How to Play Expressively on the Piano

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how to play expressively on the piano. Sometimes you hear musical artists, and it gives you chills listening to them play. What is the secret? How are they able to evoke that kind of emotion in their playing? Playing expressively is the key!

There are many aspects to expressive playing.

One aspect is just the sheer sound that somebody gets out of their instrument. On the piano, you might not think there would be such a connection. Obviously, a singer has their own quality of voice based on their physiology. On wind instruments, you can also identify a player just by the sound they get. Certainly, if you’re a clarinet player, you can discern the sounds of your favorite clarinet players. The same thing is true for the piano. There’s a distinctive sound that different pianists get. The way they approach the keys, the balance of the hands, which notes and lines are brought out – all of these factors enter into the equation.

Today we’re going to talk in depth about three fundamental aspects of expressive piano playing:
Dynamics – Phrasing & Rubato.

We’re going to start with dynamics. Dynamics, in a nutshell, are the louds and the softs in your piano playing. The origin of the piano, going back to around the year 1700, was from a harpsichord builder by the name of Bartolomeo Cristofori. He built a harpsichord that could play soft and loud called a pianoforte. It was the first keyboard instrument that could play with a wide dynamic range due to its hammers striking strings and, most importantly, escaping those strings after striking them. That is what planted the seeds for the evolution of the piano as we know it today.

How do you achieve dynamic contrast on the piano?

There are many different ways to achieve dynamic contrast in your playing. For example, in the beginning of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1, Beethoven explores dynamic contrast in a big way. He uses an amazing amount of dynamic contrast right in the opening bars. You can hear tremendous delineation of fortes and pianos, rapid fire from one to the next. That’s one type of dynamics in piano playing. But there are more subtle uses of dynamics as well. Think about the Chopin B minor prelude, for example, and the gorgeous lines that are created with the slow rising and falling of dynamics. That prelude also demonstrates the use of bringing out different lines. The melody starts in the left hand, transitions to the right hand, and then goes back to the left hand. That’s the choice of the performer, bringing the attention of the listener to different lines within the music. Dynamics can be very well delineated, almost to a shocking extent, like in Beethoven, or they can be more lyrical with rising, falling, and intertwining of lines, and the beautiful sound that you can create by using arm weight instead of just letting your fingers percussively play each key. Arm weight is the key to getting a sense of a singing line with a beautiful tone.

Let’s move on to phrasing and its importance in musical interpretation.

There are two aspects to phrasing. One is the way in which notes are connected or detached through staccatos, slurs, and accents. But a phrase is also like a musical sentence. Just like when you speak, the intonation goes up in the middle of the sentence and comes down at the end. That’s kind of like what a phrase is in music, not to be confused with phrasing, which, as I said, is the way in which notes are connected or detached. A simple Bach minuet would sound lifeless without the delineation of the phrasing. Delineating the phrasing makes a huge difference in the sound of music and the expressiveness that is brought to it. Phrasing encompasses how you articulate the architecture of a phrase of music. For example, in the beginning of the second movement of the Beethoven Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 3, you can hear the rise and fall of the musical line, which is written with slurs. You want to create that line with a rise and fall in the melody. Even though it’s all written with just long slurs, there is a rise and fall to delineate the phrases. The slurs indicate the phrases, so it’s not just a series of random notes. There is an architecture that makes it expressive. You can hear how expressive the music is when you make it clear where the phrases start and end, and let them grow in the middle. It’s just like the way a singer takes a deep breath, and towards the middle of the phrase, allows more energy and beauty to emerge from the music.

Rubato is another incredibly expressive device.

Rubato isn’t really found until 19th-century music; therefore, it’s not a factor in the music of Bach or even Mozart. Rubato is a slight speeding up and slowing down of a phrase without gaining or losing time. This works magnificently well in the music of Chopin, but it doesn’t work in Baroque music, which is intended to be played straight rhythmically. Playing a piece like the B minor Scherzo of Chopin with no rubato lacks expressiveness. Playing it with just a touch of rubato propels you forward from phrase to phrase.

The secret to effective rubato is being right on the beat where it comes.

Although you are speeding up and slowing down, you should never gain or lose beats. How can you speed up and slow down but never gain or lose a beat? The trick is, instead of thinking of the pulse of the fast notes, you think of the pulse of the longer note value which gives you freedom within the beat. That is one of the secrets to negotiating rubato without gaining or losing time. You can feel the slow beat, which gives you space to have some fluidity with not just the dynamic rise and fall, but also with the slight speeding and slowing down. That’s what rubato is all about.

There’s an art to playing expressively on the piano.

There are many factors to playing expressively. Just the sound you get on the instrument, you can get a harsh sound or a beautiful sound depending on how you approach the keys. Striking from above, you can get a harsh sound because you don’t have control. For example, if you are playing big chords, they can sound harsh if you don’t support them by being on the surface of the keys. You want to drop all the weight of the arms from the surface of the keys. Arm weight is also crucial for playing melodies. By using the weight of the arm, you achieve the analog of the breath in your playing. It’s amazing the difference in the sound you can get! We’ve learned so much today about the use of rubato, the phrasing and delineating of phrases, as well as dynamic articulation. These tools allow you to get a beautiful sound out of the piano, and be able to play expressively. That’s what it’s all about – eliciting emotions in the listener. I hope you’ve enjoyed this! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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