Welcome to Day 1 of our Virtual Artistic Residence with Elena Toponogova:

I have always been interested in combing music with art. This came from one notable moment from my childhood when my piano teacher asked me to illustrate “Snowdrop” from The Seasons by Tchaikovsky. I found it an exciting task as I always loved drawing and painting. I remember how I had to reflect on which colours and images would match the piece. This was the first time I remember thinking that there is a connection between sounds and visual images.

Now, when I teach piano myself, I realise the greatest challenge is how to keep children interested in playing, and here you need to be creative. You can’t expect beginners to play 100% of their lesson time; my solution: including songs, rhythmical exercises…and art activities!

When I start teaching beginners, who are usually 5-6 years old, I will generally use drawing right from the very first lesson. Instead of traditional notes and lines I draw branches of trees then draw birds sitting on them. Each bird (note) has a very special song (sound). I then allow the birds to fly down to keyboard and settle on “their” keys. This helps pupils to understand the connection between what they see and what they play. We switch to normal notation after the children have become comfortable with our bird/key/note practice, but this introduction to the keyboard works really well as it involves a story. This is also my attempt to make notation look more exciting and make sounds alive.

When we start learning about dynamic changes, playing listening games or just trying to listen to each sound very attentively, I compare loudness of sound with colour intensity.

1 – Loud, 2 – Quiet. Illustration by Elena Toponogova

To help pupils learn about using a sustain pedal, I involve watercolour pencils and painting.

1 – without pedal, 2 – with pedal. Illustration by Elena Toponogova

When I hear an individual note I barely imagine any colour, but a musical interval (2 sounds) or a chord can easily awake colours and images. From the very first lesson I ask the child to imagine different things. When I first introduce the piano I play several very low notes and ask if he/she can imagine something large and heavy like a dinosaur or a bear, afterwards I move to a high register and invite my pupil to hear a mouse squeaking, a bird singing or a fairy dancing.

Going back to my first experience of “drawing” music, I try to do the same thing with my pupils and often ask them to illustrate the pieces they learn. I found the exercise very helpful in truly understanding pieces as, in conventional learning, children think of them as a combination of sounds to learn rather than as having an idea behind them. We start with using warm and bright colours for pieces in major keys and cold colours for pieces in minor keys. After we’ve finished with colours we move on to images, moods, characters that suit the piece. Most of the scores for beginners already have some illustrations but children are enthusiastic in drawing music and come up with their own interpretations.

Dhevan’s illustration of “Train ride” piece from ABRSM Prep test book.

There is a perceptional phenomenon called synesthesia in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates one or more of your other senses; in the example discussed here you may see a certain colour when listening to a certain sound. This is a neurological reaction and is not one experienced by everyone. But everyone has imagination, and sensory perception of one kind can often be enhanced when explored as a sensory experience of another kind even if that is simply drawing a bird and inviting it to fly down to a single piano key.

Find out more about Elena Toponogova.