While studying in college I learned that although many teachers describe the dynamics forte and piano as “loud” and “soft,” a “finger attack” is a better description for these dynamics. If students think of the words “loud” and “soft” they may end up playing with either tense or floppy motions. However, using the word “attack” will cause students to have musical control as they play. The dynamic forte is a quick finger attack on the keyboard. Students must drop their hands into the keyboard using arm weight and they must do so quickly to create a full, resonant sound.
Some students struggle to play the forte dynamic. If students are struggling with quick falling motions onto the keyboard a good exercise is to instruct them to raise their arm about 1 foot above the keys and dropping fingers one at a time either on random keys or by playing the C/Do pentascale. Students probably will be surprised at the forte sounds that they are making come out of the keyboard! The dynamic piano is a slow finger attack onto the keyboard. Students must still use relaxed arm weight while playing piano sections, but their finger must land and attack the key slowly in order to create a light, feathery sound. A forte dynamic uses a quick finger attack (think: elephants stomping) while a piano dynamic uses a slow finger attack (think: kittens walking).
Tell students to place animal stickers beside the dynamic markings in their musical pieces.
Word pictures are very helpful as students learn about dynamics, and visual reminders are also excellent lesson aids. An activity I once thought of and have used during lessons is telling students to place animal stickers beside the dynamic markings in their musical pieces. Have students decide which animal noises work best for the various dynamics in a song. If there are the dynamics of forte, mezzo forte, and piano in a song, a student could, for example, choose these three animals based on the noises that they make: an elephant (for forte), a dog (for mezzo forte) and a cat (for piano). Using these stickers will force students to find the dynamics in their music. Also, the stickers will be an extra visual reminder for students to play musically while they are practicing at home.Explaining “finger attacks” and demonstrating arm weight makes a tremendous difference in how a student plays dynamics. Also, using stickers provides a fun activity for students while encouraging musical growth.If you are a piano teacher and notice that a student is having trouble differentiating dynamic sections, teach students about quick and slow “attacks” using visuals as a supplement. If you are a parent, listen to your children’s pieces and encourage them to make their pieces interesting by reading the dynamic markings and playing a variety of sounds rather than playing all the notes at just one volume. If you are a piano student, experiment with dynamic sounds on the keyboard and incorporate these sounds into your musical pieces to play expressively.
I typically have 1 hour per week to prepare students for home practicing. While I want students to practice often, I most of all want them to practice well. An important practice tip is fixing mistakes immediately. Recently I’ve found opportunities to teach this principle during lessons and I trust it is encouraging students to practice carefully at home.The first step students must take is finding the problem. One example is students playing notes in a piece of music correctly and in tempo but at a certain point suddenly slowing down. In addition, the most obvious mistake is playing an incorrect note. Another problem is those moments when students freeze in mid-air and just don’t know where to put their hands next! Rather than moving along without giving these mistakes much though, the response after finding a mistake is to stop playing.
After isolating the problem, students should take the next step of looking around. One reason that students get tripped up is that they see two lines of music and feel like there’s just too many notes to decipher! When this is the case students should check and see if the left hand is simply playing the same notes as the right hand but in a different octave, which virtually means that the student only has to be reading one set of notes. Also, another way to simplify notes is to notice the accompaniment and to see whether it resembles a familiar chord or arpeggio. Another reason I find that students get tripped up is that there is a large interval (jump) or a hand position change right before the mistake. A final trouble spot I will mention here is mistakes around musical phrases. In this case students should notice the measure right before the incorrect note, which might be the end of a phrase. After note surroundings are more clear to students, focused practice to fix the mistake can begin.
The third step students must make is breaking the music up. After a multitude of notes are deciphered, play only this section 5 times in a row slowly and correctly (hands separately at first if needed). If the issue is a large interval (jump) or a hand position change, sketching a set of eye-glasses will amazingly prepare the mind and hand for leaps or changes! I am thankful for the violin teacher who pointed out this simple drawing to me while I was in college. After the eye-glasses are written in, play only the jump or hand change 5 times in a row without making a mistake. If a mistake occurs near a musical phrase, practice just before the problem spot and into the problem spot, which in many cases will be the end and beginning of two phrases. Play these 4 or 5 notes consecutively and correctly five times, “breathing” between phrases by slightly lifting the hand. The results will be rewarding and students will either find their initial mistake to be non-existent or greatly improved as they continue in their study of their music composition as a whole.
Teachers, incorporating this “practice” routine into your lesson will aid students in learning how to fix problems on their own. Parents, listening while your child practices will be of help to their musical development. Even if you don’t play a musical instrument, you can at least notice when something is going wrong and you can encourage your child to think and play slowly before they play the music at its regular speed. Students, carefully practicing using the principles written above will steadily grow you as independent musicians. Don’t let little mistakes slide. As I shared with one of my students, “fix it right away!”