Absolute Articulation

I have spent much of the last month adjudicating at various amateur music festivals around the country. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable job; I get to visit all different parts of the UK, and also hear a wide variety of piano playing. Standards vary of course, from young, inexperienced beginners to incredibly accomplished performers. Whilst it’s my job to mark (or judge) the competitors, I’m also able to comment on their playing in a fairly detailed manner, via a written mark form and verbally at the adjudication.

Contrary to popular belief, most of these young players (and some not so young; there are always adult amateur classes at most festivals!), are very happy to receive feedback and constructive criticism. Care is needed when discussing any negative traits, particularly in a public forum, but nevertheless, it can be a great way for pianists to obtain an unbiased appraisal of their work. Where possible, I try to give helpful practice tips and advice. At a couple of the recent festivals, I also gave short workshops at the end of classes; these are hopefully useful, partly because the entire audience can benefit from what is essentially a public lesson.

One major issue, cropping up with absolute regularity, through a whole gamut of piano playing, irrespective of standard or ability, seems to be that of articulation. I never cease talking about this subject. Perhaps it’s just me, but I believe this aspect to be one of the most crucial elements in good performance practice. Without it, a successful performance is virtually impossible, especially when a pianist reaches diploma level and beyond. In fact, the more advanced the player, the more important the subject of articulation. It is one of the main reasons why the Baroque and Classical repertoire remains the most challenging.

In many ways, articulation is like speech and diction; some clearly pronounce or ‘articulate’ words, often with a staccato or ‘short’ effect, enunciating every syllable, whilst others tend to ‘slur’ their words together, in a rather lazy legato manner with little differentiation of colour, tone or intonation from one word to the next. This can result in a merging together of words and sometimes whole sentences, rendering them incomprehensible! This can happen in piano playing too.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Articulation refers to the musical performance technique that affects the transition or continuity on a single note, or between multiple notes or sounds.’ Good articulation generally stems from total rhythmical control, allowing each note to be played with equal value whilst employing a variety of different effects or touches, and this in turn comes from finger control. Crisp, clear finger work, particularly in rapid passages, all depends on how fingers are, in a sense, programmed.

Articulation also implies different touches; staccato, legato, marcato, and even martellato too, but in this instance, I’m referring to the lack of precision between each beat; it’s all very well playing rhythmically on the main beat, but then what happens within each beat? Frequently, groups of quavers or semiquavers (and demisemiquavers) are rushed or played unequally.

Arguably, one of main the differences between the amateur and professional pianist comes down to articulation; professionals generally articulate with a total accuracy and almost mechanical regularity, allowing for a convincing interpretation.

So, how do we learn to play notes crisply, evenly and with the utmost precision? Here are a few practice tips which may be helpful:

  1. Effective articulation must be instigated from the outset, so when looking at a new piece for the first time, be quite clear on your fingering for both hands, particularly if rapid passage work and ornaments are involved; secure articulation is vital when negotiating trills, turns and mordents etc. It may be a good idea to write all the proposed fingering into your score before learning begins. If the fingering isn’t completely assimilated, then haphazard, unrhythmical playing could become a problem.
  2. The slower you practice, the easier it will be to play smoothly, rhythmically and also to listen to what is actually being played. This might sound obvious, but it’s all too easy to switch off and ‘imagine’ what we are playing; the reality can be somewhat different. Listen to the clarity of your finger work, and the ‘space’ between each note. Ask yourself, are all the notes in this phrase really equal or are some being rushed, or perhaps being played too slowly?
  3. For total precision, count each and every beat out loud, even if you are playing semiquavers, when you play to your own (equal) counting, it becomes quite obvious if the passage work is clear and in time.
  4. Flexible wrists can help with clear articulation, allowing for free hand and finger movement. Separate motions (or movements) can be really useful when staccato and non-legato touches are involved. Pay special attention when you need to turn the hand, or place the thumb under the hand in running passages. This is where problems can occur, and where ‘bumpy’ or jerky sounds will hamper a run or group of notes played at speed.
  5. It can be very beneficial to practice with a powerful heavy sound, as this can help with clarity and also help to develop stronger fingers; the weight of each finger being evenly placed and transferred from one note to the next. Use proper arm-weight and play on the fleshy part of the finger-tip. After a while, when you return to playing ‘lightly’ with less force, you should find it easy to articulate each note; each fast passage or run will feel more comfortable and manageable.
  6. If you have the time and inclination, practice each phrase with many different touches, from legatissimo to staccatissimo. When you return to playing the particular phrase ‘normally’, there should be a real improvement in clarity.

Ideal repertoire on which to practice perfecting articulation are works from the Baroque and Classical period (as well as using technical exercises), especially less demanding, smaller pieces, such as those from the Anna Magdalena Notebook,  the Eighteen Little Preludes and the slightly more intricate  Inventions and Sinfonias BWV 772 – 801 , all composed by J.S. Bach. Less complicated pieces by Handel, C.P.E Bach, Scarlatti can also be useful as can the Sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau.

For articulation inspiration, the performance linked below offers a stunning example of the wonderful combination of technical clarity and musical mastery. It’s played by celebrated Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowska, who is, incidentally, the next interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series.


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.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. David Topple says:

    ‘…others tend to ‘slur’ their words together, in a rather lazy legato manner with little differentiation of colour, tone or intonation from one word to the next. This can result in a merging together of words and sometimes whole sentences, rendering them incomprehensible! This can happen in piano playing too.’

    Couldn’t you describe this as impressionism? 🙂

    1. I suppose you could David, but actually impressionism is usually highly articulated too – it just sounds as though it isn’t.

  2. Efrat says:

    It’s a wonderful article! Actually, it’s a summery of all the comments and advice that my piano teacher always gives me while learning a new piece and in general. I can say from a personal experience that all the tips above really help me to improve my articulation. Also, I really liked the comparison with the importance of articulation in speech.

    1. Thanks so much Efrat. I’m so glad you liked it……you are obviously studying with a great teacher!

      1. Efrat says:

        I was-unfortunately, she passed away a while ago from cancer. She was an amazing person and truly a wonderful piano teacher-she managed to pass her love of music to me, and i’m greatful for that.

  3. John Hobbs says:

    A really valuable post, Mel. Do you count semiquavers as 1-2-3-4 or some 4-syllable word? and what would you count for 6s as in the 1st movement of Mozart K576 or Schubert D664 3rd mvmt?

    1. Hi John,
      So glad you liked the article and thank you for your kind comments. Yes, I always count 1-2-3-4 to every crotchet beat (i.e. breaking it into semiquavers). Although if I’m honest, I just count da,da,da,da very rhythmically if it’s a fast pulse! For K.576 I would count 6 beats i.e. 1-2-3-4-5-6 – for every group/dotted crotchet beat. The pulse is the most important issue though….no good counting and not keeping a rhythmical pulse. The metronome can be useful too if used carefully. Hope this is of some help. Mel 🙂

  4. David Topple says:

    If you can’t find a metronome, you can always get yourself an old tractor. (No, really!) http://www.flixxy.com/ole-hemmingson-and-his-tractor-lover-come-back-to-me.htm

  5. Paige Berkahn says:

    Hi, I came across this article whilst researching and trying to learn about articulation that is typical of each period – mainly Baroque, Classical and Romantic – as personal knowledge to have before sitting a scholarship exam in this, my last year of school. Can you tell me about articulation that is characteristic of these periods? It would help me out a lot if you could explain this. Thanks

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