Question: My students need to learn a Sonatina for their exams. How do I make it interesting enough for them to want to practice? They enjoy the more modern selections the exam allows, but the Sonatina is always the very last to be polished! It’s like pulling teeth…can you help?!
In my early years as a piano student I was one of those students who happened to genuinely love Sonatinas. Show me a Clementi or a Mozart Sonatina, give me something with Alberti Bass and I was good to go. I’d spend hours on these pieces. Something about them just clicked with me. This was not so with my student Sonia (who happened to have a sister named Tina… I promise… you can’t make that up!).
Sonia had decided (or her mom had decided!) that she’d like to start taking Royal Conservatory exams. I was excited to delve back into the pieces I had once loved as a student and, as we chose pieces, I bubbled over with excitement when I introduced the Sonatina I had played for my own exam way back when. As I played it for her, my fingers settled into the familiar patterns and it was every bit as wonderful as I had remembered it to be. I finished. There was silence. And then “Ummm…I don’t like it.” And so began my struggle with Sonia and the Sonatina.
Sonia and The Sonatina
I’m a firm believer in having a student understand the WHY behind what’s on their page. So I led Sonia through explanations of Sonatina form, helped her label the primary chords, identified sequences, highlighted themes and motives and discussed the shape of phrases. She showed excitement only when I let her use my new set of pencil crayons and then asked “Can we play my Beauty and the Beast song now?”. Clearly she didn’t share my passion for this piece, and when she reluctantly played through the first page, the result was something void of any kind of musicality whatsoever.
Being an obsessive type of person, I spent the next week feverishly brainstorming ways I could “hook” Sonia on her Sonatina. She was a tough cookie, but I prefer ginger snaps to macaroons anyway. And then it came to me.
Walt Disney to the Rescue
It’s become quite obvious to me in teaching kids that my upbringing was not quite the norm. The fact that I’ve read Heidi and Little House on the Prairie, that I recognize Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and that I could re-tell the story of The Elves and the Shoemaker has actually put me at a slight disadvantage when teaching children. I assume they too have had these cultural influences. Most haven’t.
So thank goodness for Walt Disney – without him I doubt children today would be familiar at all with the classic stories. And this was a very good thing, because my new plan for Sonia and her Sonatina involved fairy tales.
Princesses, Princes and the Ever-Present Witch
At Sonia’s next lesson I surprised her with some fun cut-outs: a princess, a prince, a dragon and a witch. I had her attention. We then proceeded to have one of the most creative lessons I’ve ever taught. And she was hooked. Here’s how:
Sonatinas and Opera – They Must Have Met Somewhere…
In thinking of how I could inspire Sonia, I realized that her Sonatina could tell a musical story… and so Sonia’s Sonatina became an Opera. We named our lead characters and came up with a brief love story in danger of derailment by the wicked witch… and occasionally threatened by a fire-puffing dragon. And then, rather than dragging Sonia through theory-based explanations of how her Sonatina was put together, we instead discovered how her Sonatina told the story. Together, we found themes that sounded “princess-like”, the places where the Prince came to the rescue, the times in the Development section that clearly held sightings of the wicked witch or attempted attacks from the fierce dragon. We labeled places where the Prince and Princess did a duet, where the orchestra introduced a new scene and where the curtain dropped on the grand finale. Her music came alive.
In fact, as I taught Sonia to think of her piece this way, all of the Sonatinas stored away in the corners of my mind began to take on an Opera-like character too. As I’d sit down for my nightly practice and drag out old books for the pure enjoyment of playing something familiar, I noticed my own interpretations changing too. It’s much easier to shape a phrase when there is a motivation behind the notes that is stronger than simply the rules of harmonic structure.
Sonatinas in my Piano Studio
I’m happy to say that my adoration for a good ‘ol Sonatina has now infected my own students. We have a wonderful time in lessons taking apart a new Sonatina; coming up with fantastic story lines and even adding some fun lyrics to the page to help with character development. As a result, my students play with a mature musicality… that is coming from an immature love for a sappy fairy tale. And while I do still sneak in some theory while teaching Sonatinas, it’s always masked with fantasy. In my opinion, anytime we as piano teachers get the chance to put an invisibility cloak on theory, we should seize the moment.
Just as fairy tales put the story in a Sonatina, The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo puts the adventure in a piano piece. If you haven’t yet checked out this comic-based music book series, click here to learn more.