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Phrasing at the piano: Listening to the ends of notes as they flow into others

I’ve chosen Burgmuller’s “Tender Flower” as the springboard to explore attentive listening and its relationship to phrasing.

At the outset, the right moment to begin a piece is a challenge. The player has to experience the whole dimension of silence before a first note is played. That silence is not dead, but alive with cues about the moment of a composition’s birth. (If I shared all my video retakes of piece openers, it would take far too much time to sit through them) yet it’s the very patient, focused care taken to nurse the first sound or tone that makes all the difference in the outflow of a composition. It may be the most important place in the music.

To continue a piece after its opening note or chord shimmers with tonal beauty or has a blossoming energy, is all about phrase-loving and listening to the ends of notes in preparation for others. It’s a given that to accomplish this, a pianist must be tension-free and open to temporal events as they unfold. A relaxed, physical and mental state of mind is needed. Breathing with the music and its undulations involves being in the moment without distraction.

But harmonic rhythm also influences the shape of notes and their resolution. If a player is prepared to repeat an opening phrase that ends on the Dominant, then the resolution to Tonic is curved down. Listening to the very end of the Dominant note or chord, and breathing through it, will help taper the line as imagined.

Imagination, relaxation, being in the here and now of creation are all ingredients of attentive listening that make piano playing a gratifying experience. A patient, non-judgmental approach along with self-prompts or mental images that promote a free-flowing sound space, allow for inspired music-making.

“Tender Flower” played through:

About attentive listening:

Recommended Reading:

Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney-Chase

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Piano Technique: Playing beyond the fingers to sculpt beautiful phrases (Debussy Arabesque no. 1)

Many piano students who practice Debussy’s Arabesque no. 1 tend to grab and articulate notes, rather than let them flow from energy streaming down relaxed arms into supple wrists.

Reliance on fingers-down playing becomes the panacea for accuracy, while it sacrifices poetic musical expression.

In the video below, I demonstrate how phrases can be sculpted with a relaxed, supple wrist, that moves up, down, and rotates from side-to-side when needed. It can even draw little circles of motion to curve musical lines.

Above and beyond the wrist is the central fuel provider: arms free of tension.

In harmony with undulating wrists, they realize an Impressionistic palette of rolling arpeggios and melted cadences that characterize Debussy’s music.


One of my favorite quotes from Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase pertains to beautiful phrasing:

“You can learn much from nature. Take a moment to look at a tree. Find the branch that is moving the most quietly. Feel how it might feel, as though a gentle breeze is moving your hands. Your hands may sway gently, back and forth, similar to the way a branch moves. Let this feeling move into your arms, enabling them to increase their span of movement and change direction. Imagine that the breeze is carrying your hands on gently curving paths of air currents. You are releasing your expression through your own individualized choreography of movement.”

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The Chopin Bb minor Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 1, and arm/hand rotation/phrasing (Video)

Chopin’s Bb minor Nocturne (Night Piece) requires a player to use a full arm rotation to fluidly play the arpeggios in the left hand that span over an octave. These broken chords which fill a large space by their expansion, create a Romantic underpinning for the molto cantabile heart-rending melody in the treble.

If the wrist, hand, and arm don’t work in unity to execute the bass figure which permeates the whole composition, then the player will quickly tire and the tone will become inhibited.

When I rotate my arms in the course of playing this work, I feel like I’m swinging them toward and away from my body. My elbows with their curvaceous movements, in particular, have wide a wide range of motion. Intertwined with the arm and hand movement is the undulating or flexible wrist. It’s suppleness advances phrase-sculpting and shaping, and its follow through motion allows a player to “breathe” through a composition. (both treble and bass lines)

A pervasive feeling of TWO impulses per measure further lifts the music, so it’s not bogged down in six. (6/4) This rhythmic adjustment helps the player float more naturally in half measures until the final cadence. It’s with a unity of hands, wrists and arms nursing phrases along.

Seymour Bernstein talks about an “upper arm roll” that allows a pianist to have more control over phrasing, dynamics and nuance. He encourages the use of large levers–not just fingers down playing.

Mildred Portney Chase, in her book Just Being at the Piano explains how she focuses on a “release” motion when practicing.

“I may play a short phrase and in the release, allow my hands and arms to move away from the instrument and then back again as a dancer would, with a feeling of grace and fully in contact with the last sound played. Or, I may simply move, using the gesture in choreographed movement to a musical phrase. This may undo any tension that might bind the fingers in playing out the phrase.”


I like to think of the arms as playing the fingers, perhaps like by-passing the keyboard, drawing music from the strings inside the piano.

The only way perhaps to begin to illustrate what often seems a bit beyond words to describe is to embed an example.

In this reading, I make it a point to study phrases that had particular flow and nuance, and store these in my muscle memory bank.

The touch/feel part of music-making is often under-played (pun intended) Notes only have meaning as musical ideas drawn from inspiration allied to fluid movement.

Learning individual notes in the early learning process, should be wedded to the singing tone– to beautiful phrasing and nuance. From the very first exposure to a new piece, ( as Mildred Portney and Seymour Bernstein wisely say) the savoring of each musical moment is a treasured one.

This tableau posted by Seymour Bernstein nicely frames the process of reaching deep down into oneself for musical inspiration:

The backdrop: Aria from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations


You and the Piano, A Lesson With Seymour Bernstein, Part 4