Unlike wind players and vocalists, pianists don’t have to coordinate their breathing with the musical phrases they are playing. This makes teaching the concept (and importance) of phrasing to our students a bit more difficult.
In today’s post, I will be sharing tips for teaching phrasing, starting with fundamental skills that can be taught from the very first lesson.
Keep reading for more about teaching the fundamentals of phrasing!
First of all, how do we explain the concept of a musical phrase to our students?
I tell my students that a phrase is a musical sentence. In written language, writers use punctuation marks to group words in such a way that they make more sense to the reader. Imagine reading the previous lines of text with no commas, periods, or question marks!
We musicians group notes together in the same way by using phrases. This helps the music to make more sense to the listener. As we play a piece, we use dynamics to create a rise and fall in the musical phrases in the same way our voices might rise and fall as we read aloud an interesting paragraph in our favorite book.
Why is phrasing tricky to teach?
Phrasing can be a tricky concept to teach because it involves several components:
- Physical motion: dropping and lifting the wrist, creating a smooth legato.
- Dynamic shaping: listening for gradual changes in the dynamics to create a pleasing sound.
- Interpretation: finding the high point of a phrase and knowing how to identify phrases even when they aren’t indicated in the music by the composer.
The good news is that we can start working on the fundamentals of phrasing from our very first lessons with our students! By working on each of these components from the beginning, we can lay the groundwork for successful phrasing later on.
Below are what I consider to be 4 fundamentals of phrasing and tips I have found helpful for introducing each concept to my students.
Phrasing fundamental #1: wrist flexibility
Wrist flexibility is so important--not only for playing comfortably and without tension, but also for creating a beautiful sound at the piano.
Here is an experiment I like to do with my students to demonstrate the importance of a flexible wrist: first, I play the opening phrase of "Fur Elise" with a stiff wrist, using only finger movement to create the sound. Then, I replay the phrase with a flexible wrist, shaping the phrase and lifting my wrist as I play the last note. Then, I ask my students: which way sounds better?
Most students describe the sound of the first way as being "mechanical" or "robotic." Students always agree that the second way, with a flexible wrist, sounds much more pleasing!
I have previously shared two teaching tip videos showing exercises I do with my beginners to help them 1) develop body awareness and how to release tension, and 2) develop wrist flexibility. These exercises are simple and fun, and make great warm-ups for students of any age--even adults!
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Even before students encounter crescendo and diminuendo in their method books, I like to introduce this concept in our warm-ups. I like to use five-note scales to practice the concept of dynamic shaping because students can play the scales by rote and really focus on listening carefully as they play.
When working on dynamics, make it fun! Try pretending that your student’s favorite animal is sneaking closer and closer (by getting louder and louder) as you play the scale together. Imagine climbing a mountain for crescendo, or sliding down a water slide for diminuendo.
Another fun way to practice dynamics is to act out the dynamics away from the piano as your student plays. Stand next to the piano in a crouched position, and gradually grow taller and taller as your student gets louder. Then trade places, and have your student act out the dynamics that he or she hears you play.
Phrasing fundamental #3: legato touch
I prefer to hold off on introducing legato until students can maintain a round, relaxed hand while playing their pieces non-legato. This way, I know that students won’t be introducing any tension into their playing when they start playing their pieces legato.
When students are ready, you can introduce legato with just two notes at first. First, have your students practice walking around the room and feeling how their weight shifts from foot to foot. Then, choose two keys on the piano and use the same walking motion with your fingers. (Be sure to keep a flexible wrist!) Once students have the hang of the legato motion, try a 3 note pattern with a wrist lift at the end. The group of 3 black keys works great for teaching this motion and is easy for students to play by rote.
Once students have mastered 2 and 3-note phrases, we start applying this technique to the longer phrases in their repertoire pieces. It is fun to revisit old favorites and review them with the goal of playing and shaping each phrase with a beautiful sound.
Phrasing fundamental #4: interpretation
Ultimately, phrasing is a concept that involves interpretation--in particular, knowing when to phrase and how to shape a phrase so it sounds pleasing to the listener.
Many volumes have been written on the subject of teaching interpretation! But here are a few tips I have found helpful for teaching students how to create their own beautiful phrases:
- I think the best way to help develop a student’s sense of phrase interpretation is to do lots of demonstrating and lots of listening. The more you model good phrasing for your students, the better they will grasp the sound of a beautiful phrase and be able to reproduce it on their own.
- Play duets, and work to create beautiful phrases together! This gives you the opportunity to model good phrasing and allows the student to follow your lead in executing and shaping the phrases.
- Listen to recordings and notice how the performer shapes the phrases. Ask your student what they liked or disliked about the performance. They might be surprised to hear how differently two different performers might interpret the same piece of music!
- Encourage students to sing their phrases. Since we shape our phrases in imitation of the human voice, singing is a great way to help students learn to identify the high point of a phrase and to learn how to decide where phrases should go if they aren’t indicated in the music.
What do you think? How do you teach the fundamentals of phrasing? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!