The Spirit Giveth Life

"An Approach to the Interpretation of Music for the Piano"

by Ruth Hammond Barrus

A talk given to the Ricks College Upper Valley Music Teachers Association - February 7, 1974


When my daughter was nine she memorized a little poem called "Armenian Song." Two lines only remain with me:

When my parents died, they left me little,

Only a pair of red shoes and a song.

As life's experiences have helped me interpret this poem, I realize there can come to our children no greater inheritance than a "pair of red shoes and a song." The father's gift was the magic red shoes which, like the magic carpet, open excitingly the whole fulfilling gamut of experience. The wonder of worlds on end become important and meaningful as the red shoes open the magic awe of books, scripture, places and people. Like Ariel in the Tempest (Shakespeare), they represent the music of intellect, the excitement of inquiry, the joy of travel through time and place. The red shoes represent both the spirit of liberation of the mind and the spirit of experience.

The mother's gift is the song. This translation of a verse by the great Argentine poet Jose Hernandez may best convey the spirit of that song:

Singing I will have to die,

Singing they will have to bury me,

And singing I will have to arrive

At the feet of the Eternal Father.

From the womb of my mother

I came to this world to sing.


A song gathers to itself so many things. It is a multiple as people, for every man sings his own unique song of mortality. It is as multiple as there are colors and moods, for there is a song for every day and every emotion. But the great song of fulfillment is that of love and thankfulness. The song is the spirit of love and understanding.

When we combine the spirit of liberation and freedom with the spirit of love and understanding a wholeness is achieved that is beautifully rare. It is that spirit - - that essence - - which music, of all the arts, can most perfectly communicate.

It is this essence or spirit that I would like to talk about at this time. I realize that what I may say may appear abstract, but I hope I can deal with it concretely enough that application is possible. You will note that my title is "The Spirit Giveth Life." For the sake of understanding I would like to give you my perception of spirit and light. To do this I must refer to the scriptures. First, the 93rd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants (93:26-34): Here we are told that Intelligence, or Light or Truth, was in the beginning with God, and that it functions independently in that sphere in which God has placed it to act for itself. Light, or truth, has been clearly manifest to us from the beginning. Here is the agency of man. Every man whose spirit receives not the light is in darkness. "For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy. When separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy."

Music has a capability of expressing a "fulness of joy." As interpreters, we must also bring spirit and element together to achieve that fulness. God gave man a body of elements into which he placed an independent spirit to act for itself. This spirit is the source of power for motivation and creation. Great music is also a sphere through which spiritual power can be expressed. The union of the spirit in man with the spiritual force that is in music can generate powers of motivation and creativity in man. It is only through the spirit that we can receive the spirit. To parallel this, listen to Paul: "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God." (Romans 8:16)

The challenge, then, to those who want to experience an expression of a fulness of joy by revealing the essence of great music is two-fold: First, spirit and element must come together; and second, the spirit in you must bear witness of the spiritual force that is in music.

I. How can we combine spirit with element?

A. The Spirit of Emotion Conveyed through Support and Body Weight.

How can we combine the spirit with element? Even though the scripture bears witness that element is eternal, we experience it now in a temporal condition and relate it to the physical. The physical body, which is element, is capable of expressing the spirit as revealed through our emotions. These emotions must attach themselves, some way, to the elements in music, which are multiple, and include technical elements, formal elements, harmonic, melodic, and so forth. The intent at this point is to discuss a few of the technical elements to try to combine them with the spirit in us as revealed by our emotions.

1. The spirit of anger:

We are the embodiment of what we think and feel. Every nerve, fiber, and bone responds to the way we feel. If we feel pain in our arm, tension and loss of motion can be felt throughout the body. Our fingers are an extension of our body and captures finally our feeling. Illustrate with me. Raise your hands a little above your lap. Extend them. Now grip your hands together. Grip hard, to the point that they quiver. Do you notice that the tension is not restricted to the hands but involves your back, neck, face, jaws, and on throughout your entire body. Keep holding that grip. Examine your inner feelings as you maintain this rigid grip. Are they spilling out frustration, resistance, even anger? Are your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints rigid? Are they each stiffened in resistance and severity?

We have created a physical and an emotional condition in ourselves. Let's translate it into musical interpretation. Imagine a choral passage in which you want to communicate anger, conflict, severity, frustration. There must be no resilience in you, no buoyancy, only tight chords that bind and pierce inwardly. Thrust this rigid hand into the keyboard and the strings will respond in harshness and anger. The audience will literally "hear" your feelings.

A string responds to treatment similar to a human being. If someone strikes you in anger with a clenched fist, your whole body tenses and quivers with inward conflict. Strike an open door severely and quickly. Does it close? This burst of energy will not close the door, but only make it quiver. The door has to absorb the energy of the impact, for the tight fist certainly will not, and the quivering of the door is the result - - the severe blow did not shut the door.

The string, if struck harshly by rigid fingers, will also quiver and not give forth a resonant vibrating tone, for it has now a double function: it must absorb the shock of the blow and still try to resonate. The result is no better than the angry attack on the door - - the true tone is missing just as the door did not close. The string quivers harshly and anger is thus communicated. To achieve resonant tone quality;, our body must become as a shock absorber to assimilate the shock of impact on a string, leaving the string free to vibrate.

2. The spirit of decision, strength, power.

Rarely do we need to express anger in the interpretation of music, but often decision, nobility, power, and strength need to be expressed. Modify the approach outlined above which produced harsh angry qualities of tone. Start from the premise that complete unresistant rigidity produces harsh, painful tone quality. Yet, to cancel all resistance would produce only weak, mushy tones. We want new a combination of firmness and resonance - - a tone that will sing with resolution and dignity.

Practice for a moment a firm, friendly hand shake. The hands grip warmly, but the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints are relaxed. (Remember, relaxation is not "collapseation.") Now, try shaking hands with these joints rigid. The results are uncomfortable, to say the least, and you suffer a complete loss of decision, strength and warmth - - the very things we initially tried to communicate.

Now, apply this experience to the piano. Feel in your hands the strength of this warm, firm handshake. Shape the hand as if it covered a small orange. In this position; the knuckles will be the highest part of the hand, forming a bridge which will firmly support weight from your body, but will not be rigid. The little finger joint will be the highest part of the bridge, and there should be a straight line from the little finger up the arm. Cover the chord you desire to play on the piano with your hands in this position. Now throw yourself into it, almost as if you were throwing a ball, with wrist thrusting toward the little finger. Let the relaxed wrist, elbow and shoulder joints absorb the impact of that throw. The skeletal structure of your hands will support the impact of the sudden weight (so great that it can almost raise you from the stool). As the joints absorb the shock of sudden force, the strings will be free to vibrate a tonal message of resolution and strength.

3. The spirit of gentleness, reflection, tenderness.

Now let's produce a tone which communicates gentleness, reflection, tenderness. Imagine, for a moment, that a new-born infant is being placed into your hands. How would you receive this tiny, delicate bundle? You would not harm it by careless or weak handling. There would be an inner preparation as well as an outer preparation to properly receive this child. Warm, tender feelings flood you, and the whole body responds. You must emanate strength and tenderness which when translated into the body becomes a combination of strong support in bone structure and a softening of the muscles and joints, as you hold this infant. As you receive it you will unconsciously lean toward it.

Apply this inner and outer preparation, now, to the keyboard. Imagine you have the child still in your hands. Feel the gentle strength of the bony structure of your hands and body, but feel also the softening of muscles and ligaments. Cover your chord and lean with your whole body into the keyboard as you sound it. This relaxed body weight plus gentle hand support supplied by a softened yet still supportive bridge (knuckles) will produce a beautiful singing tone. This weight must flow through the body, the arms, hands, and finally through the ends of the fingers into the keys. Transfer this weight from tone to tone in a fluid manner, and if it is not robbed suddenly by tension in wrist, arm, or shoulder joints, your melody will sing.

This singing tone might be likened to water flowing through a pipe. The flow is constant unless holes develop in the pipe, then much of the water will leak through the holes with little coming out the end. Body weight can flow into the hands freely producing this tender singing tone unless leaks develop, and those leaks are tension: in wrist, arm and shoulder joints.

Body position is also important in producing beautiful tone quality. Always sit far enough back from the piano, and on only half your stool, so that you can lean slightly forward from the hips, which will allow body weight to feed naturally into the hands. To apply this weight does not necessitate rocking back and forth or sideways, for if one is in proper position the body weight is always there and can feed naturally into the hands. This position should also include easy movement of elbows in front of the body. Elbows should be about level with the keyboard, and the feet placed flat on the floor immediately in front of the pedals, aiding body support and allowing easy access to pedals.

Tenderness and gentleness involve the complete giving of oneself whether it be to a tiny infant or to the production of a tone that sings. Gentle support from the hands and the flow of weight from the whole body will accomplish this goal.

4. The spirit of grief, pain, agony.

Much inner as well as outer preparation must be made to communicate the deep spirit of grief, pain and agony. The epitome of these emotions was the Savior as he bore the cross of mankind and took upon himself the sins of the world. Isaiah describes this dark period over which even the angels of heaven wept:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

Isaiah 5:3-5

The Savior bore our burdens and put upon himself our yoke in order that our burdens would be light and our yoke easy. As one becomes acquainted with grief, a crushing weight descends upon the body, and it resists not - - it knows not which way to go. The heaviness and burden exhaust the body. Like a huge stone suspended from a swinging chord, you feel heavy but unattached.

In order to translate this experience into the interpretation of music, you must feel this exhausting heaviness in your body and spirit. Exhaustion loosens all the joints, all the muscles. There is little resistance in your hands as the crushing weight in your body descends upon them; your hands feel crushed with the burden - - the yoke that is upon you. For you to lift your hands from the keyboard would necessitate lifting your whole body, for your body is pinned to your hands. The resulting tone will be dark, muffled with despair, yet it can penetrate to the very soul. St. Matthew writes: "For they bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders . . ." As musicians, if we lay these burdens on our hands, allowing this weight to flow unresistingly from the tips of our fingers into the keyboard, we can communicate the deep emotion of grief, sorrow, agony.

B. The spirit as conveyed through finger action.

Thus far I have outlined a keyboard approach from one of resistance and tension as expressed in anger to one of almost total lack of resistance and loss of tension as exemplified in grief or sorrow. Each emotion to be expressed has involved body weight and hand support. I have not, as yet, referred to the function of finger action in its interpretive role.

What I have to say about finger action is no way intended to minimize the importance of developing discipline, independence and skill through the recommended patterns of scales, arpeggios, finger exercises, and so forth. You need to be continually lassoed much in this direction, and importantly so. I would like, though, to recommend certain approaches which might help you apply these skills to a more sensitive interpretation of music.

There are two principle finger actions taught and applied by various teachers and artists, both of which have their merits and their function.

1. The spirit of brilliance and independence through hammer action.

One finger action is commonly referred to as the "hammer action", which should relax and lower the knuckles of the hand and which require the fingers to lift and descend by means of the middle joint of the finger in a kind of hammer motion. There is considerable tension in the arm resulting from this action which is tiring, but the resulting tonal quality is brilliant, brittle, individualistic. I recommend that this action should be applied cautiously, and only to get certain effects which require great volume and brilliance.

2. The spirit of joy and happiness through "Pressure Action."

"Pressure action" is the term used to describe the second principle of finger action. This action has many capabilities of expression, but it particularly can convey joy and happiness. To achieve a sense of preparation for this action, place again a small orange in the center of your hand and let the fingers shape around it. Note again that the knuckles or bridge, are high, firm, but not rigid. Now lift the finger out and up from the knuckle joint and pull the finger in, gripping with the last joint of the finger as it comes in contact with the key. The bridge is the support, and tension should be gone in wrist and arm. Tones produced by this action have a more fluid quality and can vary from a bright, happy sound to a tender caressing sound depending upon the amount of support of the bridge and degree of grip of finger. This action is more versatile, less tiring, and more sensitive than the hammer action.

To pursue the realization of an emotional experience by the fusion of spirit with element, (finger technique this time), let us further examine the communication of sparkling joy and happiness.

3. The "happy joint."

I have often referred to the last joint of the finger as the "happy joint." It is important for the whole body to feel alive, buoyant, resilient. The wrist and elbow joints should be full of spring, and the fingers to bite like teeth into the keyboard, using this pressure action, producing a bright, happy sound. Try some of the joyous Two Part Inventions of Bach using this touch and note the results. Bright, happy moments in sonatas, concertos, etc., can profit with this action.

4. The spirit in languid, caressing, velvety tones.

To perform sensitively many of the works of the Romantic and Impressionistic composers, a subdued, velvety, yet sonorous tone quality is important to achieve. But, softness must never suggest weakness. Some melodies need only a whisper to interpret them, and yet there must be resonance there. Cushion such tones with the fleshy part of the finger just below the nail. Do not let the nail strike the key. Using the pressure action, as the finger makes contact with the with the key, gently pull in the last joint of the finger and do not allow the joint to break down. The softer the tone required, the lighter the grip of the fingers; the greater the tone, the firmer the grip of the finger without release of it. This liquid flow of weight plus gentle pressure action (pulling in with the last joint of the finger) can produce velvety, languid, or caressing tones.

II. How can the spirit in us bear witness to the spiritual force that is in music?

The emphasis thus far has been concerned only with the rudiments of producing varied and individual tonal color through the spirit as expressed by the emotions combined with the physical. These tonal effects might be compared with a collection of precious stones of various textures and colors awaiting artistic creation into a great mosaic. The stones are not the work of art, but the masterful organizing of them into significant relationships and meanings can result in art. How to achieve this is the eternal challenge of life and art.

A. Importance of significant relationship.

I have often expressed the belief that the important purpose of like itself is to learn to understand, appreciate, and abide significant relationships. That is what learning is all about. Whether it be in science, language, religion, or any of the arts, if you study, you learn relationships. The Lord has challenged us to perfect our relationships with Him and with each other - - husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. If we can prove to the Lord that we can abide significant relationships with each other and with Him, the reward is eternal relationship.

          1. Formal relationship.

Formal analysis (form or organization of music) is particularly important, but time will allow only a cursory allusion to it. Suffice it to say that motives, phrases, periods, section, movements - - all must be part of that analysis, for they are not only the architectural framework of the music itself, but they are also the veins and arteries through which the vital themes and musical ideas must flow. In one Beethoven Sonata alone, all the emotions of a lifetime can be realized. These emotions attach themselves to this formal structure like the finish of a room to its skeletal structure. These emotions are realized in color, design, and decoration. How to shape in music an emotional relationship which is in harmony with its formal design is of vital concern.

          2. Emotional relationships.

In understanding emotional relationships in music it is important to return to the idea that the spirit in us bears witness to the spirit in music. If spirit is light and truth, and if it is functioning in us, we will seek to know all things that help us to recognize the spirit elsewhere. Lily Pons, the great operatic soprano, in response to a question asked by an aspiring young musician, "What should I study?" Replied that you should study everything - - science, literature, history, art. To feel music you must feel the essence of all things that make up life - - for that is what music is all about. Her reply is similar to the direction given the Prophet Joseph Smith, that he should "hasten . . . . to obtain knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms . . ." (D&C 93:53)

The Norton Publishing Company issued in 1973 a book entitled Orpheus in The New World by Philip Hart, a noted author and music critic. This book evaluates American symphonies and conductor, and Maurice Abravanel, conductor of the Utah Symphony which you recently heard, was ranked with such American symphonic greats as Theodore Thomas, Frederick Stock, Serge Koussevitzky, and Leopold Stokowski. Did Maurice Abravanel achieve this stature through musical genius and musical study alone? Or does it go farther than that. I felt I saw an answer to his greatness when I was privileged with an 18-year-old son to visit his home in Salt Lake City several years ago. It was a bungalow home, modestly furnished. The distinction of that home lay in the books which walled the rooms from floor to ceiling. They were not ordinary books, but they were beautifully leather-bound, ancient and new, and they breathed out names and authors in many languages and from many countries. They were worn, used books, and I felt their contents were now part of Maurice Abravanel. It was no miracle that the spirit and emotion of people in all ages could be translated through his body and fingers into transcendent music - - he was the embodiment of those emotions and spirit.

If we are to magnify the spirit in us, we are challenged to stretch ourselves to include significance from all ages and sources into our lives. We must ever be seekers, thirsty and hungry for that which is good. We can give to others and to music only that which we have received unto ourselves. The quality of the gift is commensurate with the quality of that which is ours to give. Greatness gathers to itself greatness.

          3. Balanced natural relationship.

Great music has a spirit in it which is also based on magnification and fulfillment. If it were possible to write a mathematical equation for music as Einstein did to represent his law of relativity, it would reveal clearly how important music must follow the fundamental natural laws of action and reaction, of gravity, of the creation of energy and the absorbing of that energy. Remember the 93rd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants which tells us that Intelligence or light of truth "is placed in that sphere to act for itself." We are a sphere, and music is also a sphere with forces in it to act for itself. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, unconsciously understood these natural laws. They knew just how many notes to use to create a desired amount of energy, and they knew just how many notes were necessary to absorb or divert that energy in a natural manner. Dynamics, tempo, pitch, all affect this creation and dispersion of energy. Music, in a way, has to play itself. The power of its flow is self-contained. You must see it in motion, but it must carry itself. You have to be so free with technical skill that it appears that the music is playing you, rather than you playing the music. Not only must you sense the natural flow of the immediate, the minute, but you must keep it in context with the whole. Compare a painter's canvas, where each brush stroke must be visualized to help shape and perfect the whole painting - - compare the artist's space canvas with a musician's canvas of time where each melodic flow must be shaped to perfect the whole composition. The artist can analyze his canvas visually as he perfects it, but a musician has to analyze his time canvas through memory. Music is always coming from and going toward at the same time. There is a natural preparation for what is to come in the music itself. An interpreter must feel this. In Maurice Abravanel you see the maximum of this potential. He retains in his memory the whole symphony so that all parts can fit perfectly together in a natural, inspiring whole. He feels all things in motion, building and absorbing with conflict and resolution, contrast and repetition, with tempo, dynamics, and timbre - - all coloring and shaping. He feels it in motion and he translates it in motion, building and shaping, controlling with his arms, hands, and fingers the time canvas of great musical architecture.

     B. Application of Relationship.

I am sure none of us feel ourselves to be equals of Maurice Abravanel, but we can apply the principles which he exemplifies to pianistic forms of musical architecture and mightily improve our powers of interpretation. Study the rise and fall of musical lines and note how they can generate their own motion. Determine the dynamic levels necessary to assist this motion. See how phrase builds into phrase, period into period, section into section. Sense the naturalness of the motion, the excitement of it, the control of it, the fulfillment of it, the spirit of it. It has as many colors as a canvas, but the color you choose must fit the spirit of the piece. Let everything you have learned about countries, people, ideas and skills help you choose your colors, fitting what you have learned to the spirit within the music.

          1. Conduct to feel beat or pulse.

The application of these abstract principles is subtle and on-going. To the pianist, I would make this recommendation: First, study the pulse of the piece away from the piano. Beat this pulse as a conductor would until you have a recording of it within you. It is the controlling force of a composition keeping in check excess in tempo, dynamics and emotion.

          2. Sing to feel relationship and direction.

Next, as you conduct, sing the parts. Don't worry about the quality of your voice, but think of it as the greatest voice in the world. There will be no one to hear you to tell you otherwise. As you sing, feel the motion and direction of the melodic line. Like the contour of a map describing mountain terrain, the line will rise and fall like hills and valleys, but there is always the anticipation and excitement of reaching the highest peak, the climax. There are no two peaks alike in nature, nor must the rise and fall of melodic line be repetitious. The climax of each melodic hill must become a stepping stone to the grand mountain or emotional climax. Some melodic and harmonic terrains are more rugged, others are more gentle, and some contain the liquid undulation of a plain. The musical contour must be mapped to fulfill the magic of anticipation. As you sing the different parts, be aware of this musical contour.

Singing is the finest method of approach to sense the interpretation of a melodic line. A student asked Bach once how to play a certain piece. With astonishment in his voice, Bach firmly replied: "How do you play it? How do you sing it? That is how you play it."

          3. Play to fulfill motion and relationship.

After the pulse and melodic line have been absorbed by you - - and are singing inside you - - then approach the keyboard. Think of a note as not belonging to itself, but belonging to the note before and the note that follows. The fingers of your hand must be wielded like a brush in an artist's hand, and the sounds your fingers produce must be arched and shaped in a fluid manner. Students have heard me say that I wish they could not make a sound by just pushing a key down. I wish it were more like the violin. A violinist can play every note perfectly with the action of the fingers on his left hand, and yet no musical sound is produced. Only by the addition of the bow does the music sound, and the weight of the body sustains that bow. Through the bow, motion, dynamics and contour are realized.

If a pianist would depend as much upon his bow arm, wrist action, and body support as a violinist does, he could make a sudden leap into more sensitive interpretation. Let your wrist help you shape your motives and phrases, just as change of bow helps the violinist. Attack your slurs and phrases and release them with wrist action, not allowing these actions to rob the finger of body weight. Bind the notes together in your phrases with body weight. Do all this and I am sure you will sense a new dimension in relationships and musical fulfillment.

     C. Realization of significant relationship.

The key to life and music is a significant relationship. It must result from an intellectual, emotional, and physical awareness of the immediate demands of interpretation. The preparation for this is constant study, analysis, and creativity. The challenge is eternal but the fruit is delicious. The spirit will bear witness to the spirit that is in great music. Never give up! Put on the magic gift of the red shoes, explore the worlds, and feel the spirit of liberation. Build the gift of song and enjoy the spirit of love and understanding. The spirit truly giveth life. Remember, "You came into this world to sing."