Describing and imagining music

My students will remember we did an exercise earlier in the year called The Musical Adjectives Project, where we each wrote down 5 words to describe a piece of music we were studying. You can see the results of this fun exercise here, together with the Word Cloud I created from the all the adjectives we came up with.

Using descriptive words to help you understand the music you are learning, and to help you perform it in a different or better way is an extremely useful exercise. I regularly ask students to think up descriptive words when we are working on a piece together, as well as imagining the sounds different instruments might make, or thinking of the music in “orchestral” terms. The great thing about the piano is that it can be any instrument you want it to be – a shiny, brassy trumpet, a rich, smooth ‘cello, a mellow clarinet – and if you imagine these sounds in your head before you play, you will often find you can create a completely different sound or effects.

First, create a list of, say, 25 descriptive words that could be used to describe the music you are learning – exciting, shiny, sparkly, mysterious, spooky, soft, gentle, moody, for example. Put a star or tick by 10-15 of your favourite words and then narrow that list down to about 5. With these words in mind, experiment with playing a small section of your piece – or even the whole piece, if you like – and think about the effect you created. How did you feel when you played the piece? Did you notice any changes in dynamics, articulation (staccato/legato etc), shaping?

Next, imagine you are performing the piece to an audience, or play for your family or friends. You want to encourage your audience to imagine the same adjectives you thought up without actually revealing them. Compare the results afterwards and see if your audience came up with the same words as you. And if your audience suggests some new adjectives to describe your piece, add them to your list.

You can also use pictures to help you “visualise” what your music is about. Keep a scrapbook of pictures if it helps, or pin a picture in your score.

Remember, this is not just an exercise for early students or children. Some of the greatest pianists use this technique to help them create particular sounds and emotions in the music they are playing. A piece of Beethoven may sound like a grand general marching at the head of his army, while a Nocturne by Chopin might suggest a tender lullaby, or a night-time scene in a quiet, candle-lit room at the end of the day. The key thing is to experiment with descriptions and images when you are practising and to note the effect this has on your playing. You may be surprised by the results!

More on The Musical Adjectives Project here

Create a Word Cloud from your adjectives here


Guest post: More than Just Piano Trivia

Pianist, teacher and writer Catherine Shefski studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, and at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where she was taught by EPTA founder, Carola Grindea.  Catherine has performed as a soloist and chamber musician, has taught “virtual” piano lessons, and writes an informative blog, All Piano, with the mission to “make piano lessons relevant for the digital generation”.

[This post was first published on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist.]

During my piano playing “formative” years, age eight to seventeen, I studied with four piano teachers. Two teachers at college and four post-grad brings the total to ten. Each teacher contributed something to my growth as a pianist and as a teacher. I find myself passing along choice tidbits of information to my students, clearing up confusion about musical terminology and offering practice tips.

I’d like to share just a few lessons I learned along the way, in addition to all the repertoire, which made certain teachers (and lessons) memorable.

  • Piu means “more” and peu means “little.”
  • Piu mosso means more motion and meno mosso means less motion.
  • Accidentals do not affect the same note of a different octave, unless indicated by a key signature.
  • Senza means without and sempre means always.
  • To shape the melodic line it usually makes sense to go to the long note.
  • If there is no fingering written in the score, follow the “next note, next finger” rule.
  • Una corda means use the soft pedal (one string); tre corda means release the soft pedal (three strings).
  • When you have two phrases with identical notes and rhythm, make them different by dynamic contrast or a change in touch.
  • Grace notes in Chopin are generally played on the beat.
  • F# minor melodic scale is the only scale that changes fingering on the descent.
  • m.d. (main droite) right hand and m.g. (main gauche) left hand.
  • With a ritardando at the end of a piece pay attention to the space between the notes. Should be incrementally longer with the longest wait before the last note.
  • When working on very soft passages, practice “excavating the pianissimo.” In other words, begin from nothing and then gradually you’ll get to the softest sound possible.
  • Before playing extended octave passages, try flipping your arm over and reaching an octave with your hand upside down, fingers pointing to the floor. It a good stretch!
  • Sopra means above.
  • Sotto voce meas “under voice”, or soft.
  • A staccato note under a slur is a portato. Think of it as a “plump staccato.”
  • When working for dynamic contrast, practice stopping and preparing before the change.
  • When working with large complicated chordal passages, practice squeezing the chord to shape the hand. Your muscles will remember.
  • Sightread chords from the bottom to the top.
  • To play a passage of thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. legato lift the finger that is to be repeated while connecting the rest.
  • When in doubt sing the melody.

© Catherine Shefski

Guest post: Being a music student…..

Stephen Gott is a piano student in his first year at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance.

Since moving to London from Halifax, West Yorkshire, I have been studying at Trinity Laban Conservatoire (music college) in Greenwich.  I can safely say that studying music whether at primary school, GCSE, BTEC/A-level or Conservatoire is the best decision I have made.

I have noticed that preparing to be a professional musician is a very similar training to that of  a professional athlete or sports person.  Like athletes, musicians have to be very dedicated, attentive, punctual, enthusiastic, passionate, knowledgeable, and calm. Being at a music conservatoire is a great chance for you to meet like-minded enthusiasts, and a wonderful opportunity to work with some of the biggest names in the classical music world.

Although studying music can be very intense, it is also very rewarding. Most music colleges have a higher employment rate than universities. For universities, the average is about 70%, while for  Conservatoires it is 80%. At Trinity College, in particular, the average employment rate, in music, is 97%, one of the highest in the country. Even performing in small concerts is very inspiring: though it may seem insignificant to you, it can be life-changing to someone in the audience.

While studying at Trinity, there is always a lot going on for students. Trinity College of Music is famous for being the nicest conservatoire in the world. There is an element of competition, but it is in a supporting nature.

The campus has recently been used in recent films such as ‘James Bond’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 4’ (‘The Fountain of Youth’) and the latest ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film.

I strongly encourage you to participate in as many festivals and/or competitions as possible. By all means go in to win, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t.  After participating in competitions in Yorkshire, Germany and Scotland, I have learnt that it is the “taking part” that counts.  It’s really useful performing experience, and a good opportunity to meet potential contacts, friends and other musicians.

Some of the most important things to remember if you are planning to start a career in music are:

  1. Practise: make sure you have a recital programmes to offer a venue, and at least two concertos.
  2. Concerts: Go to as many concerts as possible. And it doesn’t have to be classical music all the time.
  3. Experience your surroundings: visit art galleries, museums, famous landmarks etc
  4. Socialize (but not too much!): don’t keep yourself locked up in the practise room for days on end.  It is very important that you know what is going on in the world.
  5. Most important of all: ENJOY PLAYING THE PIANO

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

Trinity College Welcome video


Welcome to the blog of Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio. This blog is intended as a way of exchanging information between teacher, students and parents, and to offer useful, interesting, and (I hope!) inspiring posts on subjects such as repertoire, effective practising, exam preparation, concerts and festivals, piano maintenance, pianists’ health, and simple music theory. I will also post links to videos and music, which I hope will be interesting and helpful, while the ‘blog roll’ in the sidebar has links to other relevant sites. Students are invited to offer their own posts too.

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