Silhouette of Deborah Henson-Conant playing "The Nightingale"I just started teaching my first online course and found  myself writing to a student to explain what I meant, in our first module, by the ‘shape’ of the music.  Here’s what I wrote her (with a few changes):

I often think of what would a deaf person experience at one of my concerts – and that gives me a sense of how to ‘shape’ what I’m doing.  Or if someone couldn’t hear or see, how would I ‘draw’ the shape of the music on their hand, or shape a series of objects to help them experience that musical journey? Like, if your arrangement were a balloon animal, what would that look like?  What would it feel like going through the journey of that animal from nose to tail?

And by ‘shape’, I don’t mean the up and down of a melodic line, but if music were a sculpture, how would it be shaped in a way that could give that deaf-blind person the same experience, the same sense that:

–  we start with ‘leading to’ – we’re taken by the hand, as if someone were saying ‘here, I want to show you something’ (the introduction)

–  it leads to a ‘shape we can easily know’ (the melody)

–  which leads to variations on that shape — variations which are at the same time similar enough to be experienced as ‘like the shape we know’ and different enough to be experienced as ‘seeing a different side or aspect of the shape we know,’ a new facet of it (the exploration, ‘blowing’ in jazz, ‘development’ in classical music, ‘variation’ in theme & variation)

– leading – sometimes – to an expansion and departure, a variation upon variation, a flight, a passion, that makes us wonder if we’ve lost our way and will we ever get back to the ‘shape we know’ and yet the departure is also a leading-to, it’s at once a leading-to and furthest-away (the cadenza) and…then …there it is again …

– the ‘shape we know’ (the melody) — and we realize we aren’t lost after all

– and in the end, we are rocked in that shape we know, so that we know we’ve
truly made it back after all  (the coda)

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