This article is for teachers who are working with students on phrase shaping for the first time. It’s a concept that can be introduced early in piano study—usually after crescendos and diminuendos are covered. The topic of phrase shaping is quite broad, so please note that this article focuses in on the first steps for students who are completely new to the idea.
When piano teachers introduce the idea of phase shaping to a student for the first time, the following analogy (in some form) is usually given:
“A phrase is a musical sentence, and just like a sentence that you read in a book, musicians must add punctuation to show that it is a complete idea. Therefore, we must shape a phrase to show where the musical idea begins and ends, just like adding a capital letter and a period to a sentence we read.”
While this statement is both accurate and a concise comparison of how music imitates language, it doesn’t really provide details about how one should go about shaping a phrase and where the starting point is for a complete beginner. For teachers, conveying the principles of phrase shaping can be tricky, but with gradual steps, students will begin to learn the standard rules of phrase shaping and develop an ear for creating musical sentences.
Teaching the Basic Phrase Shape (Crescendo, then Diminuendo)
The general punctuation for a phrase is starting soft, getting louder to the high point, and then tapering back to a soft volume. As a teacher, it’s sometimes easy to forget how complicated this step can be for students who have never applied crescendos and diminuendos to their playing.
As a starting step for students, I try to first ensure that they know the notes in a phrase fluently before even attempting the phrase shaping. Also, I have students isolate phrases and repeat them individually, several times in a row before applying dynamic contrast. This gives the student a chance to become more familiar with the idea of a single phrase that is separate from the rest of the song and internalize the way it sounds.
After the isolation of the phrase, I then start working from the parameters of just making the beginning and end piano (soft). The following step is to then find a destination note in the middle of the phrase and crescendo to it, followed by a diminuendo to the end of the phrase.
Teaching Forward Motion in a Phrase
The other component is phrase shaping that is occasionally overlooked is the need to teach students how to achieve a sense of forward motion through the phrase. As teachers, we can sometimes think that the crescendo has it covered (it’s a natural inclination to go faster as you get louder). However, I think the idea of forward motion deserves extra attention, as this idea in combination with dynamic contrast is really what creates the “sentence” idea.
The goal is to have the student push the musical line forward with an insistence on getting to the end of the phrase. Therefore, I usually highlight where the “end note” is and encourage students to not let up until they get there. One idea that helps me tremendously is directed counting that has the dynamic contrast of the phrase. In other words, my counting follows a phrase shape. I have students count with me in this fashion as well so they can internalize the way a phrase flows from a beat perspective.
Also, if a song has lyrics, even better! You can speak through the words in the same way you would with the aforementioned dynamically varied counting that follows the shape of the phrase. This shows how the sentence (word-wise) and the music create the same overall, complete idea.
Introducing Comparisons to Singing
On piano especially, it’s very easy for students to become detached from the melody line in a song, because of the percussive nature of the instrument, as well as having multiple musical ideas occurring at once. In phrase shaping, I like to use singing and breathing with the phrase to show how the dynamic contrast and forward motion concepts introduced really just make the melody line sound like it’s being sung. This involves practicing phrases outside of playing them on the piano and singing together, or breathing only between phrases and never in the middle. With creativity, removing the phrase from the piano context and focusing on the sound can really help the idea of a “phrase shape” come to life for a student.
It’s All In The Approach – Beginning Piano Lessons
Phrase shaping is a difficult topic for both teachers to teach and students to grasp. However, with a systematic approach that illustrates musicality in various ways, a teacher can help clarify and advance a student’s understanding of how to create musical sentences. Different ideas will resonate in unique ways with each student, so as a teacher, make sure to vary and expand upon ideas that are working in each individual scenario and lesson.