Musicality is the answer to the question, “How do we turn the notes on the page into music?” It is generally defined as the quality of being musical, or used to describe a sensitive and emotive performance. Musicality is interpreting the music in your own unique way. Musicians want to do more than play accurately, they want to tell a story with their music, and take the listener along with them.
There are things that even a beginning piano student can do to increase musicality:
- Listen to recorded music with a critical ear. Find the melody, and listen to it getting louder and softer. Are the notes high, low or mid-range? Does the tempo fluctuate? Think about the rhythm, and the phrasing. Phrases are like musical sentences, and there are breaths or silences between them. What is the instrumentation? Is it piano music, a band with a singer or an orchestra? Which instruments are carrying the melody? Get comfortable singing along with the melody. Singing is a great way to connect to the melody, and to develop an idea of how you want your melody to sound.
- Next, consider the melody of the piece you are playing. Play the melody alone, physically taking a breath at the end of each phrase. Use a pencil to mark the spaces between the phrases in your sheet music.
- Once you become comfortable playing the melody notes, consider which notes you might like to play louder or softer. Sometimes musicians play notes louder as they ascend and softer as they descend, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. If you’re playing a song with lyrics, which phrases are the most important or emotional in the song? You might want to play those a little louder, then get softer on the less prominant phrases.
- Work on playing legato, which means smoothly connecting the notes (unless they are specifically marked as staccato, or have lyrics that are to be sung in short bursts like the phrase “It’s up to you” in the song New York, New York).
- Record your playing to hear if the rhythm sounds correct. Are the eighth notes twice as fast as the quarter notes? Tap or clap the rhythm of complicated phrases. “Getting the beat” is best accomplished by feeling the rhythm in your body, so tap the rhythm until you absolutely feel it! Once you have a good sense of the rhythm and melody, some songs and pieces allow for rubato playing, which means being free with the tempo. Discuss the appropriateness of playing rubato (i.e. speeding up and slowing down a little as you are moved to do so) with your piano teacher, or listen to other interpretations of your song on Youtube or itunes to see what other musicians have done.
More advanced students should do all of the above, including singing melodies (you can wait until you are alone in your home if you’re too shy to sing with others around!) and tapping out rhythms that you know aren’t quite there yet.
- Think about your pedaling. Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein called the damper pedal “the soul of the piano.” The pedal not only sustains the sound between the notes, but also enriches the tone of your piano. Listen to the difference between using a half pedal (depressed halfway down) and a full pedal (depressed to the floor). Which technique sounds better for the phrase you are playing? Record yourself using the pedal both ways if you aren’t sure. Sometimes just touches of pedaling here and there delivers the most tasteful tone to your piece.
- Think about your touch. How does your hand approach and lift from a key? Like tennis, our follow-through can affect the tone of the note. If you’ve ever watched a professional pianist, you’ve probably noticed that they can take a long time lifting their hand from the key in a slow melody. It’s not just being showy. Having an intention of how you want the key to sound affects how you approach and lift from it. Watch some of our renowned pianists such as Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Vladimir Horowitz on Youtube and observe their hands. While I believe that economy of movement leads to better accuracy, you might want to experiment with a slow, curled, upward release of your hand from the keys for increased expression.
- Think about your body. The ideal posture is a straight back that pivots from your derrière with relaxed shoulders. Free up your body to move forward and back with the flow of the music, but take care not to hunch over the piano to avoid shoulder and back pain.
- Relax and lose yourself in the music. Think about a memory from your life where you felt the emotion that you wish to convey in your piece, and play from the feeling it evokes in your body. Fully release to the sound and sensations the music produces within you.
That’s musicality. Let’s talk more about it in your piano lesson!
With love and music-ality, Gaili