phrasing, piano instruction

Piano Practicing: Phrasing in Groups of notes

Many students complain about getting stuck at junctures of scales, or in the midst of passagework in a variety of pieces. As mentor, having observed these glitches from an objective distance over cyber or through person-to-person contact at my studio, I’ve concluded that note-to-note “vertical” playing can snatch continuity from the mind down to the fingers. My premise, as antidote, includes the necessity of having “context” when first learning a piece of music, or being receptive to discovering many contexts or “framings” during practicing. These will solidify learning and ensure progressive musical development.

More simply, playing a scale in moderate to fast tempo requires phrasing by groups of notes–like an opening “roll-in” that leads to the body of the scale, with a destination at the top, deftly played with a turnaround, not an angular punch, as the notes “sigh down” ultimately to the tonic. Needless to say, a pupil must know the content of the scale, its key signature and topography. He must physically experience the terrain of each one as part of the contextual experience.

For example, the raised double black sharps in B Major that journey to the triple blacks in patterns, suggest ROLLING through them with a bigger perception of their GROUPINGS. Naturally, an awareness of the thumb as a guide before and after these patterned black notes, contributes to a sense of continuity and fluidity. In my personal playing experience, I think of a “feather” light thumb sweeping under double black and triple black raised notes that guides me toward the next group/”wave” of these ebonies. (Imaginative “prompts” like “waves” are valuable assists in creating long range phrasing.)

In the repertoire realm, I posted a video that largely examined note “groupings” in practicing J.S. Bach’s Little Prelude in D minor, BWV 935. In this short work, a relentless broken chord subject in sixteenths permeates, implying not only a circular or “revolving” feel, but requiring a “rotation” that avoids up and down, typed out notes. Thinking of these motivic broken chords in GROUPS becomes a first step in realizing them artistically.

Whether a player chooses a strict legato of the Subject, or perhaps divides these notes into half connected, and half detached, or any reasonable combination of slurred and detached, the over-arching GROUP feeling should prevail. Even detached notes, (eighths in this case) that counter the sixteenths in BWV 935, should welcome a “group” consciousness albeit organized as slur two, detached one or all detached. My tutorial expands upon this arena of groupings, also noting the Subject’s INVERSION at the B section, and what KEYS ensue. Both structure and key transit/modulation, as well as matters of counterpoint, etc. afford multiple CONTEXTS in a productive learning process. (Add in the influence of 3/8 meter in BWV 935–where a sense of ONE frames each measure, especially in brisk tempo.) Thinking in one, further enhances a “group”-note consciousness.


A second Little Prelude in F, BWV 928, displays my “group” think from the start as it opens with a broken chord sequence.

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