Music is a form of expression. Expression is the process of making known one’s thoughts or feelings. Some students find it natural and easy to express themselves at the piano, others have difficulty. Expression does not have to be outwardly obvious. It is not a series of preconfigured gestures. The same body movement can look very convincing on one person, and very contrived on another. Expression is meaningless unless it comes from genuine thoughts, feelings or understandings.
I believe in teaching students to play expressively from day 1. The key is in developing imagination. That’s why Music for Little Mozarts works for the very young beginners – Mozart Mouse and Beethoven Bear are iresistible story tellers.
When teaching expression, one recipe does not fit all. Older students may not respond to stuffed animals. As teachers, we must have many tools to help unlock the student’s imagination and help them to communicate themselves. I do this through using a variety of high quality, contemporary educational music written specifically for students. You may find the following useful when teaching your students to play expressively:
1. Connecting sound and color
It helps some students to feel the character of a piece when we associate it with a certain color. My favorite series in this category is still Dennis Alexander’s A Splash of Color. No matter how many times I have taught it, titles such as Green Tangerine and Zinc Pink still make me smile. Here is my previous review of this series. Zinc Pink has been selected as the Royal Conservatory Share The Celebration Video Countdown Level 3 piece. It was great to see so many students across North America participate in this competition. Here is the winning video.
2. Describing landscapes and geography
Some students may find it helpful to think about certain landscape features such as flowing river, snowy mountains, or giant waterfalls. There is a series by Alfred that focuses on this aspect of imagination. You can read my previous review here.
3. Reflecting on memorable experiences
Asking students to think about things they have experienced may help them relate to the music. It could be a childhood toy, favorite food, unforgettable trip, or memories of someone. Music from the Romantic period is full of these character pieces that create a mental picture of a particular scene, event, or feeling. Think Schumann and Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, which are staples in a developing student’s repertoire.
I am particularly excited to find a new series that I consider the Album for the Young for students that may not be quite ready to play Schumann or Tchaikovsky. It is called Musical Scenes by Joyce Grill. What a delightful set of pieces to help students use their imagination! There are three volumes in the set, from Late Elementary to Late Intermediate levels. The pieces are short, with descriptive titles conveying a specific mood or moment, and encourage students to inject their own musical ideas. There are lots of pattern based figurations with changing harmonies, as well as contemporary rhythms that will readily appeal to many students.
4. Looking at a specific painting or artwork
Some students are visual learners. Asking them to merely think of a color or landscape or a specific memory still may not work for them in terms of helping them to play expressively. They need to physically see something.
I have discovered a brand new series that is revolutionary is this regard. It is called Museum Masterpieces by Catherine Rollin. Catherine Rollin’s Pathways to Artistry series is a staple in my teaching library, especially for transfer students who have limited knowledge of technique, style, form, or how to produce certain articulations and touches.
Museum Masterpieces are piano solos inspired by famous paintings and artworks. What is unique is that instead of searching for the famous paintings and images on the Internet, the pictures are included in the books! The paintings that inspired the pieces are beautifully displayed on a four-page full-color insert at the center of the book, along with historical notes about each painting. This is such an innovative idea! Students not only learn to play expressively through Catherine’s beautiful style of composition, but they also learn about great works of art and artists from different countries and time periods. I can not think of a better way to spend $8.99 on a student – the humble price tag for each of the four volumes that range from Ealy Intermediate to Late Intermediate levels. Every piece is a gem, like the artworks they represent. I can see myself referring to the paintings over and over in my teaching, even for pieces that belong to standard repertoire, especially those from the Romantic and Impressionist periods.
These are some of the ways I help my students to be thoughtful and expressive in their playing. I appreciate having such a vast variety of educational supplementary music available for today’s students. You can view sample pages of all these exciting new books on the Alfred website.