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Mark_C I think you nailed the essence of it - the most basic component of phrasing is subtle dynamic control from one note to the other.

And it's really, really hard to master. In fact it may be the most difficult aspect of piano playing. Difficult passage work can be conquered with slow repetition and mindless drilling but phrasing requires the most intense conscious application of effort and your ear that I can think of. You are absolutely right about most pianists not properly tackling it. The difference between a pianist who works on this religiously and one who doesn't is massive.

From experience I can say it is the most annoying thing to get right, especially because of the issues that develop from piano to piano. To be good at phrasing you probably need at least 20 levels of dynamics in your touch that you can initiate at will, that takes into account the registers of the piano, the inherent ringing of the high notes, the decay of the piano which varies on note lengths, and worst of all, the tiny differences between one cruddy piano and the next one. The last difficulty in particular is so annoying that even a dedicated artist could end up grumbling and giving up.

Phrasing is my arch enemy that I know I need to work on most but because it's so taxing and annoying, of course I don't work on it enough. I guess bit by bit I'll build the discipline but it's so frustrating I can work on it like 15 minutes a day maximum. And as a result, I'm torturing my ears most of the time.

I think the best way to practice it is simply to pick little phrases from your music, and, well, practice them! Singing gives you ideas but remember singing isn't the only instrument or illusion we can create.

If you want to hear sublime phrases, listen to Schiff. Especially his Bach, where it's 3-4 sublimely crafted phrases weaving into one another. I think every single note that guy plays is a different dynamic level from the next. When you really pay attention it's mind boggling and as a result his tone is the most beautiful in the world imo.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZRbp1YOCBc

Oh that E major, so serene. Especially the gorgeous B section. And his second recording of the WTC is even better but you can't find it on YouTube.

Last edited by Roland The Beagle; 02/01/15 10:01 PM.

Danzas Argentinas, Alberto Ginastera
Piano Sonata Hob. XVI: 34 in E Minor, Franz Joseph Haydn
Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 1 in F Major, Frédéric Chopin
Prelude, Op. 11 No. 4 in E Minor, Alexander Scriabin
Prelude and Fugue in G Major, Well-Tempered Clavier Vol. 2, Johann Sebastian Bach
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Well, from my experience I can tell that phrasing has to be explained very detailed (let students see the lines of motifs, phrases and sentences and the main sections in them) and also Teach student How to convey this ideas through playing. And that exactly what they need to start playing from their own heart, feeling free, creative, and making their own interpretation of played music.

If we don't do this, and simply give them a "feeling" where to breath, where to slow down, where to play louder, where to make a little break, it's not really gonna work because they would simply try to imitate this ideas without correct feeling inside, and keep playing just imitating us. They wouldn't be able create and feel by themselves anything, and next time they would make the same mistakes in new piece.

This is an example of what I am talking about. A masterclass by Cristina Ortiz.
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qPZWAmtSkh4
She does feel music perfectly and all her suggestions are absolutely correct. He doesn't feel phrasing, doesn't express emotional image free enough, and there is no sense of form, and that's why his playing is boring. And I know that's just a masterclass, but yet it should show how teacher advices actually work with student. So she was trying to give the student right feeling to make phrasing and add different emotions to his playing. But she couldn't really Teach him how to do it, so he was trying to copy her with no sense and keep playing basically the way he played before.

And there are lots of examples like this. Lang Lang's main topic on every of his masterclasses is phrasing too. He would show the line, sing the line, dance the line haha but yet, he wouldn't be able to Teach how to make the line smile

That's why we need to Teach students how to make phrasing. If we can't we need to learn how to do this.

Last edited by piano_friend; 02/02/15 01:31 AM.


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Originally Posted by Roland The Beagle


If you want to hear sublime phrases, listen to Schiff. Especially his Bach, where it's 3-4 sublimely crafted phrases weaving into one another. I think every single note that guy plays is a different dynamic level from the next. When you really pay attention it's mind boggling and as a result his tone is the most beautiful in the world imo.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZRbp1YOCBc

Oh that E major, so serene. Especially the gorgeous B section. And his second recording of the WTC is even better but you can't find it on YouTube.


Beautiful example. Thanks for sharing.



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Originally Posted by piano_friend

That's why we need to Teach students how to make phrasing. If we can't we need to learn how to do this.


I think we have to distinguish between what is driving the line, which is human emotion, and the technical feel for creating it on an instrument as difficult as the piano.

Expressing emotion through actual playing can't be taught, because a teacher has no idea what the student is feeling or wants to convey and can't do it for them. They don't know why the student loves that piece and they can never fully understand it. Nor is it appropriate for the teacher to tell the student what to feel or how to express themselves. We are all naturally emotional and expressive beings, and any teacher who does anything but encourage that reality is hurting their students. Is it that they simply get it naturally, and you don't, haw haw!?? Not really. They can do it better than you because they were exposed to it 20 years earlier, or they just have a knack for tactile control of emotions that takes more work for you. They aren't any more or less emotional or expressive than you are - we are all human. The wrong attitude of some teachers convinces their students otherwise, and saps people of their desire and confidence to be an artist. Maybe not everyone is destined to express their emotions on a piano, but what all teachers should do is give you insight and inspiration in how to better express yourself through your art.

It is true that if there is no emotional drive in the student for their music, it will come through in their playing because all they can do is imitate something they are being taught or rely on muscle memory. That is the nature of uninspired art. But I believe this problem has a simple diagnosis. The bimanual dexterity and training required to channel emotions on the piano is staggering and perhaps greater than any other instrument. It requires a massive commitment of time and emotional energy to get there and the difficulty of the study threatens to drain us and leave us devoid of the passion we otherwise would bring into it! Instrumental study is seemingly paradoxical - the difficulty and intensity of the work required can drain our emotions and leave us expressionless at our instrument, and yet the instrument and its potential to express ourselves is the very source of our passion. The resolution of this paradox is instrument must always be seen as a means to an end of human expression. Even a tool as powerful as the piano is just a tool for your self-expression, which no teacher should get in the way of. Great pianists like Hamelin or Gould have stated that the piano is merely the instrument they know - it is their chosen tool (or the one chosen for them when they are young). It has enormous power for the expression of the human soul but it is not the soul itself.

Controlling a line on the piano is, quite simply, WAY harder than singing one with your voice or creating one with most other instruments. In addition to the reality of the digital nature and decay of the notes, the line is always just one part of a much thicker texture that your brain has to juggle and manage with two separate hands and 5 fingers on each of different strength and character. And of course, there's our old pal Bach who says to Chopin "that's a nice line you got there...can I add three more?" Singing is probably the easiest and most straightforward way of expressing yourself and that's why it's recommended to practice your lines by singing them. On the other hand, singers are the most vulnerable performers on stage by far (they don't have a big black desk or a metal pipe to hide behind..) and that's why I plan never to be a vocal soloist that the public cares about. As performers, I regard singers the highest. For the rest of the instruments I love you guys too because I need you for my Concerto smile

This doesn't mean we can't study the phrase. In fact, studying the phrase is crucial work for the musician, as long as its never removed from its emotional context. It is one of the most intense applications of conscious effort and ear training there is. To sustain emotional interest and passion through such difficult work requires a special kind of person - not just musically talented, but possessing the dedicated and tireless soul of an artist. Most of us will struggle to express our emotions at all on the piano and its up to our persistence, as well as seeking inspiration to keep us on that journey.

There are several issues with practicing phrasing. Because the stress on notes implied by phrasing often contradicts other things like metric stress, if we are wise, we should never take on a piece where we can't include phrasing alongside every single one of these other things at the same time in the learning process. There is also the issue of emotional expressiveness in practice versus on the stage. Some artists struggle to be expressive when they are practicing, most likely because they are swamped with technical hurdles and they don't want to. But ideally, when you practice, you are practicing some degree of the expressiveness you will be putting into a performance. Emotion alone can't drive your hands to expressive playing - those motions must be rehearsed. Phrases must be 'programmed' that way but they are programmed with emotional intent to begin with and realized with emotional intent in the performance, even if there is periods of emotionally dry repetition in between.

I've always felt the greatest performers and pianists were the ones who ultimately prized the moment of the live performance over anything in practice or a recording studio - this is the concept of drama, risk taking, captivating the audience. At that point, from an emotional point of view, what was going on in the practice room goes right out the window. The audience can tell if you are into what you are doing and then they will get into it with you, even if you make a stupid mistake and apologize for it out loud! No one wants to hear some famous pianist come to town in order to regurgitate some program they put together for a competition where it sounds like every piece was played dryly 25 times the night before, even if it is technically flawless.

What is driving the phrase? In the end, emotion. The rise and fall of a line is meant to evoke tension and release and titillate the ears. Also very important is the relationships of phrases to one another. There is something called the question, and the answer, period structure, form, etc. It is not productive to spend too much time studying one phrase in isolation because then you neglect the greater picture of the piece. These musical sentences should be telling a musical story of sorts. When I hear Schiff play the Appassionata, I see a Greek tragedy in motion (he planted that idea in my head with his lectures). On the more upbeat and energetic parts, I imagine the characters in a fit of enthusiasm or bloody-mindedness, even though their doom is sure. In the final coda, I picture a dance of the dead. Schiff is my favorite pianist because it isn't just that his individual phrases are meticulously crafted and shaped, it's that he somehow strings them all together in the piece to paint a complete musical picture from start to finish that is emotional, textual, visual, and ultimately, transcends any of these sensual experiences alone and becomes something more. This is the power of the piano in the hands of the right artist. Not only is he a musical genius and prodigy who studied at an early age, but he is also of the right character and disposition. Listen to his lectures, and you won't find a more humble and dedicated servant of the music - his passion and inspiration are contagious. No doubt he works as hard as any who has lived to study the scores, history, composers, text, musical theory and construction, and the live performances and recordings of his great predecessors.

This is ultimately how he succeeds where others fail - the tireless, uncompromising soul of the true artist that can never be satisfied is the one who will persist in expressing him or herself and the will of the composer through such never-ending lifelong studies that go far beyond the practice room. The key for all of us is to get out of the practice room, both literally and figuratively, because that is the place where that inspiration for many of us goes to die. Always ask yourself, why are you singing to begin with?

I started piano at 26 years old and I'm now 29. My hands hardly ever seem to achieve what I want them to on the piano - I struggle to express myself. But bit by bit, I get there, even as the frustration drains me and has the potential to kill my desire to be expressive. Sometimes my emotions are just dead, and I find I lack the emotion to make anything of the phrases even if I try. On the other hand, sometimes in a cheery and expressive mood, I sit down and play a piece effortlessly and more beautifully than I've ever played it simply because I'm relaxed and enjoying myself. I think the remarkable thing about true artists is how they can continue to maintain high degrees of emotional expressiveness when for most of us we can't achieve that state at will let alone sustain it the way they do. If you aren't enthusiastic about the music, if you aren't passionate about it or interested in telling a story with it, well, you simply won't do it!

Last edited by Roland The Beagle; 02/02/15 04:49 PM.

Danzas Argentinas, Alberto Ginastera
Piano Sonata Hob. XVI: 34 in E Minor, Franz Joseph Haydn
Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 1 in F Major, Frédéric Chopin
Prelude, Op. 11 No. 4 in E Minor, Alexander Scriabin
Prelude and Fugue in G Major, Well-Tempered Clavier Vol. 2, Johann Sebastian Bach
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Deeply thoughtful and beautiful illumination of "why music," really. You've given me and I would think others much to ponder and be receptive to. Thank you very very much.


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Have students exposed to good phrasing. All sorts of good phrasing. Great recordings of piano music, as well as vocal literature, orchestral literature, other repertoire. It doesn't come overnight, but it's a sense that can be developed with time, experience, and listening hard.

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Originally Posted by Scout
Deeply thoughtful and beautiful illumination of "why music," really. You've given me and I would think others much to ponder and be receptive to. Thank you very very much.


Thanks! Sometimes I love to write long posts smile I think about the subject and then all of a sudden I get lost in ideas and can't stop until I've written them all down. I'm glad you appreciated it.

More Schiff singing at the piano:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRXgrKMUd30


Danzas Argentinas, Alberto Ginastera
Piano Sonata Hob. XVI: 34 in E Minor, Franz Joseph Haydn
Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 1 in F Major, Frédéric Chopin
Prelude, Op. 11 No. 4 in E Minor, Alexander Scriabin
Prelude and Fugue in G Major, Well-Tempered Clavier Vol. 2, Johann Sebastian Bach
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For BETTER and WORSE, I learned phrasing and musicality in a really chaotic environment. No theoretical, maudlin, philosophy here, just plain old everyday chaos. I’m not going to say that I learned the finer, subtle nuances of beautiful phrasing or even a particularly pleasing musicality. But this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

(20+ years ago)
The first real piece I learned to "play” was The Entertainer. Perhaps I had a little bout with A.D.D. at the time, but The Entertainer got into my bones and I would play it constantly, sometimes for 2 hours straight. Saturday mornings is when this would normally happen. I’d get up at 5am to watch cartoons, and then sit at the piano and start playing The Entertainer.

At first I’d just play it mindlessly, but as the house would start to wake up I’d start unconsciously playing the piece according to whatever was happening. First my brothers would start fighting over which cartoon to watch and I’d play the piece as if I was in the heated debate (making fun of my brothers in the process). Then they’d start wrestling and I’d follow suit on the piano and make it sound like a wrestling match. After they settled down, I’d play it against the cartoon on TV, just to make my brother’s laugh or to annoy them. I remember I could make them fall over laughing by playing it really, really, really SAD (with the appropriate body language), and then just at the end go crashing into a happy ending.

And then I’d just keep playing and playing and playing The Entertainer, over and over again.

A little later, my mom would wake up, and do the whole proud mom thing. So I’d play the piece like that, like there was something I was so proud about. Then a little later when she realized I wasn’t going to stop playing the same song OVER AND OVER again, she’d get exasperated and complain and I’d play the piece in an exasperated/complainy way. Eventually my Dad would yell from the other room to play something else or “Shut Up!”. At which point I’d play the song like that with the appropriate crescendo to “Shut Up!” This usually had my brothers in stitches. Understand I didn’t really care so much what people were feeling, I was just throwing back their emotions in my own rebellious way. You know when someone’s gets in your face and you mimic them and it makes other people laugh, that’s what I was doing.

At this point the dogs had usually fully woken up, would get excited and start chasing each other over, under and through the furniture, and I’d furiously play The Entertainer, to create more chaos, the fun of it was to add in the appropriate sudden starts, stops, pauses and crashes that ensued from the dog chase!

Funny thing was, usually at this point my piano teacher would show up and I'd go disappear (I hated piano lessons).

The button to this story, one Saturday morning after all of this happened again, my piano teacher showed up for lessons. In desperation, my Dad pleaded with him to teach me another song, any other song. My teacher says “Yes! I brought a new piece for him today! He’s gonna start learning the Flight of the Bumblebee!” ha ha ha, payback’s a “you know what”.


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The idea of teaching the musical phrasing through poetic rhythms absolutely correct (I use it in working with students over the iperformance of standards and improvisation) , however:
in which public primary schools teach ancient Greek poetic rhythms: trochee, iambus, anapaest and amphibrach? In Israel for example nowhere, including music colleges and academies.

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great video AND great playing!!

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Originally Posted by Nahum
The idea of teaching the musical phrasing through poetic rhythms absolutely correct (I use it in working with students over the iperformance of standards and improvisation) , however:
in which public primary schools teach ancient Greek poetic rhythms: trochee, iambus, anapaest and amphibrach? In Israel for example nowhere, including music colleges and academies.


Yeah, well that might be a good idea to motivate a student to read some poetry and let them see the difference of rhythm smile



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Originally Posted by Roland The Beagle
[quote=piano_friend]
I started piano at 26 years old and I'm now 29. My hands hardly ever seem to achieve what I want them to on the piano - I struggle to express myself. But bit by bit, I get there, even as the frustration drains me and has the potential to kill my desire to be expressive. Sometimes my emotions are just dead, and I find I lack the emotion to make anything of the phrases even if I try. On the other hand, sometimes in a cheery and expressive mood, I sit down and play a piece effortlessly and more beautifully than I've ever played it simply because I'm relaxed and enjoying myself. I think the remarkable thing about true artists is how they can continue to maintain high degrees of emotional expressiveness when for most of us we can't achieve that state at will let alone sustain it the way they do. If you aren't enthusiastic about the music, if you aren't passionate about it or interested in telling a story with it, well, you simply won't do it!


Wow..
I could finally take some time and read all your post. That was really really good. I felt like reading a book smile you were, indeed, inspired...



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