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Promoting Musical Understanding in Piano Performance (By Dr. David Leifer)

by Valentina Jotovic on March 16, 2014

“What exactly are you DOING?”

In the fast-paced society we live in today, which seems to be encouraging children to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible, piano lesson students often breeze through piano practice without regard to what it is that they are actually doing. However, this can be counterproductive, making for an insecure performance when it comes time to perform in a recital. To combat the insecurity that can occur through superficial study of a piano piece that only scratches the surface, it is important that students are fully aware of what it is exactly that they are doing in each piece of music they study.

Conscious awareness in piano performance is essential to a truly competent and confident performance. Why else would colleges of music require students to take so many theory courses as part of their music curriculum? Therefore, it is the responsibility of every teacher and student to incorporate theoretical understanding of the compositional framework in their musical repertoire.

piano_lessons_flemington_njEven at the early stages of learning, it is very helpful to encourage students to analyze the music that they are playing. At the most basic level, looking for five finger patterns, tonic, dominant, and subdominant harmonies, or other helpful patterns in the music will help students have a better understanding of what they are doing what they are playing a piece of music.

At the more advanced level, such as in the study of a classical sonata, it is helpful for students to have a strong harmonic analysis of their music. The benefits of such analysis are numerous. Firstly harmonic analysis can greatly help musical interpretation. For example, a dominant harmony will typically be louder than the more restful tonic harmony. A deceptive cadence is a surprise and should be brought out somehow musically. Pointing out these and other musical idioms can help students make more informed musical decisions.

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Harmonic analysis also helps a student understand the structure of a piece of music. In sonata form, for example, the exposition's first theme will start in the tonic key and typically end in the dominant or relative major/minor. The recapitulation will repeat the first theme in the same tonic key, but will have the second theme written in the original key instead of the “other key” from the exposition. Having students analyze these key changes will help them have a more secure understanding of the work as a whole.

Finally, since harmonic analysis fall under the category of analytical memory, one of the basic types of memory, it is a crucial step in the learning process of a piece of music. Even at the earliest stages, promoting theoretical understanding in piano study is the responsibility of every piano teacher so that our students can have a strong understanding of “what exactly they are doing” when they are playing the piano.

Dr. David Leifer, Piano Instructor

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