Imagery, Emotion, and Imagination

Cultivating vibrant performance through descriptive adjectives and metaphors

Karl-Ulrich Schnabel once shared the story of his work with a very fine pianist from the Pacific Rim. She was technically accomplished and musically well-informed – “but her playing was dull.” He assigned her to create a list of one hundred adjectives and to experiment with applying them to her music. (“Vud choo belief that she came back vith ofer 600 vords?”) He told me that it made “all the difference” in her playing, and he urged me to come up with my own list.

Over the years, I’ve adapted this exercise with a wide range of students: pianists, singers, and instrumentalists, in individual and group settings. In a course I teach on “complete performance preparation,” we strive to instill the elements of successful performance, and work toward setting up the conditions for peak performance, the kind that commands the audience’s attention, makes them sit up in their chairs, and/or elicits goosebumps or tears. The ‘adjective exercise’ has proven to be one very effective tool to connect the music, the performer’s life experience, and the audience in a meaningful way.

First, create your own list of approximately one hundred words. Review it and put an asterisk by 10-15 of them, then whittle that number down to 5 contrasting adjectives (e.g., nostalgic, heroic, mysterious, tender, exuberant). Experiment with performing 2-4 phrases of a single work from your repertoire, trying to project the essence of these five words (one at a time) through the music. Afterward, evaluate what resulted: How did you feel? Did anything change, including tone, articulation, dynamics, shaping, etc?

While individuals can do this work alone and realize good results, a group dynamic adds the dimensions of participation and feedback. If possible, perform the exercise again for one or more people without revealing what your adjectives are. Have your audience take notes and report on what came through to them. Note when your listeners’ experience was congruent with your intention–and when it was not. It’s interesting to note that when the performer’s intention isn’t well-formed or clear, the audience response is invariably inconsistent. On the other hand, when it’s ‘real,’ it’s easy to deduce that emotions don’t lie. They seem to bypass the intellect and leap straight into the music, through the performer to the audience.

Metaphors and other imagery also qualify as helpful aids. Mr. Schnabel told me to play the opening of the grand E-Flat Sonata by Haydn (Hob. XVI: 52) “like a regal elephant–not like a mouse who is very angry!” (I took this to mean something closer to an elegant Babar the Elephant than a heavy ‘stomper’.) In a master class, a student responded magnificently (and majestically) to his prod to play the opening of the Brahms Rhapsody, Op. 119 No. 4 “like a knight in shining armor, riding into the sunlight.”

The adjective exercise may or may not result in discovering specific extramusical connections to particular repertoire, however, the dramatic process alone has shown to have an impressive effect on heightened imagination and expression, for most performers. Give it a try!


  1. Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Hi Fred,
    I took a lesson last summer with Tamir Hendelman in Los Angeles.
    After I played an improv for him, he asked “who was that for?”.
    When I began to direct my playing to a specific person (or a specific dog)
    it really made a difference !!!! Maybe similar to the adjective exercise, which
    I will try.
    Thanks for the newsletter,
    Wade Cottingham
    Dallas, TX

  2. Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    This advice of listing adjectives can be exteremely helpful to students. But unless one makes a physical connection to musical feeling, all the adjectives in the world and spoken metaphors at lessons are inspirational at the moment, but may not be lasting. I have attended masterclasses given by Carl Ulrich Schnabel in which his interpretive comments were in contridiction to what I perceived in the score. This is well and good, for each artist should have his or her own convictions about the hidden meanings in musical notation. But Schnabel’s conviction that he can affect sounded piano tones by trembling, or making vibrato motions on keys after they are lowered is both technically injurious and scientifically absurd. Yet some well-known pianists take this advice seriously. The bottom line is this: no one has ever seen Artur Schnabel, or any famous pianist past or present tremble on lowered keys. Evidently consummate artistry is possible without doing this.

  3. Laurie Lindemulder
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I already do this with my own playing and in my teaching. I agree; it’s very effective!

  4. Marcia Mally
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Having used a scarf to illustrate the flow of a phrase or jumped up and down to illustrate excitement, I thoroughly agree with you about creating adjectives to help our students create an image in which to intrepret the music they are playing. Great suggestion to write down at least five or more to have handy while teaching. I’ve been teaching for over 43 years and have had winners but more than that, I want my students to play musically and with their souls. We begin at an early age to play for our local nursing home three times a year so they get used to playing in front of an audience. The residents look forward to having the children come and they are a great low keyed audience for the students. I have two major recitals a year at Christmas and in June, enter students in NWSMTA’S Festival of Pianos, Achievement In Music, Sonata/Sonatina, and Awards. They can be very busy. Loving kids and loving to pass on my love of music, I’m still going strong. Marcia Mally

  5. Posted July 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Great Post! This is something dear to my heart. I am sharing this on my Piano Addict blog and

  6. Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    This story about Karl Ulrich Schnabel’s teaching method rings incredibly familiar. For a few years I used to accompany K.U. Schnabel, my father-in-law, to his master classes in Europe where I witnessed quite a few transformations from inanimate playing to gripping performances.
    2011 is the tenth anniversary of K.U. Schnabel’s passing. A number of events are in the planning stage to remember K.U. Schnabel this year. His legacy is a legion of faithful students who keep teaching what they learned in their classes at the keyboard. Some of the most prominent performers who learned from Schnabel are Leon Fleisher, Claude Frank, Peter Serkin, and Richard Goode. Mr, Schnabel’s grandson, Claude Mottier (1972-2002), was the only pianist who had lessons from the master starting at the age of six. Claude wrote an essay el’s approach to teaching expression for the Schnabel Symposium of 2001 in Berlin, now available Schnabel Music Foundation’s web site. This essay has since gained widespread attention among music teachers. There is also an inspiring DVD on Schnabel’s teaching Con Brio – Karl Ulrich Schnabel Master Teacher of Piano. This DVD is distributed by

    Let me close this tribute with a recollection from the late years of Mr. Schnabel’s teaching at the Mozarteum in Salzburg as an illustration of his dedication to music and teaching, and also .
    Ann Schnabel, my wife, and I were accompanying Karl Ulrich Schnabel for a week of master classes. Because of an acute heart condition Mr. Schnabel spent each night at the hospital to undergo treatment. Every day my wife and I picked him up in the afternoon so he could go to the auditorium for the classes. My father-in-law was so weak that he had to sit down repeatedly on the way from the building entrance to the hall. As soon as Mr. Schnabel sat at the piano miraculously his age dropped from 89 to an apparent 65! His energy radiated in an infectious manner onto the student. One of them stands out in my memory: A Korean boy in his early twenties played Op. 106 by Beethoven, the Hammerklavier Sonata. Mr. Schnabel listened attentively and silently to the first movement; as the music stopped he praised the student for his technical brilliance (“you must be the world’s fastes pianist”!), but then proceeded pointing out that there were ways he could improve his playing was no life or emotion the playing. This was followed by three hours of intense scrutiny of phrase after phrase of all the sonata movements. The audience was transfixed by the evolution from near robotic playing to musical life and intense emotion. As the student thanked Mr. Schnabel it was obvious that the experience had opened a vista never before even imagined by the young man boy. He was so elated that he never even noticed how Mr. Schnabel needed a quarter of an hour to regain sufficient energy to get up from the chair he had not left for the duration of the lesson. Later that evening, at 10 o’clock, we brought Mr. Schnabel back to the hospital where the nurses offered him a warm meal.

    François Mottier
    Schnabel Music Foundation

  7. Daniel Crosser
    Posted July 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Great distillation of employment of use of adjectives!
    I would use this teaching technique with most any type
    of music. But, how appropriate is the imagery and
    metaphor technique with pre-programmatic music?

  8. Posted July 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I have used this suggestion with my younger children piano students. Instead of 100 adjectives, I use 10 adjectives and have them think of 10 words that describes the feeling they are trying to convey in the music. This is very helpful in freeing the student, helping them become expressive, and more creative piano players. Nice blog.

    -Theresa Chen

  9. Posted August 27, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Some useful tips here as its important to connect with the audience in a meaningful way, something which takes a long time for students to learn.

  10. Posted August 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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