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7 minutes reading time (1421 words)

Finding musical expression through photography and film

Music is invisible. Yet how many times have we heard teachers, critics, and the general music using the piano. Our priorities often lie in teaching proper technique to avoid unnecessary tension, and in showing students how to decipher notes, tempo markings, dynamics, and written terms on the page. These elements are crucial in order to give piano students the tools needed to play well, but playing the piano is so much more than reading notations and playing with impeccable technique. It is about using these skills to express. Our students can benefit from regular encouragement and inspiration to help them imbue creativity and personal expression into their playing.

One way to inspire expression in piano students is by connecting music with other artistic mediums. Children's visual, literary, and kinesthetic development often outpace their musical development, making these mediums great options to inspire creativity in music.1 Using the visual arts in music pedagogy has always been a popular method of inspiring expressivity in playing. Though variations occur, two primary uses of the visual arts in teaching involve creating a work of art that reflects a piece of music and associating a piece of music with a pre-existing work of art. Drawing a picture, sketching illustrations on a score, or finding a classic painting that reflects a particular piece are all tried and true methods of connecting the visual arts with music to heighten expression.

Technology is progressing in leaps and bounds. What is commonly available now was unthinkable even fifty years ago. Photography and video recording are two of the most prominent new technological mediums to have been taken up by artists interested in expressing extreme realism and beauty, and these capabilities are now easily found on any mobile phone. With this new technology so easily available, piano teachers, particularly ones who are interested in teaching with the visual arts, can use these mediums to aid expressive piano playing and encourage creativity.

Film is perhaps the most popular technological medium for pairing music with images. Both art forms have many similarities: they are temporal narratives and achieve expression through the use of color, space, and time.2 One of the first innovators to capitalize on the ability to express music through film was Walt Disney. Disney acknowledged the power of images on music and viewed the use of images as a way to make classical, or "highbrow music," accessible to the middle class.3 The result of this philosophy was the movie Fantasia. Disney believed "something familiar could describe the unfamiliar."4 For example, in Fantasia, Disney takes an orchestral arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 913, and couples it with colored lights on the silhouettes of musicians and animations of shapes, using them to highlight
polyphony and orchestration.

Photography is another effective way of using technology to spark creative expression in piano students. Photographs can show expressive qualities, and a well-composed photo can be an analogy for music.6 A strong photo often has one subject with supporting details. It is balanced, in good focus, and has an interesting perspective. Music is similar. The character of a piece is supported by its key, meter, harmony, themes, and motives. Photos are moments of frozen time and can promote curiosity about the story behind the photograph. Music provides the mood or story for these frozen moments, producing a creative bond between the two.

These arts are increasingly accessible to the average person, and this availability opens new doors in the realm of art and pedagogy. I set out to prove this by applying the ideas above in two different situations: in an elementary school music class and in the private piano lessons of a beginning student.

The elementary school music class consisted of thirteen students (eight boys and five girls in grades one and two), whom I led in what I called the Sugar Plum Fairy Film Project. For this project, I asked the children to listen to Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and offer ideas about images that came to mind. After listening intently to the piece, the children presented a number of images and adjectives. Suspenseful, sparkling, creeping, twirling, downward motion, treasure, candy, and light were some of the words put forth.

With these basic ideas in mind, I then asked the students to come up with a story that might go well with the music. The students remained fixed on a chasing and sneaking idea. With this as a catalyst, I helped the class form a storyline that incorporated their images, and we put it onto a storyboard. We then filmed the story and presented it at the end- of-year concert to much acclaim and excitement!

From a teacher's perspective, I saw that using film to describe a piece of music helped the class think creatively about a piece of music and bring to life what they had previously listened to only passively. The class interacted with a familiar piece on a deeper level, one that sparked their creativity and involvement in the music. 

Additionally, it was fun for all of the students and engaged those who were previously apathetic in music class. There were two students in particular who had shown very little interest in music class up to this point. Yet as soon as I introduced The Sugar Plum Fairy Film Project, these two students were brimming with ideas and eager to share. They actively participated in the whole process and have remained excited and engaged in music class ever since!

The second project I directed was called the Musical Photo Project. This involved a six-year- old named Charlie who had been playing piano for four months. Charlie chose a piece called Wolken (German for "Clouds"). I didn't tell Charlie the title, and I asked him what images he thought of when he heard the piece. He immediately said the music sounded like waves. Unfortunately, neither Charlie nor I live near a body of water where we could take a picture of waves. I improvised and brought out a piece of lightweight fabric that made wavelike patterns in the air and we photographed that together.

After we created the photo, I gave Charlie the English title of the piece. This sparked an idea for another photo, and Charlie took a photo of clouds in the sky. The effect these two photos had on Charlie's performance of the piece was remarkable. At first, his performance had no dynamic shape and did not contain the lilt of the triple time signature. But after we discussed the clouds and the waves, his playing became more sensitive and flowing. We talked about how clouds are light and float slowly across the sky. This prompted him to play at a slower tempo and with a softer touch. Next, I led him to make wave shapes 

Our photo of fabric “waves.”

 with his hands and gently guided him until he was conducting in one. We transferred this feeling and shape to the music. Immediately, his playing had a tasteful lilt and gentle rolling motion. Charlie's photos and interpretation show how effectively photography can inspire expression in music. The difference in the amount of nuance and phrasing in Charlie's playing once he had his pictures was amazing, especially for a beginning student. 

Charlie’s photo of clouds.

 With the development of technology, photography and film have emerged as two easily accessible methods that can help students connect a piece of music with an image and inspire more heartfelt and expressive performances. The ultimate goal of any music teacher is to facilitate enjoyable musical experiences for their students. By encouraging musical expression through the connection of photography and film to music, students have the opportunity to discover a new joy of creation and self-expression that can be exciting, rewarding, and inspiring.


1 Ferer, R (2009). "Using a Child's Natural Creativity." Clavier Companion 1 (4), p. 40.

2 Gonzalez, L.B. (2013). "Pedagogical Use of Cinematic Imagery in Augusta Read Thomas's Piano Etudes." http://commons.lib.jmu.edu/ diss201019/90., p. 3.

3 Clague, M. (2004). "Playing in 'Toon': Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940) and the Imagineering of Classical Music." American Music 22 (1), p. 91. 22, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 91.

4Ibid., p. 97.
5 Clague, p. 91.
6 Osborn, S. (2013). "Interdisciplinary Inspirations: Using Visual

Images to Enhance Your Teaching Experience." Clavier Companion 5 (5), p. 55.

7 Ibid., p. 56. 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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