If you teach teen piano students then you know that, for some, expressive piano playing comes easily. Their emotions are almost palpable in their playing, their dynamic range is varied and their nuances come from the heart.
You probably also know that, for some, expressive piano playing does not come easily. As long as the notes and rhythms they play are correct, they consider it a job well done. Asking these students to add some expression usually results in blank stares or intense embarrassment.
So, how can we help students who struggle with expressive playing to find the magic needed to take their skills to the next level? With my “Swirl Formula”… which you can read about in today’s post!
How To Teach Teen Piano Students To Play With Expression
I teach a teen boy who is prone to embarrassment. When he makes a mistake, his “thing” is to fling his hands off the piano with an “Ack!” (I didn’t know people actually said that until I met him) and then fire off a string of excuses followed by nervous ticks and “fooling around” on the keys… in an effort to erase the sound of his mistake from my ears.
He’s a very analytical person. He’s not fond of anything that may make him appear emotional or in touch or sensitive. So, as you can imagine, bringing up the topic of expression is a conversation that I didn’t anticipate would go well.
And I was right.
“No no no no no…” was his anxious, head-shaking response after I modelled a section of his piece to demonstrate how to include rubato. Clearly I needed a different approach.
The next lesson I introduced him to the “Swirl Formula”. I didn’t broach the topic of expression at all – simply noting the fact that we would now be adding variations in tempo and intensity to his piece and that the symbols on his page would tell him exactly what to do and where to do it.
It worked like a charm and so I’m sharing my “Swirl Formula” with you today.
The Swirl Formula For Expressive Piano Playing
The Swirl Formula is what I use to describe an “analytic” approach to expressive piano playing that works well when broaching this topic with teen students like mine. Instead of verbally explaining or demonstrating expressive playing and leaving it up to your students’ interpretations, you instead first map it out directly on their music. Here’s how:
- Choose the parts of each phrase where you would like to include either a variation in tempo (rubato) or an increase or decrease in overall intensity.
- Draw a swirl above the note or notes that are involved
- End your swirl with either an “up arrow” or a “down arrow”. An “up arrow” indicates that the variations in tempo and intensity should be moving towards a note that is higher. A down arrow indicates that the variations in tempo and intensity should be moving towards a note that is lower than the note below the swirl.
- When your student reaches a swirl, instruct him to move his wrist in a “swirling motion” while depressing the key and then to “drag” that tempo and intensity toward the note at the end of the phrase (or according to the marking). Eventually these wrist motions will be significantly decreased, but for now it encourages the wrist flexibility needed for expressive playing.
Here’s a Demo Video For All of You Visual Learners
This planned-out approach accomplishes the following:
- The markings on the music help your students identify which notes in a phrase need to be treated differently in order to add an element of expression (without feeling as though they are guessing).
- Your students have a concrete “formula” to follow and therefore don’t feel as though they are “putting themselves out there” while learning to add expression.
- The “Swirl Formula” approach encourages the wrist flexibility needed to play expressively.
- The “Swirl Formula” approach alludes to the overall flow needed to produce expressive playing; the feeling where everything is in motion (even held note values have a “kinetic energy” within a phrase).
As your teens become comfortable with the “Swirl Formula” you can ask them to add their own markings to a page to begin to make their own decisions about expression and phrasing. You can also decrease their wrist motion until you find a degree of movement that is agreeable.
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