The Art of Phrasing at the Piano: Starting the process with Beginners (Videos)

For some unexplained reason, my earliest piano studies never included the art of phrasing. My primer teacher stressed naming notes, finding them, affixing correct fingering and counting out robotic beats.

I knew nothing about feeling a melodic landscape; putting the vocal model center stage in my playing, and breathing through contoured musical lines. My pieces were flat-liners.

By the time a bass clef staff popped up on the pages of John Thompson’s Pixie platitudes, expanding my sketchy musical universe, I had no idea what to do with these new notes besides naming and locating them.

From my Beginner perspective, such unwelcome bass line strangers had no other role than being feebly attached to the right hand part. The black sheep of my musical cosmos, they owned a non grata status along with the black notes.

To say that I had no idea how to PHRASE these bass line notes, would have been an understatement. My awareness of shaping a musical line in either hand was non-existent until I met up with Lillian Freundlich, my piano teacher during years spent at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. During this period she turned my complacent universe upside down and transformed music making into a living, breathing experience with contours and shapes.

Lil Freundlich made me “sing” what I was studying, with parceled out treble and bass parts. (Often she would vocalize over my playing, nudging along phrases) When examining complex fugues, like those composed by Bach with multiple voices, she had me sing and shape all individual lines. Above and beyond contouring each voice, she taught me that the harmonic (vertical) dimension of a piece, offered insight about how to phrase the melodic line. “Resolutions” of Dominant to Tonic, for example underscored a tension/relaxation relationship that affected the total landscape of a composition from the top down.

Examples:

In a previous blog with a companion video I had explored harmonic rhythm as applied to phrasing and interpreting Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 545.

Example, A Skype Lesson-in-Progress to Greece:

Andante movement:

Mozart sonata 545 Andante revised

In the posting below, I’ve turned the clock back to the Baroque period, using the two voice G Major Minuet from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook, BWV 116 as a springboard for examining phrasing and interpretation.

And a Skype Lesson in Progress on this Minuet (Notice the hand rotation in the arpeggiated figures)

A step-by-step approach

1) I start with the Right Hand and ROLL into the G Major arpeggio, not in any way accenting the first note. All arpeggios have this natural, out flowing organic shape. In the first measure, the Dominant also appears through the progression from A to F# in the right hand. (The Left Hand beneath provides the root “D” of the Dominant)

Dominant to Tonic relationships suggest LEAN to resolve or relax.

It takes a bit of finesse to cross over to measure two, and RESOLVE the leading tone F# to the downbeat G, since the beginning of a new measure often ushers in a strong impulse.

In this case, it’s best to tastefully shape down the G in the second measure as it is a resolution note from the dominant in the proceeding measure. This whole figure with the G arpeggio to its resolution is in fact the subject or MOTIF of the minuet. It will thread through the composition from beginning to end.

A note of reminder that phrasing is assisted by phrase marks and inserted dynamics. (Keith Snell edited the Anna Magdalena edition I chose for this instruction)

2) Putting the treble and bass lines together is the next stage of the phrasing process.

In the G Major Minuet, a conversation transpires between two voices, so this dialog should be fleshed out, along with echoes of it.

The Minuet’s harmonic dimension is revealed once the treble and bass interact. Dominant (V) to Tonic (I), and Sub-dominant (IV) to Tonic (I) relationships suggest resolutions: Lean on Dominant/relax to Tonic; Lean on Sub-Dominant/relax to Tonic. These progressions permeate the first page and assist melodic contouring.

For Beginners

On the Primer Level, take the very popular piece “Russian Sailor Dance,” in Faber’s Piano Adventures, Lesson Book, and map out the lean and resolve notes.(Insert slurs where necessary) A student doesn’t have to know Dominant from Tonic to shape down notes. In a supportive role, the teacher will play the accompaniment to this piece, and voice down the Tonic resolution chord after the Dominant. She can sing the melody alongside the student as the duet is played with conspicuously resolved or relaxed notes. The echo phrases can be similarly fleshed out.This form of modeling makes a significant musical impact on the student. Duet playing, in particular, gives a pupil an opportunity to be part of an ensemble, to balance his part alongside the teacher’s secondo and emulate the staccato notes that bounce along in both parts. All these phrasing ingredients that include observing dynamics, blend together to create a satisfying musical experience.

About Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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3 Responses to The Art of Phrasing at the Piano: Starting the process with Beginners (Videos)

  1. Jessica Olson says:

    Thank you, thank you! Teaching phrasing to beginners can be so challenging! The hit-and-miss attention span of the average 7 year old sometimes leaves me wondering if any of what I’m demonstrating, coaching, dueting, and saying over and over and over has any effect at all. The rare glimmers of self-produced phrasing and emotion that become more and more frequent as students grow older are sometimes so long in coming that it’s tempting to resort to the style of teaching I experienced as a kid: Play the notes and rhythm right and move on.

    Like

  2. I’m glad to receive your valuable thoughts on this subject. As we both know, there are no shortcuts to learning, and we might as well start the process at the very beginning so phrasing, shaping, contouring are imbued at an unconscious level.

    I wish the Primer pieces would at least show more phrase marks.

    Shirley K

    Like

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