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Ask Not What You Can Do With the Song PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terry Smith   

... but what the song can do for you.

By now the exhortation to make a song your own has become a modern day ringing platitude. After years of American Idol judges praising those singers, and rightly so, who add their own styling and innovations to a song, we should not lose sight of what a song, or piece of music, can do for us.

I was playing a Chopin waltz recently at the Holiday Inn, and I thought of applying the dictum of making the song my own. So I thought of some events that happened in my life, and I thought of action in nature such as leaves dancing in the wind, and I would try to express parts of these ideas in the music by changing the pace, volume, or emphasis on phrases here and there. And this was interesting for a while, but soon this effort just seemed lame. Making a little change here or there just to make it my own didn’t seem very fulfilling.

Then it occurred to me to put myself into the role of Chopin himself and try to think of what he must have been thinking when he wrote it. Now as I went from one phrase to the next I felt as though I knew Chopin would have played this part more calmly, that he would have played another part with a little more thunder – not for some ostentatious display of power like a rock star may exploit, but because it followed naturally from meager beginnings to a more glorious ending. Even if it were Chopin who was thinking of leaves dancing in the wind, I can now think of my playing as a shared experience, I'm less alone at the keyboard, and I'm in good company.

Having lived after the time of Shakespeare, I was sure Chopin must have implemented the same iambic rhythms in his music, the alternating of stressed and unstressed notes. So as I applied these thoughts to the keyboard, I felt the music was making me a better person. I was discovering, I wasn’t adding anything to it, Chopin and Shakespeare and the spirit that moved them were showing me what made sense. I felt I didn't add anything; however, it's somewhat paradoxical in that it's "me" imagining what it is they're showing me.

As I look back on it now, it seems I’ve only broken the surface. The few discoveries I might have made seem so elementary when I think of career musicians who have mastered technique and interpretation. Yet, I’m thankful that Chopin wrote waltzes within my reach, I’m happy Beethoven wrote Fur Elise and the Moonlight Sonata, that Debussy composed Clair de Lune. Pieces such as these lift a neophyte like me to places I could never reach on my own.