go off-the-tracks. In desperation, I had her assign animals to each section and weave a story about how the central character - a little dachshund named Stanley - visited with different animals in an imaginary journey. Not only did it work, but it piqued my interest in how metaphors and similar imaginary constructs can help kids learn music with more fun and more artistry.

Metaphors as an aid to memory

As the Stanley/Martini Gavotte example illustrates, metaphors can be a means of helping the memory. Since Suzuki students memorize their music, there are plenty of opportunities to challenge and exercise this ability. But even with a good listening program, there are still some pieces, like the Martini Gavotte that are stumpers.

Stanley, the mascot of Martini Gavotte

The way that metaphors assist with recall was well-known even to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Memorization was a key component of classical rhetoric and ancient texts devoted considerable attention to what is known as the method of loci[1], the use of imaginary places to locate memories. Today, the majority of champion memorizers use the method of loci technique. The reason that it works seems to be its capacity to forge new connections between otherwise disparate areas of the brain.[2] (Sounds a bit like the effects of music education itself!)

Metaphors and the development of artistry

Some aspects of musical technique are easy to put into words. “Curve your pinky like so.” “Hold your bow like this.” “Relax your thumb.” But others are more subtle and define much of the artistry of beautiful playing. Here, metaphors have the ability to convey meaning and expression that cannot be described concretely through words alone. Phrasing, dynamics, and tonal shading are elements of musicality that delve into the emotions. Metaphors are sometimes the only way of tapping into those expressive features.

May I, may I, may I pretty please?

We recently encountered a passage in the Bach Gavotte in Book 5 where a metaphor helped with expressive phrasing. In the second Gavotte, there’s a really lovely bit that where the phrasing is key (where isn’t it in solo Bach!?). During practice we decided that it sounded like a child pleading for something, candy perhaps. With that image in mind, we came up with words “May I, may I, may I pretty please?” to go with the notes. Together, the mental image of a pleading child, the words and the notes help shape a very expressive passage.

Metaphors as fun

Suzuki encouraged parents to make practice more fun and less like work. To be sure, there’s a lot to work on, but that doesn’t mean practice should feel like work. Being a teacher or Suzuki parent is in part an acting job. Actors are able to inspire an authentically imaginary world through words, actions and expression. In a similar way, the tools of acting can help us create more enjoyment in practice. Metaphors can be silly and fun. Most days, we laugh a lot during practice because of the ridiculous things we come up with in the process. Imagination, metaphors, creative expression infuse practice with a levity that makes children want to keep doing it. Not every day is like that; but it’s a great goal.

How to put metaphors and imagination into practice

  1. For longer pieces especially, think in terms of roadmaps that you can visualize. By employing the ancient method of loci, you can help children develop a stronger memory. It also opens the door to discussions about the structure of the music. The more vivid and unusual the roadmap, the better. One of the Book 4 concerto movements inspired a roadmap that involved a round-trip to her violin lesson, stopping at landmarks on the way. It sounds a little silly, but the best memories are those that interconnect disparate senses, often in very quirky ways.
  2. Always ask about mental pictures. What does that sound like? Involving children in the creative process exercises their own metaphor-generating mental muscles in ways that will help them in the future as they learn new pieces.
  3. Can you come up with words that fit with the notes? Words that tell a tiny story and fit rhythmically with the notes can be another aid to memorization and expression. Most teachers have accumulated quite a few of these themselves. But there are always more to be discovered.
  4. Draw visual images in the music. Feel free to annotate the score with little images that help recall the mental picture that your child has about the music.
  5. Use mental imagery to have more fun in practice. Making up silly stories about the music and coming up with unusual ways of describing the music can help make practice more enjoyable and memorable. Champion memorizers often say that their best memories are those that are linked to extremely vivid and unusual images. Sounds like fun!

Children have an easy and natural imagination. By tapping into this built-in ability we can help them develop their musical talent in more enjoyable and artistic ways.

  1. The method of loci, or "memory palace" technique of memorization is powerful mental tool for remembering voluminous quantities of information. It takes advantage of the connection between spatial processing and memory formation in the brain. It turns out that humans have evolved very sophisticated spatial memory capabilities. By leveraging that capacity, it's possible to store memories at imaginary locations in the mind. For an entertaining read on the power of memory and this method in particular, I recommend Joshua Foer's excellent book, "Moonwalking with Einstein".

  2. Maguire, E. A., Valentine, E. R., Wilding, J. M., & Kapur, N. (2002). Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature Neuroscience, 6(1), 90-95. doi:10.1038/nn988 - Functional MRI studies of expert memorizers show activation of areas of the brain associated with spatial processing and new memory formation. This suggests that they have formed efficient connections between areas of the brain by repeatedly exercising the ability to store memories in imaginary locations.