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We have all heard it from our beginning (and sometimes more advanced) students that awful, wooden, unmusical playing. What can we do to fix it? If we tell them to crescendo to a certain note and then get softer, they stiffly climb up and down the dynamic ladder, and it sounds even less musical! Can musical playing be taught, or do some students just “have it,” while other students most decidedly do not? In this issue, two teachers share their creative approaches to teaching musicality. These ideas will not only increase your students’ joy of playing, but also make the lessons more interesting and downright fun for you and your students!

Using a child’s natural creativity

by Rachel Ferer

Artistic sounds

The joy of studying any instrument comes from making music. Music notation, often the primary focus of initial lessons, can be a mystery to many beginning students as they try to learn a new language and symbol system. Interpretinmusic goes far beyond a basic understanding of notation; it is the ability to internalise the music and attach one’s own thoughts and feelings as a performer. One of our main goals as teachers should be to guide our students toward developing their own personal interpretation of the music they study, and this can be taught while students learn the basics of notation.

I have found several ways to allow for creative exploration and interpretation during early level study. Expressing a piece in different art forms often helps translate music into more easily understood ideas and concepts. Visual and literary creativity is often further along in development than musical creativity among young children. This makes it easier to draw on those creative outlets to apply to their study of music. Every student has different creative strengths; therefore some exploration is needed to find the most effective out let to interpret their music. Some students are very elaborate storytellers; others are good with Iyrics even inventing their own words; while others are talented visual artists.

Creative stages of development

From early childhood to young adulthood there are stages of creative exploration. According to Jane M. Healy in Your Child’s Growing Mind,1 children experience Spontaneous Creativity until age 7, and from the age of 8 to II they go through a stage of Literalism. In Literalism there is a focus on skill practice and learning structure. Creative expression is present in this stage, but the child needs a good teacher to help them develop this ability. Mature Creative Expression is the final developmental stage, in which the young adult is able to combine inspiration and execution to create original artwork. I have noticed that students in the Literalism stage are often hesitant to talk about what is beyond the written page. However, once they have opened themselves up to exploration of their music through a visual or narrative interpretation, they understand more fully how it enhances their ability to make music.

Describing the character

During this stage I find that using words to describe the character of a piece leads to further creative exploration. I often begin by having the student identify whether the piece is happy or sad. We then narrow it down to more specific and descriptive words that help create a context or develop a story relating to specific musical ideas. While working on Old French Song by Tchaikovsky, Sarah described this G minor piece as melancholy, and from that word we were able to develop a story about this “song.” The story Sarah created paralleled Romeo and Juliet, complete with the moment when the heroine is stabbed in measure 22 at the C minor chord (see Excerpt I).

After relating this story to the piece, Sarah’s musicality improved significantly, and she was more connected with the music. Her story also helped her memorise the dynamics in the piece.

Excerpt I: “Old French Song” from Album for the Young, Op. 39 by Tchaikovsky (mm 17-24).

Drawing the feeling

Some students express themselves better through visual arts, and Chinese Painting (from Music Pathways Solo Level A published by Carl Fischer) is an excellent piece to explore with these students. Built around the pentatonic scale, this piece uses characteristics associated with Chinese music, including fourths in the accompaniment that sound like bells. With a title like ChinesePainting, it is only natural to create a painting on paper or in one’s mind! This watercolour by Alianna allowed us to discuss texture and colour in music (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1

She also presented a theme of Chinese culture with her depiction of a Chinese kite flying in front of a temple, and this led to a dialogue about Chinese music and instruments. When several of my students visually interpret the same piece, I am careful to not let them see each other’s creations, so each one will be completely original. Over the years, Boat on a Lak(Music Pathways Solo Level B) has yielded many different boats as well as settings for the boat. Alec created a very detailed ship that helped us discuss the idea of playing with strength and grandeur (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2

Kate created a very different colourful boat, which brought up the idea of colour in music (see Figure 3).

The stories that often come out of these pictures enhance discussions of timing, structure, dynamics, and other musical elements. 

Figure 3

Rewriting the title or lyrics

Sometimes a title fits the character of a piece; in other cases it is better to create a new title. My students have given some very interesting and imaginative responses when they renamed a piece. One very creative student, Ashley, has written new lyrics for pieces. She gave Volga Boatman the words “This is heavy, yes so heavy” for the first four measures (See Excerpt 3).

The word “heavy” was given to the half and whole note, thus reinforcing the rhythm and character of those notes.

The words she created for Just a Bit Blue work as a rhythmic aid. The middle two lines have the following lyrics attached, “Just a bit blue, just some blue, it’s my favourite colour. It’s the colour of the sky, of the sky, of the sky” (See Excerpt 2).

The repetitions of “of the sky” not only aid in the rhythm, they also mimic the repetition of notes in this section. 

Excerpt 2: “Just a Bit Blue” mm. 5-12 from Music Pathways Solos Level A. © Carl Fischer. Used with permission.

Excerpt 3: “Volga Boatman” mm. 1-4, from Music Pathways Solos Level A © Carl Fischer. Used with permission.

Creating the context

If we want to teach musicality, we must be prepared to guide our students past the notes on the page. Creating a visual and literary context around a piece gives our students a sense of ownership that enhances interpretation and provides important rhythmic and memory tools. When students create their own interpretation, the music breathes with life and vitality, becoming more enjoyable for the performer and more meaningful for the listener.

Moving from the notes to the music

An ordinary box can have endless possibilities in the eyes of creative student.

A student’s natural expressivity

I’ll never forget the day that my seven-year-old student John walked into his piano lesson with an alligator made out of a box. It was complete with carefully carved out eyes, a beautifully shaped snout (thus distinguishing it from a crocodile!), and made from cardboard masked by green crayon scribbling that must have taken at least an hour to complete.

I was amazed.

Where I would have seen a box that needed to be crushed and hauled off to the recycling bin, my student saw raw material that begged to be shaped into a reptilian friend.

What do they see? What can they see? This incident prompted me to think about John’s experience at the piano. When he sat at the piano working on his pieces week after week, did he see a bunch of notes that had to be played correctly? Or did he see and hear raw musical material that could be shaped into an Angry Alligator? 2

“What note is that?”
“Did you play the right rhythm there?” “Where was your crescendo?”
“What about that sforzando at the end?”

I realised that these types of questions might help a student pay more attention to the score, but they did not help the child see beyond the notes to connect to the musical and expressive content of the piece. If I didn’t teach John to stop playing notes and begin playing music at this early stage in his musical development, how could I ever expect him to grow into the kind of pianist that makes good interpretive decisions and renders an artistic, expressive, compelling performance?

What kind of interpretive decisions can a young beginning pianist make? I believe we can find the answer to that question by looking at how students express themselves in day-to-day life. Once we discover these creative and expressive capacities in our students, we can creatively apply their experiences to their budding pianistic abilities. In this way, we shape a child’s natural abilities into a meaningful musical experience.

Having a musical conversation

One activity I like to do with beginning students who have just learned about the groups of two and three black notes is a “musical dialogue.” In a conversation with my student Raphael, I discovered that he was very interested in dinosaurs. When he spoke about them, the rather stilted tone he used to talk about other things melted away into a naturally expressive and excited cadence. After discovering his interest, we planned and rehearsed a conversation about dinosaurs.

“Hi, my name is Jenny!”
“Hi, my name is Raphael!”
“I really like dinosaurs.”
“I do, too!”
“My favourite dinosaur is the Triceratops.”
“My favourite dinosaur is the Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

Next, I asked Raphael to place his index fingers on each of the notes in a group of two black keys. I spoke my first line in the conversation and while doing so, played the group of two black keys, alternating between the notes at the same pace and volume as my speech. Raphael replied, both by speaking his line in the conversation and by playing his group of two black keys.

After finishing the conversation, I asked Raphael to imagine having the same conversation in different scenarios: outside on the playground, in a library, when feeling sleepy right before bedtime. In the musical conversations during these scenarios, he instinctively adjusted his playing to fit the situations, making it louder and faster on the playground while he played slower and softer right before bedtime.

In this activity, Raphael made his first interpretive decisions. He showed that he could adjust his playing to fit the musical context. The best part about the activity, though, was that his interpretive decisions were based on his natural expressivity and did not require learning a new concept. It helped Raphael think of the notes that he played as a coherent and meaningful phrase, rather than just an unrelated series of tones. This connection of speech inflection and delivery with musical “thoughts” or phrases can be cultivated at more sophisticated levels to help the student produce progressively more beautiful musical phrases.

Reading between the lines

The next activity I usually do with my students helps them see that there are unwritten musical principles built into their music-principles that can only be followed when one reads between the lines, or interpretthe music. This activity also draws on the student’s everyday experience of breathing while speaking or singing and can be done with most pieces in a primer level lesson book.

Pieces written for beginners frequently include well-planned lyrics in which grammatical junctures coincide with phrase endings. I often have my students sing along with the words in the score and breathe at those spots where both the musical and textual ideas break. In doing this, students can learn to connect a breath while singing a musical line with a “lift” at the conclusion of a phrase. Even if a piece does not include phrasing slurs, the lyrics act as a guide by showing students when a break in sound makes sense.

Making dynamic decisions

When my students are learning to play with legato and basic dynamic contrasts, I introduce them to some unwritten principles about the dynamics of phrasing: that the final note in a phrase is frequently tapered, and that most phrases have one or two notes which are the “goal” of the phrase and therefore receive the most emphasis. Through a basic understanding of speech inflection, however, students already instinctively know these rules. They know that it would sound funny if someone made the last syllable in a sentence the loudest. They also know that the meaning of the sentence is affected by choosing word stress; “How are you today?” means something different than “How are you today?”

By creating activities in which musical phrases are directly connected to speech inflection, I help my students continue to develop their ability to think of a series of notes as a coherent musical thought, complete with notes that are stressed to convey the meaning of the phrase and a graceful, tapered ending. A typical activity might be creating lyrics to fit a musical phrase and experimenting with choosing different notes to highlight. Students select a note and word to emphasise and then see if their choice works by making a crescendo up to the important note and getting softer after it. Students can select several different notes, play their selections, and decide which one sounds the best based on the context. While they may need a little help in making this decision in the beginning, usually by the third or fourth time they can easily hear which note should be the “goal” of the phrase.

Using life experiences

A student’s life experiences can also be explored in learning to creatively interpret a piece and give an expressive performance. Students can connect a rollercoaster ride to the tension and repose in a musical phrase. Tone can be explored through a child’s knowledge of colour. Voicing can be related to a student’s experience of trying to listen for one person speaking in a room full of other noises. Rhythmic flow can be enhanced through imaginative movement exercises.

By doing activities like these with my students, I have found that even at an early stage they can begin to see their music as something that is creative and expressive, something that is much more than a series of correct pitches. When they make connections between their natural creativity and their music, they are more interested in what they are playing. After all, isn’t an Angry Alligator with accents that snap like jaws and crescendos that show him emerging from the murky water much more fascinating than a bunch of notes, dynamics, and rhythms?


1 Healy, J.M. (2004). Your Child‘s GrowinMind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence. New York: Broadway Books.

2 The Angry Alligator by Dennis Alexander (Alfred Publishing, 2002).


This article first appeared on www.ClavierCompanion.com.