Four Easy Things to Do
to Make Your Playing More Musical

While true artistry at the piano takes years and years of playing -and listening- (to music of all kinds), there are four simple things you can do with any piece to make it sound more musical immediately.

1. Bring out the melody.

The melody must be separate from the accompaniment. Usually this is done by making the melody louder. (In Baroque music, this is done with varying articulations.)

In your music, find the melody. It may be on top; it may be on the bottom; it may be in the middle of the texture. The melody is often in the right hand, but as you advance to more difficult literature, the melody is just as often in the left hand or divided between the hands in the middle of the texture or fragmented and tossed back and forth between the voices.

Find the melody notes and circle them with a red pencil. These are the notes which should be prominent, and the red calls your attention to them.

Be aware that there may be sections in the music which have no melody at the moment. This is what I call "filler." (In a sonata or symphony, the proper music theory word is "episodic material.")

2. Pay attention to dynamics.

Find them and mark them. I like color coded dynamics and mark them with triangles: red for f, green for mf, purple for mp, and blue for p. FF gets two red triangles, pp two blue, etc. Sforzandi and accents are orange. The triangles are to differentiate these marks from both the melody circles and any "wake up!" circles you put around notes you always seem to miss.

Also look for crescendi and decresendi. I usually mark them in green (circle words and trace over hairpins).

Once you know where dynamic marks are, observe them. There may be other dynamics not printed which you will want to add. This will come to you as you play - - usually after you learn the notes and actually start to listen to the music you are making.

Note: The earlier the music is, the less information of any kind is given on the score. Bach, for example, does not give phrase or tempo markings. As we approach the modern day, the printed score is more explicit. Contemporary composers - - especially composers of student music - - even write in fingering!

3. Find the ends of phrases, mark them (I like green hash marks), and lift there. That is, make a "hole."

When you do this, you find that music is like the law of conservation of energy: the time for the hole has to "come from somewhere." Where it comes from is the note just before the lift. Think of the lift as an eighth- or sixteenth-note rest which you subtract from the value of the previous note.

Occasionally the composer will help you out by writing in rests, but this is not very common.

Sometimes, however, there are slur marks to help you (especially in "later music"), but sometimes not. And sometimes one note will be the final note of a phrase -as well as- the first note of the next one! (Clementi and Brahms delight in this!) Finding the phrase ends can be challenging sometimes, but you still have to make a decision. Remember you can always change it as you study and learn the piece.

4. Observe feminine endings. These are phrase endings in which the last note of the phrase is placed in an unaccented position in the measure.

For example, in four-four time, the accented beats are one and three. Therefore the unaccented beats are two and four. If the last note of the phrase is on the second count (very common), that note on the second count should be softer than the note on the first count.

I like to think of those two notes as "press - release." I sometimes use the analogy of sticking your finger into a marshmallow: you press your finger in on beat one and pull it back on beat two, with the marshmallow "slowly" following your finger.

Another way to think about feminine endings is with poetry. Actually, that's where the idea is rooted! Think about the phrase, "Mary had a little lamb." Say it out loud. Where are the stressed syllables? "MA-ry HAD a LIT-tle LAMB," yes? Press-release, press-release, press-release, press. You can see that this phrase does not have a feminine ending because the last syllable is an accented one (press). This ending is called (surprise!) a "masculine ending."

How about the word "Hallelujah?" Now, here's a feminine ending. You would not say "HAL-le-lu-JA." That's awkward and clumsy.

Yet another way to think of feminine endings is to think of your grandmother. Would you run up and kick her in the shins? Indeed, not!

So, when you come to a feminine (unaccented) phrase end, you don't want to play that last note very loudly (that is, kick granny). You want to pull back (don't kick granny). In fact, I often call feminine endings "grannies," to remind my students that just as they wouldn't treat their grandmothers that way, so they should not whack that final note of a phrase.

I mark feminine endings with the same symbols used in poetry scansion: - u.

Note that many times in music you will find, say, two eighth-notes with a slur joining them, but not located at the end of the phrase. That is "composer-speak" for a feminine ending on the two halves of a beat. Make sure the second eighth is softer than the first.

You probably will first encounter these in Clementi sonatinas, and they're common in Mozart, and Beethoven, too, for example.

An anti-granny is when all visual musical intuition points to an unaccented note, but the composer -wants- it to be an accented note, usually for reason of rhythmic syncopation. Sometimes you will find sfz, <, or < > [pair of accents, not pair of dynamic hairpins] printed on this note. (Mozart often just writes f in this case.)

Note: Remember that accents and sforzandi are contextual. An accent in a passage marked p is not anywhere near as loud as an accent in a passage marked f. So for an anti-granny, just stress it a little so it stands out in context; don't blow the lid off the piano.

(Now that you have the phrases marked, go to the next level and see how they're constructed. You need to find the high point of each phrase and then know how to use it.)

So, now you're all set. Even if these four ideas are applied in a fairly mechanical way to each piece you undertake, you'll immediately hear substantial improvement. When you hear those, you begin to train your interpretation more towards intuition and artistry.

copyright 1998, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


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