Notes from the Piano

Beyond The Notes


‘’The HOW-WHY-WHAT of piano playing means applying to our studies a searching intelligence of the mind and heart combined with the greatest humility and integrity. This will satisfy every facet of our talent, knowledge, understanding, and spiritual being.’’  Josef Lhevinne

Why do you want to play the piano? What is the drive to take up an instrument which requires developing fine motor skills, coordination, practice and discipline to achieve even the most basic level of playing?

For most people it is a desire to play music they love, to create a beautiful sound, and of course, for most, to share that with others whether that be family, friends, teachers, examiners, adjudicators or a concert audience, which leads them to the piano.

A huge part of playing music is sharing it, it’s communication, even if that is just between ourselves and our piano/the composer, we are aiming to lift the notes off the page to create something that sounds beautiful and speaks to us and others in ways in which words cannot always speak, it is a language beyond words.

Beyond the notes then-so where does the music/the learning/understanding/communication begin?

This is something that I encourage my students to really think about before they even touch the piano; what is the title, is the piece descriptive, what do you want to say to your audience with this price, are you telling a story, painting a picture? What were the composer’s intentions? All of this often starts with the title. We also need to know something about when the piece was composed, the development of the piano of that time and of course of style and genre, a little bit about the composer and also what was happening in the world at the time of writing, where does this piece of music sit within this context, all of this can really help us to understand what the composer was communicating in their writing and how we want to communicate that to our audience. Of course, our own musical intentions/voice is important too, but we must first understand the composer’s intentions.

Many students dive into a piece thinking only about learning the notes, then they might think about layering on some dynamics and perhaps if they have noticed it, phrasing and articulation, this is one of my biggest bugbears, as it is, in my opinion, a hugely unmusical approach.

Once they have thought about the title, I encourage students to spend some time looking through the score before they play a note, thinking about the, the style, phrasing, articulation etc Many publications offer performance notes which can be really helpful to students looking for a little insight into all of the above and some tips on interpretation.

I also ask my students to listen ‘around’ the piece, listen to other music by the composer, to really try and understand the musical language of that time/composer, and indeed other composers of that era/genre. It is also important to listen music the composer has written for other instruments too, so much can be learned by listening to music the composer has written for orchestra for example. If you are approaching your first Beethoven sonata, listening to his orchestral or string music will give you a huge insight into the type of sounds/the tone/timbre, colours/balance that you might aim for in your voicing.

Go to live concerts- I cannot say this enough, yes there is a wealth of music we can listen to at home but absolutely nothing beats the excitement of a live performance, that moment when the orchestra or the artist/band walk on stage, the anticipation, the quality of sound and the energy are almost tangible, you cannot get this from a recording. Go and support your favourite artist/band/teacher performing, go to hear instruments other than the piano, and styles you might not necessarily play, you will develop your ear, your tastes, knowledge and gain so much insight into how to communicate your music.

I say this to all students, not just those who want to be serious musicians, because music is life enhancing/enriching and everyone who invests time and energy into playing an instrument really needs to experience and understand music ‘beyond the notes’ for it is so very much more than this.

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.