Our two girls have finally reached the age when they can be put to bed by someone other than Mommy (that only took 8 years!). And what does this mean? Wahoo… date nights! Dinners out that don’t include chicken strips and fries… long walks by the ocean without a 40 lb weight on Trevor’s shoulders… car rides where “Let It Go” is not on our playlist. Yes, date nights have been heaven.
But don’t get me wrong… our kids absolutely love our date nights too because it means that one of their two beloved Grandmas snuggles with them in bed and lets them stay up late, texting us with those silly little emoticons to say goodnight.
Trevor’s mom met us at the door a couple of weekends ago laughing and shaking her head. Our 3 year old daughter, Halle, had interrupted her as she read a bedtime story and said very seriously “Grandma, please read with more expression!”.
How To Teach Expressive Piano Playing
If you know Trevor and I and our quirky sense of humor, and if you’ve been using the TEDDtales Technical Exercise books and know the kinds of stories we create… then you’d have guessed that he and I both read with “over-the-top” expression. Poor Grandma thought she was just reading a story… Halle expected an all out theatrical performance!
But this got me thinking about piano students who play with expression vs. piano students who do not. It certainly makes as much of a difference to piano playing as it does to story telling. But how do you teach someone to read with expression? How do you teach someone to play piano with expression?
Check out our 5 Expressive Piano Playing Tips below:
1. Always have a story – Just as adding expression while reading a dictionary would be incredibly difficult, playing a piano piece without some sort of story in mind is just as difficult. The story doesn’t have to be extremely detailed, but identifying some sort of situation, scene or character will always inspire your students to play more expressively. I like to write “story snippets” directly on the sheet music (sometimes above each phrase). For example “The waves began to crash harder and harder against the side of the boat.”
2. Use Visual Cues – Lots of public speakers will highlight, bold, underline or italicize key words that they want to emphasize while they speak. This helps them to properly arrange the inflections in their voice as they speak the sentence to draw attention to the important word(s). You can help your piano students do the same with their music by using color to highlight notes that need special attention.
3. Find Wrist Freedom – Being a fluent reader is key to being an expressive reader. In piano, a lot of expressiveness comes not only from mental awareness, but also from physical ability. This mean that correcting hand shape, wrist tension, fingering and overall muscle coordination is important. Find help with wrists in particular here.
4. Have a Reason – Expressive readers want to be engaging because they want an attentive audience. In order to add expressiveness to their playing, your piano students need to have a reason to do so!
I’ve come across many students who just want to get to the end of the piece without making any mistakes… they’re not so concerned with “extras”. Giving your students lots of visual and aural examples of expressive playing and discussing what they hear, what they like about what they hear, and what differences it made to the performance can often give them a reason to take the risks they need to take to then add expression to their piano piece.
5. Have a listen – Feedback from others (as Halle so kindly provided to Grandma) and being able to hear and see yourself play is key to adding expression. Audio or video record your students playing frequently. Don’t prompt their answers, but do ask them to tell you what they liked about their playing and what they thought they could improve upon beyond “I made a mistake there”… ask them to really reflect upon their overall performance and how it would affect others who were listening.
Expressive Piano Playing From Day One
So much of what we teach to young beginning piano students is about the “nuts and bolts” of piano playing. But it is possible to place equal importance on expressive playing right from the very first lesson. Even the simplest exercises and pieces can be made expressive if your piano students are taught to think of them as such. Commit to it and watch the magic happen!