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Playing the piano expressively with a full gamut of emotions (Blogged from Mo’ Joe’s Cafe in southwest Berkeley)

Today I attended a well-promoted “Shut Up and Write Meet-up.”

The environment: An easy jazz backdrop with companion coffee mocha, whip cream swirl.

No cell phone ring-tones or e-mail heart-song alerts. Just a noisy backdrop–children, adults, plates, forks, your order’s ready, name calling.

My project:

I was riveted to a post at Facebook’s The Art of Piano Pedagogy that was produced by Australian mentor Elissa Milne–No relation to A.A. “Winnie the Poo” author legend.

The time-old question: How do we inspire our students to practice with a stamp of individuality? No more copying the teacher, note by note.

Meanwhile pupils tapped their expressionless electronic keyboards in distracting home environments. They immersed themselves in text messaging, logged onto super hero sites, and played iPod produced video games–completely out of touch with their spiritual essence or the composer’s.

The solution:

Piano teacher/music commentator/composer/ blogger, Elissa Milne transferred Stanislavski’s Method Acting approach to piano playing.

The student role plays or uses mental imagery with teacher prompts.

Milne elaborates: (Quotes by permission of the author)

“… I ask the student to perform the same piece with different constraints: all the way from crazy narratives, such as ‘imagine you are playing this piece underwater with an octopus distracting you’ or ‘play this piece as if you had just had an enormous dinner and all you wanted to do was go to sleep”, through to specific technical demands, such as “play this piece with the dynamics reversed – p becomes f and mf becomes mp and so on” or “play the whole piece staccato’ or ‘play the piece two octaves lower.’

“These kinds of activities demonstrate to students very powerfully that they can change the meaning of a piece through their choices, inspired or insane. And enough of these experiences, regularly, lead to students taking for granted the fact that there are a multitude of ways they can choose to communicate through a piece of music, and a multitude of things they can communicate through their performance.

“The challenge is with the student who is encouraged in every other facet of life to show as little of their personality as possible….”


Milne’s role-playing model is compelling though it does not lay enough emphasis on the student’s physical relationship to the piano.. (i.e. how to use a supple wrist, apply gradations of weight transfer into the keys, and produce a singing tone as basic ingredients of musical/emotional expression)

In part, feelings by themselves can be channeled into a piece of music but will only amount to a superficial layer of learning without deep, probing instruction that includes an awareness of harmonic rhythm, phrasing and the physical means to the end.

Still, her ideas are refreshing and add an invaluable dimension to teaching piano.

In the video below I explore emotional expression within a scale framework and demonstrate two ways of playing Bach’s Little Prelude in G minor, BWV 930. (with opposing affect)


Follow-up comment by Elissa Milne:

Elissa Milne 🙂 Of course, I was assuming that the teacher would be working with the student in a physical sense as well… 🙂 The whole enterprise fails without the body, without an awareness of the body and it’s potential. The imaginative interplay is one foundation (of a few important foundations) for exploring the physical means that connect human and instrument…


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