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FOREWORD
Piano playing doesnt have to be a continuous struggle. It doesnt have to be boring,
lifeless and it certainly doesnt have to be painful and full of stress.
Piano playing has to be a lifestyle. A lifestyle that will allow you to create, to express
yourself, to find your balance and your unique place in this world. A lifestyle that you
will truly enjoy!
There are many things - I call them magic ingredients - that can bring a spark of life and
a sense of fulfillment to your daily practice and your performances. One of them is
correct phrasing.
Unfortunately, phrasing is often neglected or misinterpreted by most piano beginners
and intermediates (and their teachers). However, this little ingredient can make the
difference between a mechanical, raw and boring performance and a beautiful,
meaningful and captivating one.
Piano phrasing is not difficult: things seem difficult only when we lack the proper
information. Phrasing gets easy and fun once you understand the basics! Thats what I
plan to do in this report reveal the basics of correct phrasing and spice up the recipe
with several secrets which will considerably simplify your practice!
For writing this report, I synthesized the phrasing principles used in the Russian piano
school for achieving a flowing performance full of awareness, inspiration and musicality;
some useful insights from the Western musical tradition; the experience of my
wonderful piano teachers - Lia Oxinoit and Ludmila Vaverco; and, of course, all the
phrasing tricks and secrets that I learned the hard way during 24 years of studying and
playing piano and 7 years of teaching.
The report is structured as a step-by-step guide with many examples, metaphors,
graphics and exercises. I hope that it will give you a new perspective on piano playing,
will show you the way towards a new level of piano mastery, and - the most important
thing - will help you enjoy the entire process!

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
http://www.pianocareer.com/

PHRASE AND PHRASING


UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE
When words leave off, music begins.
~Heinrich Heine
Have you ever witnessed a 3 year old kid reciting a poem?
Besides being sweet and clumsy, the kid is also saying the words mechanically, without
understanding the meaning of each sentence. He or she usually takes breaths between
lines or whenever comfortable, not taking into account the beginning and end of a
certain idea. Have you noticed that the same thing happens with most piano beginners
(and even intermediate students)?
Just like poems (or other types of written and spoken text), musical works are composed
from certain thoughts and ideas - musical phrases - that together form a piece: a
Sonata, an Etude, a Prelude, a Fugue, a Nocturne and even a complex Symphony
movement.
In the realm of music theory, there are many definitions of a musical phrase. These
definitions usually sound like this one: A musical phrase is a succession of notes (or even
motifs and figures) that has a complete musical sense.
For an easier understanding, we can always compare a musical phrase with a spoken or
written sentence. A sentence is a thought, an idea that is expressed via our language. A
musical phrase is also a thought or an idea - the only difference is that its expressed via
musical language: sound and silence, rhythm and dynamics, and an infinite variation of
pitches and timbres. However, as many poets, philosophers and musicians noticed
throughout history - the musics power of expression reaches far beyond the
possibilities of our verbal language.
A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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When youre 3 years old, its normal to be unaware of the meaning of a certain sentence
or phrase. However, as you get older, you begin to speak with awareness, modeling
your intonation and making logical pauses according to the meaning of the idea youre
trying to communicate.
In musical performance, this is the essence of phrasing - its the ability of the performer
(no matter if he or she is a pianist, a violinist, an oboist, a singer or an orchestra
conductor) to express a musical phrase, to shape it, to bring it to life and transform it
into a convincing meaningful message with a clear structure (beginning, middle - or
culminating point - and end) by using the specific technical possibilities of the
instrument.
So, in piano playing (and not only), phrasing is also a special technique that allows the
performer to transform the notes written in the score into musical sentences. Mastering
this technique (personally, I think that it is more an art than a technique) is usually that
significant quality which separates a piano professional from a beginner or an amateur.
Phrases are present in all kinds of music, regardless of style and genre: instrumental and
vocal, baroque and classical, romantic and impressionist, folklore and pop... even the
experimental atonal music of the XXth century has its specific phrases!
Musical phrases exist either you have the ability of understanding and expressing
them or not.
My report is dedicated to the art of bringing these phrases to life in piano playing (or
the art of mastering piano phrasing).

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
http://www.pianocareer.com/

SHORT INTRODUCTION:
TWO LEVELS OF MUSICAL PHRASING
The ability of expressing a musical phrase resides simultaneously on two levels - mental
and physical.
On the mental level, phrasing is the art of visualization.
It is the capacity of seeing ahead of you, of imagining HOW a musical idea (phrase)
should sound before actually playing it. This is not all: it also means imagining the
outline of the phrase - knowing where exactly it begins, where it leads (its culminating
point) and where it ends.
On the physical level, phrasing is the art of making your vision come true. It is the
knowledge and the skills that allow you to technically transfer the visualized phrase to
the instrument, so that what you imagined becomes a reality.
If we make a comparison - it means thinking before you speak and then speaking by
using the speed, intonation and attitude that best match your thoughts and your
intentions! This way, youll avoid saying something stupid and youll make sure that the
thought youre expressing is delivered to the listener in a comprehensible manner that
will guarantee its positive reception. Simply put, in order to express a thought, you have
to know what to say and how to speak.
In time and with enough practice, we learn (or at least we should learn!!!) to do both
things simultaneously, because in the end these skills are the inseparable parts of a
whole - our ability to express ourselves. The same can be said about music!

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
http://www.pianocareer.com/

PIANO PHRASING - STEP 1:


ANALYZING THE PIECE: KNOW YOUR DESTINATION!
OR

THE MENTAL LEVEL OF PIANO PHRASING


A Little Story: Avoid Learning a Piece the Hard Way!
Most things in life are much easier than they seem. Piano playing is not an exception.
However, our human nature has this annoying tendency of doing things the hard way:
we complicate everything and then we complain about lack of time, excessive difficulty
and stress.
How does this relate to piano phrasing?
Before diving directly into the depths and particularities of phrasing, let me give you an
example - a little story that will probably sound extremely familiar:
Imagine that your teacher told you to learn a new piece. What do you usually do? You go home
(or to a practice room), you sit at the piano, you put the score in front of you and you start
reading the piece by taking it one note at a time.
Such an approach is similar to hacking your way with a big knife through an unknown jungle
without even knowing if youre heading in the right direction! Yes, eventually you will find a
clearing or even the end of the jungle, but youll lose lots of time and effort in the process!

Avoid doing things the hard way! Playing piano is not easy, but we certainly dont have
to make it more complicated than it is!
For a better understanding, lets take a closer look at the usual steps of the hard way method,
which is unfortunately practiced by many piano students (being sometimes a result of an
incorrect approach of their teachers):
Sight reading of the notes (hands separate for beginners, hands together for advanced
players). Please pay attention - Im not writing sight reading of the text - which is a
A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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complex term that includes notes, rhythm, durations, pauses, fingering, dynamics,
character, pedal... Im saying sight reading of the notes - which means figuring out
where the notes are on the keyboard and pressing them without thinking about all the
other elements of the text.
Learning the text approximately, without thinking about its meaning, according to what
you deciphered during your sight reading...
Going to class, where the teacher has to correct all your mistakes - many wrong notes,
inexact fingering, inaccurate durations etc... not to mention inexistent dynamics!!!
Going home and trying to correct these mistakes... which is not an easy process,
because your fingers have already memorized everything the wrong way!
Fighting with your tendency of playing the wrong notes and durations mechanically...
remembering to take a look at the score from time to time, where your teacher marked
with fat pencil circles all your mistakes...
Getting tired of this frustrating process - especially when you have several such pieces
to prepare for your next exam - and taking a break... which can last for several days
(after all, youre so busy!).

You lose several weeks or even months in the process of figuring out the text and (hopefully)
the dynamics. When you take a look at the calendar, you see that your exam is in two weeks!!!
Panicked, you start to push your way through the text harder, trying to memorize it as fast as
possible so youll be able to play it without mistakes at the exam.
The result is not hard to imagine: frustration, anxiety, headaches, hand injuries related to
incorrect practice... and the list can go on!

Does this scenario sound familiar? Or, if youre a teacher, are most of your students
experiencing this piano condition?
Of course, in such circumstances its hard to talk about the quality of the sound, about
expressing musical messages and learning the art of phrasing.
Now, lets make things easier!
Fortunately, there is an easy way of avoiding this incorrect method of learning a piano
piece. I will give this method a simple name - Before going to the jungle, find yourself
(or draw) a map!

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
http://www.pianocareer.com/

Usually, it is even easier than that: the composer already did this job for you! Each
musical score (especially if its written by a great composer) is a well-structured map
all you have to do is open your eyes (initially - with the help of your teacher) and learn
how to follow its directions! Guess what if you do this before diving head-first into
reading the notes, youre making your life much easier!
Heres what I mean:
If youre a teacher, dont tell your student to read an unknown piece without playing it
for him/her first. Even before playing, analyze the piece together: you have to explain a
few things about the epoch, the composer and his style, about the message and images
of this particular piece, about its character and structure. Before sending the student
home to practice, show him/her HOW to read the piece. Its even better to begin
reading the work during the class and allow the student to continue reading it at home.
In other words - draw a map of the musical piece!
If youre a student or youre learning to play piano by yourself, dont start reading a
piece without at least looking at it from the beginning till the end and trying to
understand the main elements: message, character, rhythm, tempo, dynamics and
structure! Listening to a recording while looking at the score is even better (especially
for beginners) - this way youll learn to make direct associations between what is
written and how it sounds. After listening to a recording or to your teacher, youll know
how this piece should sound like even before playing the first note! This will
dramatically increase your learning speed, allowing you to concentrate on important
things like sound and phrasing!
In case of small children, this process has to be focused on intuitive feelings rather than
on rational understanding. Even if the child is not capable (yet) of understanding the
structure of a musical piece, he or she can certainly feel it and imitate the teachers
A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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playing. The teacher has to focus on developing the little pianists imagination by
making constant associations between musical ideas and the childs environment:
weather phenomena (sunshine, rain, thunder), animals, people and so on. Imagining a
story that will explain and justify the pieces structure and its dramatic unfolding is a
great approach!
Analyzing a piece and understanding its message and structure is the first step toward
quality phrasing!

Vertical Thinking Vs Horizontal Thinking


Are you familiar with the concepts of vertical thinking and horizontal thinking? These
two different methods of approaching and solving problems can be applied to all areas
of human life, including piano playing.
In music in general and piano playing in particular, its especially important to be aware
of the difference between horizontal and vertical thinking.
Both methods have their benefits in piano practice and a good pianist has to know how
to use them according to his/her needs. However, when we talk about correct
phrasing, horizontal thinking should be our priority.
When I was still studying, my piano and ensemble professors used to tell me: dont think
vertically - think horizontally! In the traditions of the Russian piano school, horizontal
thinking has a special place. It is another important skill that separates those who
achieved some levels of mastery from those who are still taking the first steps in their
piano quest.
Lets dive a little deeper:
Thinking vertically means being in the moment and seeking solutions according to your
present knowledge and resources.
A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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In playing a certain piece, this can be a positive skill (taking a certain difficult musical
fragment or passage and practicing it until it sounds perfect) and also a big impediment
(playing each note or each bar without seeing where the phrase is heading and without
understanding its meaning and structure).
Even if the vertical approach has great results when it comes to overcoming technical
difficulties (I usually tell my students: Take this fragment, put it under the magnifying
glass and learn all its details!), it is detrimental when it comes to phrasing - it means
playing blindly, statically, hitting each note and chord as they appear in the score
without connecting them in a bigger phrase, without using your inner hearing or feeling
how the phrase unfolds and develops. It can be compared to walking (or even driving!)
without seeing the road in front of you!
Thinking horizontally means going beyond what you know or what you see, reaching
with your mind new horizons, seeing things in perspective, understanding deeper
meanings, building a bridge between the present and the future. It is also the capacity
of seeing the bigger picture in spite of all the difficult details that tend to catch and
monopolize our attention.
In piano playing, it means imagining and hearing the entire phrase before playing it. It
also means being aware that each phrase has a certain point of arrival towards which
you have to create an uninterrupted musical flow (or at least create this illusion!).
Moreover, it is also the ability of thinking ahead even while youre playing, so that your
fingers always follow the mental image (and not the other way around!).
In your imagination, you have to be one step (or even several steps!) ahead of your
fingers! Dont allow them to take over - this usually ends up badly!
On a side note: Comparisons, mental associations and examples are very useful in teaching and
playing piano. Heres a comparison that (I hope) will give you a better understanding of this
subject:
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10

If we compare music with water, then vertical thinking (and vertical playing - because usually a
person whos playing vertically is not actually thinking!) is a pond with stale water; horizontal
thinking (and playing), on the other hand, is a river that flows freely; the river doesnt skip or
miss any details in its journey; at the same time, it knows that the ocean awaits ahead.

How to Build a Mental Image of a New Piano Piece?


Its not possible to shape a phrase on the piano without building a mental image of the
piece first.
1. Listen to one or several good recordings (and please dont listen to amateur
recordings from YouTube if your purpose is to learn - life is too short for that! Learn only
from the best - from great professional pianists! Fortunately, you can find on YouTube
(and not only) very good recordings as well). Also, ask your teacher to play the entire
piece or separate fragments each time you need to refresh your memory about how it
should sound.
2. Analyze the dramaturgy* of the piece and its message: What do you think the
composer wanted to express in this piece? What are the main images/ideas/emotions?
How are they evolving? What feelings should this piece suggest to its listeners? Is there
a main idea or a conclusion? Or maybe a deeper philosophical motivation?
For example, pre-classical composers (especially Bach) express transcendental values in
their works: God, the universal balance, wisdom, enlightenment, morality, compassion
and serenity; classical composers (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) are gradually refocusing
their attention towards the human mind, its rational capacities and its symmetry; the
romantic era (Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt) explores the depths and antagonisms
of the human heart - conflicting feelings, intense emotions, unattainable ideals; the
impressionists capture frozen moments in time - an image from nature, a human
temperament or a character from mythology (little exercise - can you identify such
images in Debussys or Ravels works?). This list can go on towards post-romanticism,
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11

expressionism and so on, and Im sure that each of you can think about some other
interesting examples!
*A little explanation: In the Russian piano school, we use words such as dramaturgy or dramatic
unfolding for describing the structure of the story behind a certain piece: the different musical
images/characters, their conflicts, their evolution, the culminations, the conclusions etc.

3. Identify each phrase. After having a clear image of the piece as a whole, its time to
go a little deeper. If the piece is short (1 or 2 pages), you can simply identify each phrase
(first, with the help of your teacher, wholl also explain how to identify a phrase; in the
near future I will record some videos on this subject). If the piece is more complex (a
sonata, a polyphonic piece or even a longer virtuosity piece) then you need to proceed
from big fragments to smaller ones until you identify each phrase. Dont forget that
phrases, in their turn, can be made up of smaller motifs.
4. Analyze each phrase, starting from the beginning of the piece and working your way
to the end (now that you have a clear image of the general structure, you can
concentrate on smaller details). Even the shortest phrases (1 or 2 bars) have a certain
topography, relief or outline. Make sure you understand where the phrase begins,
where its culminating point (you can also call it point of arrival or destination) is and
where it ends. You should also get a clear feeling of the flow of the phrase.
Because it is rather difficult to explain this term - the flow of a phrase - in written words, I will
make another comparison that will help you understand what I mean.
Again, lets learn from water. A river flows inevitably, implacably, it never stops and it never
rests - not until it reaches the sea. When were watching a river, we have this feeling of motion,
of a constant tendency toward something. In playing a phrase, we should have the same feeling
- a constant tendency toward the culminating point, a perpetual sense of inner motion (even if
the tempo is slow), a feeling that our hearing and our arms are being attracted by a certain
form of gravity towards the end of the phrase. In the next subchapter of my report I will tell you
how exactly you can transfer this inner feeling, this product of your imagination to the
instrument.

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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12

Exercise
(for intermediate and advanced piano students)
Develop your score reading and your imagination simultaneously! Take new scores
(pieces that you never heard before) and read them with your eyes - without the
instrument. Try to imagine, as best you can, how this music sounds. Play it in your mind,
create a convincing musical image and then listen to the recording! Remember that
imagination and analytic abilities are extremely important for any musician!

Short Conclusion
(again, with metaphors)
A new piece is like an unexplored jungle. When youre lost in the middle of an
unknown territory without a clear sense of destination, you stumble on each tree stump
while blindly searching for a way out. If you cant read your map (the piano score)
properly or at least find a higher hill, if you dont have a view from above and a sense of
perspective, nothing really makes sense - its just a bunch of trees, bushes and
dangerous creatures. You cant see the forest for the trees!
Phrasing is about seeing the forest, not the trees! If we go deeper, its about being
aware of the fact that each individual tree belongs to a bigger structure - the forest. In
music, its about being aware that each individual note, chord or motif is an indissoluble
part of the bigger structure - the phrase. Each phrase, in its turn, is also an indissoluble
part of a whole - the piano piece.

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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13

PIANO PHRASING - STEP 2:


TECHNICAL HOW-TO GUIDE: BRINGING PHRASES TO LIFE!
OR

THE PHYSICAL LEVEL OF PIANO PHRASING


A Few Words on Intuition, Knowledge and Skills
Genial performers (small children included) are usually phrasing intuitively, without
totally understanding HOW exactly theyre doing it.
Developing our intuition (you can also call it inspiration, revelation, creativity or give it
another name that makes you comfortable) is a wonderful thing, of course. Without it,
art as we know it could not exist - it would be only a form of boring, lifeless science. The
spark of creativity and inspiration is another magical ingredient that separates real art
from simple crafts or from kitsch.
However, in order to be professional musicians, we cannot count on our intuition alone.
We have to know how to transfer and adapt the mental image of a piece (or a phrase)
to the particularities of our specific instrument - the piano. Knowing, however, is also
not enough. We should have the necessary technical skills that can be developed only
by regular, perseverant and tenacious practice.
Lets take it one step at a time:

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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14

1. Know Your Instrument (Yes, Im serious!)


In order to create a phrase on the piano, you have to take into consideration a unique
particularity of this instrument (I almost wrote You have to think like a piano): the fact
that after being produced, each sound inevitably fades away.
For this reason, the art of piano phrasing involves a unique technique - the ability to
create the illusion that the sound is maintained on the same level longer than allowed
by the physical construction of the instrument.
As an example, lets make a comparison with the violin. The intensity of the violin sound
can be controlled by the player (the sound can be maintained on the same level or it can
grow depending on how much pressure is applied on the bow).
The piano, however, is the ONLY instrument (except for percussion instruments) where
the performer cannot control the sound AFTER producing it: after pressing the key, the
sound will inevitably fade.
There is no way of making a crescendo on the existing sound or at least maintaining it
on the same level. Even if you press the pedal, the sound cannot maintain its initial
intensity (volume) - it will only take longer to fade. Thats why piano phrasing is much
more complicated than vocal, string or wind phrasing.
In the end, phrasing (on the technical level) means creating a connection between the
notes, making them sound as if there are no audible gaps between them - at least if the
phrase has to be played legato. A phrase which has to be performed non legato
(portamento) or staccato is even more complicated to shape. But, again, lets take it one
step at a time.

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15

2. Learn to Control the Quality of the Sound


Musical instruments mirror our attitude towards them. The piano is not an exception.
If you hit a key carelessly, in a hammer-like manner, the piano will respond to you in the
same rude, brutal manner. The resulting sound will be sharp, tensed, unpleasant to our
hearing (though such a sound can be used for creating different sound effects, especially
in contemporary music or in film soundtracks). But if you play a Nocturne by Chopin (for
example), such a sound will be totally inappropriate!
On the other hand, if you have a correct posture, if your arms and wrists are relaxed
and you press the key with a proper intensity (more on HOW to control the sound in my
future articles and videos), the piano will appreciate your attitude by creating a deep,
velvety, flowing and expressive sound.
Such a sound is the proper material for building or shaping a phrase. Its not possible to
play a convincing phrase if your wrists are tensed, your key attack is random (I have no
idea how the key will respond to my touch) and you cannot control the quality of your
sound.

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
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16

3. What is Piano Intonation?


Generally, the word intonation is used in the musical world to describe the pitch
accuracy of the notes (as realized by the musician). I play in a symphony orchestra and
our conductor criticized all the time (thats what conductors are supposed to do, after
all!) the intonation of the string or wind instruments. Im lucky (my pitch accuracy does
not get criticized) because the piano is a tempered instrument and I cant control its
pitch during playing :) - its set in advance by the piano tuner!
However, in piano playing (or at least in the tradition of the Russian piano school), the
word intonation is used to describe something different: the ability to make a
beautiful, almost vocal transition from one note to another.
This way, the piano intonation can be successfully compared to our intonation when we
speak or sing.
My piano professor used to tell me: Youre not intoning properly! or You should intone
this interval! or Dont forget to intone that phrase! After that, she would sing the
needed phrase or motif, asking me to imitate her intonation on the piano.
That was really frustrating!!!
At the same time, it was eye-opening - a true revelation that showed me that theres
much more to piano playing than what the hammer and string mechanism of the
instrument apparently allows!
In piano playing, this is the most difficult thing - making the piano sound like the voice
or the violin (or another instrument which gives the musician full control of the sound
intensity). But the satisfaction we feel when we manage to create such an affect is
beyond imagining!

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
http://www.pianocareer.com/

17

When we play the piano, our hands are metaphorically tied because of the physical
limitations of the instrument. However, no one can ever tie our spirit and our
imagination - and this is what allows us to create unbelievably beautiful phrases.
So, how do we intone on the piano?
The secret lies in the mobility and flexibility of our arms, wrists and hands. At the same
time, we should not forget that the entire weight of our relaxed arms has to flow freely
into the depth of the keyboard! You should have the feeling that your fingers, carrying
the weight of your entire arm, are diving into a flexible pillow, not hitting a hard surface!
The wrist, however, is the most important element when it comes to intonation.
If you have to play several notes on legato, for example sol-do-mi-re-do,

you have to avoid keeping your wrist immobile (even if these notes literally fit under
your palm and you dont have to move your hand for reaching them).
In order to shape a phrase out of the above-mentioned notes, you have to intone them
in your mind first, and then, in the playing process, your wrist (bearing the entire
weight of your arm!) has to move in the direction of the melody, anticipating each note
(I understand that its hard to grasp this technique only by reading about it, so I plan to
record some videos soon and show you how its done).
After pressing sol (from my example above), your wrist should slightly move (in a
relaxed and flexible manner!) towards the following do - preceding the actual pressing

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18

of the key! After you play do, your wrist moves towards mi, as if showing your finger
the way.
The bigger the interval between the notes - the higher the necessity of softening it by
proper intonation. You have to feel how the weight of the arm is flowingly transferred
from the played note to the one about to be played.
This technique can also be described as drawing the outline of the melody with the
wrist (at the same time, dont forget that if you play legato, the finger thats pressing
the key should remain in position until the following finger presses the next key - only
the wrist is moving, making the transition! Its like your arm is pivoting on the tip of
your finger!).
This technique creates an unbelievable, almost magical effect: the intoned intervals
sound as if the notes are effortlessly flowing from one into the other, without any gaps like pouring water from one glass into another! By assimilating this technique, youll be
able to sing on the piano!

A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing by Ilinca Vartic Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
http://www.pianocareer.com/

19

4. Manipulating the Sound Intensity


Besides controlling the quality of our sound and properly intoning the intervals between
the notes, there is also another important technical element that we need to master
when shaping a phrase on the piano: the sound intensity (or, in simple words - how
loud the notes which are forming the phrase are being played).
Again, this necessity is directly connected to the annoying particularity of the piano of
not being able to maintain the intensity of the sound on the same level.
The SUREST way to KILL a phrase on the piano is to play all the notes on the same level
of intensity.
For a better understanding of this phenomenon, lets make again a comparison with the
violin. Because the violin sound can be maintained on the same level, if the performer
plays all the notes equally (with the same intensity), the phrase will still sound nicely
(even if it will lack musicality and there will be no feeling of movement towards the
culminating point).
Here is a graphic that I just drew, illustrating the approximate look of a few notes (lets
say the same sol-do-mi-re-do) played on the violin with the same sound intensity:

Phrase played on the violin (or cello, or oboe etc.)


There are still some minor oscillations between the actual notes (due to vibrato and to
the fact that its not possible to control the exact amount of pressure that is applied on
the bow during every single moment), but they are insignificant.

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20

If you do the same thing on the piano, what youll achieve will be a percussive pattern
with a linear, static character - a collection of separate hammering notes with no
apparent connection, no perspective, no development and no feeling of movement
(which are all needed for quality phrasing). Such patterns (we usually see them in the
performance of beginners) are far from being phrases. Here is what I mean:

Same notes played on the piano


After being played, each note gradually fades away. When the next note is played
(especially if the tempo is slow), it will sound LOUDER than the previous note!!! In fact,
all notes have the same intensity, but well have the illusion that each note is louder
than the previous one! Because of this, the performed phrase will sound - excuse my
rude comparison - like the beating of a drum instead of a flowing, expressive melody.
Whats the solution, then?
You have to know HOW to manipulate the sound intensity so that youll create the
illusion that there are no audible gaps between the notes!
There are two main ways of playing this phrase. In the first version, well choose mi as
our culminating point (we can also call it attraction point or gravity point). While playing
the phrase, on a mental level, you should have the feeling that youre moving towards
and then from this culminating point. The phrase will look like this:

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21

If we want to make a graph of the sound intensity, heres the approximate idea:

Yes, do and mi will sound respectively louder than sol - but because they will be played
on a slight crescendo, we wont have the feeling that the melody is static. Quite
contrary, such an approach will create the illusion of motion and continuity. For
emphasizing the culminating note - mi - we can make a tiny tenuto on the note - but not
too much! The last notes - re and do - will actually sound like theyre forming a
continuous line - which is physically impossible on the piano!!! This illusion will be
created because each notes intensity level begins at the approximate point where the
previous notes fading has ended.
This way of playing a phrase - with a gradually fading ending - is the most common in
classical music. It gives a certain roundness and elegance to each phrase, making it
look like a well-polished diamond!
In the second version, well choose the last do as our culmination or point of attraction.

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22

Here, we wont have a diminuendo in the end of the phrase to make our life easier, but
the gradual crescendo towards a culmination still has the power of creating the illusion
of movement and continuity.
Besides these two versions, you can invent many others - it all depends on your
imagination (and, of course, on the composers indications!).
If it helps, you can also imagine that you play the entire phrase on a single breath. You
inhale, and then you play the phrase on one long exhalation. When the phrase ends, you
inhale again. In piano playing, this is an imaginary technique. In singing or playing a wind
instrument, however, this is a reality!
WARNING: when playing a phrase (especially a long one) on legato, any unexpected and
unwanted accents - most of the time they happen because the pianist cant yet control
the sound intensity - will surely kill it as well! The transition between notes has to be as
SMOOTH as possible!

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23

5. A Few Words on Articulation


Many piano students think that articulation (legato, portamento, staccato, sforzando
etc.) is the most important thing when it comes to shaping a phrase. They also think that
only by following the articulation marks (you can also call it musical punctuation), they
will be able to identify and express musical phrases.
This is not true.
Articulation is not a purpose in piano phrasing - its just a means to an end!
The purpose is to understand, feel and transmit the meaning hidden beyond articulation
and other elements of musical notation. Musical notation is only a helpful tool that
facilitates the technical expression of the musical idea!
Yes, sometimes (especially in easy pieces) articulation marks can show the performer
where the phrase begins and where it ends. The example which I invented (sol-do-mi-redo) was such an easy case: a short phrase played legato, where the end of the slur
matches the end of the phrase. However, things are rarely so simple.
Usually, the end of a slur doesnt mean that the phrase has ended. Here is an example
from Chopins Nocturne op. 9 Nr. 1:

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This phrase is much more complex than my basic example. It is composed of several
motifs and its articulation is constantly changing: the initial legato naturally passes into
non legato (because its impossible to play the same note - in this case fa - on legato!),
then two more slurs are marking the last two small motifs of the phrase.
Chopins articulation and his dynamic indications have a clear purpose: they are
showing the performer HOW to make the phrase sound as a continuous flowing
whole!
I could write many pages about Chopin and his unique poetic approach on piano playing
- but this is the subject of another report, article or video! :)
Since I already opened Chopins Nocturnes (which I really enjoy playing!), lets take a
look at another example, even more fascinating than the first one:

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25

Now this is one long phrase! Playing it on a single mental breath, by keeping a
continuous, uninterrupted line is definitely a challenge!
In this case you can also see that articulation marks are not indicating where the phrase
begins and where it ends. Only our musical understanding can show us the real
boundaries of this phrase. All the elements of musical punctuation (many short slurs
cleverly combined with 3 different types of accents) are simply showing us how to
intone the small motifs and how to manipulate the sound intensity so that well be
able to shape a convincing, expressive phrase with a well-defined outline!
Thats why you should never allow the end of a slur to stop the feeling of motion in your
mind (at least if its not justified by the musical meaning!). The fact that your hand has
to rise above the keyboard between notes (for example, if you have to play a few notes
portamento or staccato) does not mean that the phrase has ended. The bond between
these physically separated notes should be present in your imagination, keeping them
connected until you reach the real end of the phrase (and not the end of a subordinate
slur!). Let your horizontal thinking guide you in such cases!
Your mind has to go on (please excuse the pun) and fly above articulation marks, bar
lines and other elements of musical text.
The slur is just another tree in the forest! Look at the entire forest first, and only then
analyze how that particular tree belongs to the big structure!
Allow me to synthesize: Our purpose is not to express articulation marks. Our purpose
is to express the meaning of the phrase BY USING articulation marks and other
elements of musical text.
I will make another comparison: developing a brilliant piano technique is not the
purpose of a pianists activity. The purpose of a musician is to develop his/her unique

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26

potential in a fulfilling, harmonious way, at the same time bringing joy, inspiration and
the feeling that life is worth living to the audience! His/her purpose is also to
convincingly bring to life beautiful piano masterpieces and to express all the ideas
encoded in these pieces by their composers! The piano technique (or the violin
technique etc.) is only a MEANS to this end.

Small Conclusion
Seeing or hearing a musical phrase in your mind is not enough. For bringing it to life, you
need to master these magical technical elements:
Controlling the quality of the sound - instead of hammering on the piano, you
should press the keys as if your hands are as plastic as a cats paws!
Intoning the notes of the phrase (especially on legato) so they will effortlessly
flow from one into the other; softening the transition between notes!
Moving towards the target note by cleverly manipulating the sound intensity.
Following articulation marks and other elements of the musical text not
because you have to (or because your teacher told you so), but because you
understand how exactly they can help you make the phrase more convincing.
Playing with relaxed, flowing gestures (more about this aspect in the next
chapter).
If my terms seem sometimes too technical, its simply because I try to express with
plain written words the physical sensations I have while playing the piano - sensations
which I learned from my professors directly during classes. For this purpose, elegant
and academic musical terms are not always enough - thats why I use so many terms
borrowed from science, nature, martial arts, movies with secret agents and so on.
PIANO PLAYING HAS TO BE FUN TOO!!! :)

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27

However, this is not the only purpose of these technical details: if you want to reach a
high level of mastery in piano playing, you have to KNOW all these secrets - otherwise
youll simply wander around blindly, being superstitious and hoping for good luck. A
professional cannot afford such an approach! Besides delivering random results, it will
also make you resent your practice and your piano experience will become far less
enjoyable than it should be!
The next step is a simple one: practice! By practicing mindfully, we can learn to
assimilate these techniques so well that in time (in a year or two of constant training)
we wont even think about them! Shaping a beautiful phrase will become as natural as
breathing!

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PIANO PHRASING - STEP 3:


PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT!
Mental and technical relaxation as a result of mindful practice
Lets face it: piano playing is not a comfortable activity. Human hands were not created
for playing the piano. Its the other way around - the piano keyboard was created to
adapt to the functionality of our arms and hands.
Playing a flowing phrase can be the most awkward and uncomfortable thing in the
world weve all been there! There are so many things to coordinate! Body and arm
posture, arm and wrist relaxation, wrist mobility, proper depth of the sound, mental
image of the phrase, dynamics, the pedal ... and the list can go on! Its no wonder that
many beginners are tensed when they play, especially if their teachers do not explain
from the very first lesson that relaxation and freedom of movement should always be
their priority, being more important than technique, correct fingering and exact notes.
The good news is that there are no limits to what we (humans) can achieve! There is a
saying

among

musicians:

Countless

repetitions

will

transform

everything

uncomfortable into something comfortable! Yes, relaxation, confidence and freedom


can be achieved only by regular practice - by repeating something until it becomes
comfortable.
While it is true, I will make an addition to this inspired quote: Repeating something
mechanically, without awareness and a clear purpose, can sometimes make things
worse, especially if youre doing it incorrectly.
So, beware of mechanical practice: its better to practice less (but in a mindful and
relaxed state), then play all day without being truly aware of what youre doing (or even
worse - with tensed hands and a negative, destructive attitude).
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29

Practice with awareness! Being mindful means being in the present moment and
thinking only about what youre doing! Dont allow your thoughts to wander around
when you play: dont think about food, money problems, clothes, TV shows, beer, the
neighbors cat, football or a new hair color! Declutter your mind of daily worries and all
the things that dont belong in the piece youre playing. Concentrate - this way youll
save lots of time, effort and youll definitely avoid unnecessary frustrations! Then, if you
feel that youre tired, you should simply take a break. Instead of thinking about food
while youre playing, its better to go eat something when youre hungry! Or go outside!
Or watch that match!
Then, after a short relaxing break, simply resume your practice. And dont forget to
enjoy the whole process! Otherwise, whats the purpose of all your efforts?
As I already wrote in some of my articles published on PianoCareer.com, our attitude is
always reflected in the results of our work. A calm, confident and positive attitude will
greatly increase your productivity! Such a practice will also boost your self-confidence after all, we become what we think about!
Conversely, a practice session full of stress, anxiety and fear (you may be scared by your
teacher or your parents, by the approaching exam or simply worried about the future),
will result in even more stress and fear, being often a cause of depression and even selfloathing! In such cases, the pianist may think that he/she is stupid and not talented,
when in fact he or she is simply not practicing with a correct attitude! Yes, its as simple
as that!
Dont sit at the piano carrying negative emotions this is a lesson I learned the hard
way!
Now lets get back to phrasing :).

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30

If you want to do something well (including playing a convincing phrase) you have to be
relaxed.
Quality phrasing means playing a phrase flowingly, naturally, without stumbling on
tension or technical difficulties. The more relaxed you are when you practice or perform,
the better your phrasing will be! Any strain can act like a barrier on a river it will stop
the water from flowing! Likewise, a tensed shoulder, elbow or wrist (or an awkward
tensed gesture) will stop your energy from flowing naturally, cutting the phrase and
literally killing it!
In simple words tension kills! A tensed performance is like a dead body - its lifeless! :)
Mental and technical relaxation in piano playing comes as a result of two main factors:
awareness (when you practice, always make sure that your mind and your body - back,
shoulders, arms, elbows and wrists - are relaxed) and regular practice.
In martial arts, there is a saying: I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once,
but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times (Bruce Lee).
When I was still studying, I remember practicing one phrase for 5-6 hours a day (of
course, with periodic breaks) until I was finally reaching that point where the phrase
became a part of me and I could naturally feel my hands shaping it without effort or
tension.
In all arts - no matter if we talk about piano playing, dance, painting or martial arts there comes a moment when quantity transforms into quality. At this point, you will
feel that what youre doing is a part of you, that your hands (body, legs etc. - depending
on the art) are literally flying without strain or that awkward feeling that all beginners
experience.

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31

When that time comes, youll achieve a state of true relaxation and youll begin to feel
that piano playing is indeed a comfortable activity! People listening to you will feel this
as well, usually thinking: This seems so easy when he/she is playing!
However, dont think that youll achieve this state only after many years of hard work.
Things are relative. If youre a beginner and youre learning an easy piece for example
Bachs Menuet BWV Anh.115 in G Minor - then you can achieve a good mental and
technical relaxation appropriate for this piece in only 2-3 weeks of practice! A beginner
can master the art of phrasing (suitable for the simple piece he or she is playing) as well
as a professional pianist and play Bachs short (yet charming) Menuet as convincing
and captivating as a concert pianist is playing Beethovens Sonata op. 106!
Life is too short for doing things we dont enjoy. Mastering a certain art (for example,
piano playing in general or piano phrasing in particular), becomes a natural and easy
experience if you enjoy what youre doing!
With a positive mindset and passion for the pieces youre playing, each practice session
will become a true meditation!
It will offer you a new perspective on music and life.
It will bring you fulfillment.
It will liberate your mind.

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32

Your Next Steps...


1. Share your experience! Post your questions about piano phrasing in the comment
form here: A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing.
2. Are you struggling with a certain piano dilemma? Post your question about piano
practice (and not only) here: Ask Me a Piano Question!
3. Stay tuned! New articles and instructional videos are coming soon! Many of these
materials will be based on your questions. I will also share my personal experience of
overcoming piano difficulties and my holistic approach to music, piano playing, health
and life.

About PianoCareer.com:
I created PianoCareer.com to help pianists (and musicians) of all ages to find joy,
balance and fulfillment in their piano practice.
Here you will find:
Piano playing tips for a productive and enjoyable practice;
Health, training & lifestyle advice for a fulfilled musical career and a balanced
daily life;
Motivation for your daily practice and a place to share your piano experience.
Lack of correct information causes most pianists to perceive their lifestyle as a
continuous struggle full of stress, doubts and unanswered questions. This is the result of
a unilateral approach of the modern piano pedagogy: teachers focus on the piano
achievements of their students, ignoring how the endless hours of piano practice will
affect the students health, emotional balance and happiness.

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33

Playing well is not the purpose of a pianists life. Playing well for those who LOVE to
play piano is only the means to achieve our true purpose, which is discovering and
bringing to light our unique potential, living a fulfilled life, being happy and making
others happy!
During many years of extremely demanding piano challenges, I learned the hard way
that only a holistic approach on musical performance can make our activity truly
rewarding, meaningful and eye-opening.
On PianoCareer.com, I share things that you will not find in official piano playing
handbooks and courses. If applied correctly, these secrets will help you save precious
time and effort and will make the difference between a tiring and frustrating musical
activity and a productive, enjoyable one.
See you on PianoCareer.com ;-)

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