Espressivo: a few tips to transform your piano playing

Beethoven piano sonata no 26 mvmt 2 bars 1-4.svg

Expressive or ‘musical’ playing is a crucial element in successful music making. This may seem like an obvious statement but, surprisingly, it’s frequently sidelined in piano playing because there are so many other elements that demand attention. When I talk about playing ‘musically’, I am referring to the way a work is performed. This is quite different from playing the correct notes and rhythms; these elements are expected from the outset. To many though, playing expressively, with passion or a feeling for the music, is an extra; something to be ‘added’ at the end when the piece has been studied and learned.

A much better plan would be to start by looking at the musical meaning behind the notes before learning begins. The whole point of learning to play a piece is because it incites a particular ‘feeling’ or emotion, therefore why not examine it from this aspect first? This can be done whether you are preparing for Grade 2 or Grade 8, it applies to almost everyone. There are many ways to improve your understanding or musical grasp of a piano piece. Here are a few basic tips:

1.  Start by looking at the general character; is it a Baroque minuet, a Classical sonata, or a Romantic waltz? This will determine your approach to the piece. A Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune will require a completely different feel to that of a Hungarian peasant dance by Bartók.

2. Examine the score; look for dynamic markings, which tell us how loud or soft to play, tempo markings, or how fast or slow to play, and stylistic markings, the general character of the work.

3. Look at the structure; Can you decifer a pattern in the music? For example, a four bar phrase which has been repeated several times, possibly in a different key? Do you notice similar patterns of notes or passagework? Is there a definite beginning or introduction, middle section and an ending?

4. Can you spot the climactic point in the work? It doesn’t have to be at the end of the piece, although this is often the case.

5. Phrase markings, which are curved lines drawn above the notes, show us where to phrase or where to breath musically. They are rather like musical sentences.

6. Look for important themes or melodies; they may occur several times and will require your attention possibly needing extra emphasis, a different tonal shading or a defined musical line. This may inspire you to experiement with the piano’s sound, creating varied tonal colours or sonorities.

These suggestions might just ignite your imagination and help proffer a musically considered performance. And this is all before you have even played a note. It really is helpful to look at a work in this way because it can make practising more enjoyable and productive.

Musical extract: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.26 in E flat major Op.81a (Les Adieux); Second Movement – Abwesenheit.  


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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