Notes from the Piano

Articulation and Phrasing – Following the Score

If there is one thing which I find really frustrating as a piano teacher (and yes, it is okay to admit that!), it is the sort of ‘blindness’ to the score markings, in particular articulation.

I am not sure where this ‘score blindness’ comes from, I certainly ensure that my students understand the importance of paying attention to all performance directions, however, I still find myself repeatedly reminding students to pay attention to the articulation in particular.

I know there are many different approaches to learning a new piece, but my own belief is that it is really important to learn it musically from the start, with attention to detail, I am not a fan of the ‘learn the notes first’ approach, experience tells me that our ear then begins to hear a phrase a certain way and then it is hard to ‘unlearn’ what we have heard. For me, attention to detail from the outset is paramount.

I am fascinated and curious to learn then, why so many students just do not do this, despite repeated reminders. I think it may come from them not being able to resist the urge to ‘play through’, again this is something we discuss in lessons, however what happens in the practice room is often very different to what we may have advised our students about quality of practice!

I wonder also if it comes from not enjoying the process of practising; I personally love the entire process of unravelling a score, absorbing every detail and bringing the composers intentions to life, really getting inside the music. I think if one does not enjoy this process then it will perhaps always be the case that details get missed as the objective in that case is to learn it as quickly as possible, however, if one has paid careful attention from the outset then the end result will not only be more accurate musically and stylistically, but the arduous task of correcting inaccuracies will not be needed.

I am most interested to hear from other teachers what methods they employ to ensure that students really do observe the details in the score, and whether they encounter this type of ‘blindness’ to articulation in particular.

Articulation is of course about ‘how’ we play the notes, and for me this is of equal importance to ‘which’ notes we play.

Attention to articulation ‘lifts the notes off the page’ and turns what would otherwise be some sort of monotone phrase into music.

I am curious as to whether there is some link with the lazy way people often speak and the lack of attention to grammar.

When discussing articulation if I demonstrate the difference between playing with and playing without the correct articulation, students can always hear it, therefore does this mean that they are not listening to their own playing as they practice?

It is fascinating that students who play other instruments or who sing, often really pay attention to bowing and to breathing and can hear the difference that these make to their phrasing, and yet have not related this to their piano playing. I had a discussion about this during a lesson this week with a new student, an advanced piano student who is also a string player and he had not made the correlation between the two things at all and said he had always felt that the notes are already there on the piano and therefore the sound and the effect cannot be changed, he had a completely different approach to his string playing. I wonder if some of this is because with string, woodwind, brass, voice, the listening process to hear the notes you are making is more acute and perhaps these students listen differently, or less, to their sound at the piano.

This leads to another question, how many piano students are singing in their head as they play, I am always astounded by how many tell me they are not! I draw their attention to their sports, ask them to think about what they might do if they are going to take a penalty kick for example, would they just kick the ball with absolutely no intention of thought about where they want it to go? Of course not, there is always a plan, a thought process which happens just before the ball is kicked, why then can this logic not be applied to their piano practice? Surely, we need to hear the sound we want to make in order to actually make it. This applies to tone production as well as articulation, there are so many possibilities with tone production and the tone we want is very much related not just to era and style, but also to harmony, phrasing and articulation.

It remains a mystery to me why this is so often ignored, I have of course, asked the question, ‘I just forget’ is usually the answer, or ‘I just wanted to learn the notes first,’ but ‘why’, is my question, and as yet I still do not have an answer which makes much sense to me.

Articulation is about playing with intention, the composer’s intention (if you have a good edition of the score) and is of course, often related to musical style/era, genre, we do not play Mozart in the same way we would Rachmaninov, the writing is not the same, the texture, the voicing, the harmonic language.

I do believe that some of this lack of attention to detail comes from everything being easily accessible at the touch of a button today, and perhaps of the way of language and speech are changing, but I also think that some of it comes from not listening-by that I don’t mean in lessons, I mean to oneself; but I also mean listening to lots and lots of music of many styles, eras/genres, going to concerts, listening at home (there are certainly endless means of doing this today) and listening actively, not passively.

I wonder also if in this world where we are constantly bombarded with noise from so many forms of media, if many people do not now listen with intention, listen actively.

Silence is a wonderful background for listening, as Debussy is often quoted as saying, ‘music is the space between the notes.’

Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.