Making Music Musical: Techniques of Musicality

Good morning readers! I hope you have all had a wonderful weekend. 
Something that I love about my piano studio right now is the variety of students I am able to teach. I have a great mix of ages and levels in my studio, from preschoolers to adults and beginners to more advanced students. It keeps me on my toes and helps keep things interesting. 
This week I’d like to focus on some techniques for the intermediate to more advanced students (although these techniques could be applied on a simpler, smaller scale to students of any level, and a teacher would be wise to begin teaching these techniques right from the beginning!). I’d like to talk about ways to make music musical, and how to teach our students to play with artistry and beauty.
It is relatively easy to teach our students how to play the correct notes, rhythms, fingerings, and even basic dynamics. But what about making real music out of that combination of notes and rhythms? Let’s talk about some specific techniques that can be applied to really make some music! Ready, go – 
1) Finding the Balance

One of the most important techniques that a pianist can learn and master is the ability to achieve a good balance between hands, fingers, and musical lines. For example, let’s take Romance, Op. 24 No. 9 by Sibelius – a great piano piece for working on musicality.
image source
Notice the repeated staccato D-flat major chords in the right hand (marked at piano) and the legato melody in the left hand (marked at mezzo-piano). In order to bring out the melody, the right hand chords must be played as quietly as possible to allow the listener to hear the left hand notes. 
This technique of independence of hands (playing different dynamics or articulations with each hand at the same time) is easier said than done.  I often have my students play small sections like this very slowly, with a lot of exaggeration to emphasize the difference between the two hands (playing the right hand super, super soft and as close to the keys as possible, while playing the left hand very loud and even staccato to really hone in on those contrasting dynamics. (Of course, in this example, you will eventually want to make the left hand smooth and legato and put a little bounce into the right hand – but at least that technique will help master the dynamics!) A good way to improve this technique is to take a scale or other simple exercise (Hanon works great) and practice playing one hand soft and the other hand loud, or one hand staccato and the other hand legato. It is good to switch off so each hand gets a chance to practice each technique.
Sometimes independence of fingers within the same hand is needed in order to bring out the top note of a chord, or the top line of the music (when the melody is played in the top notes of the right hand, for example). In the Sibelius example above, perhaps you’d like the top note of each chord in measure 6 to be a bit louder than the other notes. I find it helpful to visualize the top part of my hand (finger number five) as being heavier, or to lean into that side of the hand and use more weight on those top notes.
What are some ways that you teach independence of hands to your students? I’d love to hear your ideas! Stay tuned for more tips on making music musical!
Jennifer Boster

8 Responses to “Making Music Musical: Techniques of Musicality

  • The longer I teach, the earlier I find myself introducing this concept. Which is true for most technic…even if they don't technically know what they are doing, I want to make good use of those very impressionable years when their skills are still developing. I usually start by having them pat their head and rub their belly at the same time…just for fun. :0 Then I do soft and loud first as that seems a little easier for most than legato and staccato. And since most are stronger with their right hands, we play the left hand alone first and very softly – just a basic pattern, not even reading notes. Once they can play it without thinking, I have them add a simple RH melody played forte. My first and second graders are mastering it which is awesome for adding interest to their simple little songs.
    Love your blog!! I'm hoping to do my first summer music camp this year. 🙂

  • Karla – thanks for the comment! I loved what you said. I also do the rub the tummy/pat the head thing – kind of fun! And great idea to start with left hand alone!

  • I'm not sure where I originally heard of this 3 step practice strategy for balancing hands, but I love it and use it a lot… starting with pentascales with elementary students after they are familiar with playing hands together scales staccato, legato, forte and piano.
    For Forte L.H. vs piano R.H.:
    While playing the left hand notes forte work through the following steps with the right hand
    1- Touch the keys, but don't actually play them
    2- Depress the keys lightly – you may or may not hear any sound
    3 – Play the notes piano.

  • Heidi – thanks for sharing that 3-step approach – I love it! I am definitely going to be using it with my students. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hi Jenny,

    My name is Monique. I am also a piano teacher, but in Arizona. I've really enjoyed looking through your blog and reading about your different strategies for teaching piano to children.

    I love your explanation about making music musical. It's something that I think a lot of pianists pick up without every really thinking about how to actually teach it to those just learning piano.

    One way that I teach independence of hands to my students is by playing it for them. Most of my students are audio learners and I've learned that they play best when they hear how it is supposed to sound. So say for example, they are playing a song that requires the left hand to be loud and the right hand to be soft, I demonstrate it first. Then, I will play it again and explain to them how I am doing it. Next, I let them give it a try. Of course, it's not perfect the first time they try it, but when I come back the next week, they have almost mastered it!

    I am in the midst of setting up my own blog on piano teaching. Feel free to take a look at it and comment whenever. I'd love to hear more of your ideas!

  • I just went over this concept with two students yesterday – one a first year student and the other an upper intermediate/early advanced student. With the beginner, we sang the melody of the song (the Drum Song from the Piano Adventures Bk 1) and then I emphasized keeping the LH close to the keys while she sang and played at the same time. Hearing the melody (and being able to sing it) helps the student know which line of music to let ring out. With the more advanced student, playing a Bach 2 Part Invention, he needed to understand the exchange between the RH and LH and the melody and I had him lightly highlight the melody with a colored pencil so he could visually see how the melody moved between each hand.

  • Great article Jenny, love your blog. I’ve heard that musicality is so important that a wrong note can be excused but to play a piece with all the correct notes and no musicality is just plain boring and uninteresting. Not having grown up playing an instrument or with any music lessons I find your articles on musicality like a rare gem, now that I am eventually playing an instrument. Thank you so much!

    • Jenny
      2 years ago

      Trex, thanks so much for the nice comment! And I love what you said – musicality is so important, and isn’t that point of making music is to convey emotions and ideas through the music? Best wishes for your music study!