Teaching phrasing and expression to piano students is my favourite part of my job. I love helping piano students turn “good” into “fantastic”. But during my many, many years of teaching piano lessons I’ve noticed that students with a true “musical ear” are actually few and far between. Without this internal ability, teaching a piano student to effectively and beautifully phrase their piece and to add genuine expression can be a difficult task.
What is a Musical Ear?
This probably means many things to different people, but to me, this means a student who is able to innately predict what “should” come next in a musical phrase, who can identify the climax of a phrase, who can easily pick out a melody line, correctly sing the tonic of the piece when you play the dominant chord, and who naturally “feels” the tension and release of harmonies.
The Times They Are a Changin’…
We are in a time where piano students do not come from musical homes as was the case several generations ago. And don’t get me wrong… it’s not a bad thing! More and more parents are realizing the benefits that piano lessons provide and are adding piano lessons to the list of activities amongst hockey and horseback riding. But this also means that you are dealing with students whose musical exposure is often limited to the Top 40, TV Commercials and video game soundtracks. Period. The hours and months and years of musical exposure that helps to develop innate musicality just haven’t happened. Most piano students today don’t even know Christmas Carols beyond the commercialized Rudolph-Jingle-Frosty category!
Creating Musical Piano Students
While you can’t go back and inject reams of beautiful and stirring music into the years of your piano student’s life before they met you… you can do the following to help them develop a natural understanding of music:
1) Stress the importance of music at home – Give your piano parents suggestions of great pieces your students should listen to and update this list regularly. And it shouldn’t all be piano. Piano students should be listening to Orchestral pieces, Opera, Jazz, Ragtime, Classical, New Age… anything you can expose them to will have a payoff in their playing. Create a listening chart that accompanies their home practice chart. Kids spend a lot of time in the car these days and iTunes is easy and inexpensive… there’s no reason they can’t get some good listening hours in.
2) Teach your piano students to be active listeners – all of the recordings in the world can blast through your students’ mini-van speakers, but if they’re busy playing playstation in the back seat it won’t make much difference. Include listening time in your piano lessons and ask questions like “Can you name 3 instruments that you hear right now?”, “Is this major or minor?”, “Can you hum the melody line with me?” etc. Teach them to be actively involved in the listening process to keep their brain engaged and absorbent.
3) Ask “Non-Reading” Questions About their Music – so much of what we ask is related to what our piano students see on their music book page. Remember to ask what they hear as well. Play phrases and have them identify the climax (or the “exciting note” as my little ones like to say), play dominant chords and have them sing the tonic, play part of the melody and have them sing the remainder, clap while singing the melody line, sing the resolution to areas of harmonic tension… there are endless possibilities.
Once you have your piano students’ ears turned to the “on” position then having them actively listen while they play will be an easier task; that which makes music music will begin to be internalized. And once piano students can truly listen, magic happens when you then turn to teaching phrasing and expressive playing.
One of the most important ways to encourage a musical ear is through daily practice. Without regular practice your piano students’ ears will be stuck in the “learning” stage without progressing to the “musical” stage. But how do you motivate your students to practice? With our newest book… “Shhh…Your Piano Teacher Thinks This is Practice” you will set your students on a path to practice for 88 days with fun yet productive activities that promote effective home practice. Purchase the e-book once and print unlimited copies for your personal studio… forever!