When teaching piano students I am constantly reminded that language is very subjective. One moment a student can be looking at me, nodding with complete understanding and then the next moment… deer in the headlights.
Just last week I was using the words “rise and fall” to describe a certain phrase, when the deer in the headlights bolted in front of my metaphorical car. My teen piano student was looking particularly confused (or was it bored… I’m not sure). So I abandoned language altogether (well, not completely) and decided to approach phrasing in a much more colorful way.
Break Out The Crayons – Using Gradients To Show Phrasing
You’ll need your trusty pencil crayons (as if they don’t already have a permanent spot beside your piano!) and that’s it!
But what is a gradient? A gradient is a color that blends from one intensity to another. You can achieve this by shading lightly with your pencil crayon and then varying the intensity of the color based on your desired intensity of sound. See the example below:
Using degrees of color intensity is a really effective way to show intensity of sound without messing about trying to find the right words to describe what it is you are wanting to hear. With this visual, your piano students… a) won’t forget their phrasing and b) will be able to include more subtlety as they transfer what they see into what they play.
Other Bonuses To Using “Gradient Phrasing”
Other wonderful things I’ve discovered while using this way of indicating phrasing are:
a) By using a variety of colors you can also mark similar phrases – this way of finding patterns in your students’ music is a very effective learning and memorizing tool.
b) Using gradient phrasing allows your students to easily be looking ahead, and therefore they are more able to plan their expression as they play (this avoids reaching the height of their dynamic range before the actual climax of the phrase or vice versa).
c) Using color to show intensity also doesn’t interfere with dynamic markings – this allows you to show the difference in phrasing within a mezzo piano versus phrasing within a forte marking. You can either match gradient colors with dynamics (so all phrases within a mp or p marking are green and all phrases within a mf or f marking are red etc.) or you can highlight the dynamics in a different way and continue as you would in (a) above.
d) Gradient phrasing works with even very young children – there is an inherent understanding when it comes to color intensity representing sound intensity, and therefore even young children are able to show great amounts of subtlety in their phrasing.
Remember to Hand Over The Reins (or the Pencil)
This activity becomes even more effective if your student first hears the phrase and then transfers this into a gradient themselves. With my piano students, I will either play the phrase while they listen and then create the gradients, or they’ll play the phrase, we’ll discuss what we liked about what they played, and then they’ll create the gradient. In either case, your students’ abilities to transfer what they hear into what they see will make this much easier when they then have to do this in reverse (transfer what they see into what they play/hear).
Having motivating repertoire to explore phrasing is also key in having your students fully engaged in the process. And when it comes to motivating material, PianoBookClub is your go-to source. For just $8 a month we send you an entire book of supplementary repertoire with a studio license to print it forever! See the fun we’ve been delivering here!