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Elvina Pearce: The Makings of Musicality

January 21, 2017

 Photography by Raeleen Horn



It’s probable that many believe musicians are born, not made.  Certainly  some individuals appear to have an innate “talent” for music-making and sometimes develop into superstars at an early age.  They somehow seem to acquire technical prowess and the ability to play expressively — but not necessarily because of how they are taught (sometimes even in spite of it!).  In this article, I am not writing about this type of “gifted” student.  Instead, I want to address music-making in terms of traditional (“average”) pre-college level students – the kind that I and others who teach at this level spend most of our teaching time working with.

Generally speaking, when we hear students perform in auditions and recitals, how might their playing be evaluated in terms of musicality?  I recently posed this question to a friend and colleague who frequently serves as a judge for area competitions.  Among other things, he said that he was often troubled by the lack of artistry and musicality in many of the performances he hears.  Elaborating a bit on this, he said that as a judge, his criteria for evaluating a “musical” performance always include hearing:


  • a clear projection of a piece’s character (spirited, energetic, peaceful, happy, etc.).

  • appropriate tempo choices suggested by word cues (allegro, andante, lento, etc.).

  • artistic shaping of phrases.

  • breathing between phrases and major parts of the piece.

  • appropriate application of tempo-related cues (rit., accel., fermata, etc.).

  • tonal balance between melodies and accompaniments.

  • clearly defined dynamic contrasts.

  • artistic use of the pedal when applicable.

Obviously there is more involved in musicality than just the above, but it seems reasonable to expect student performances to at least express these eight criteria because they are things which all students – not just the gifted – can learn to do.  And in addition, they are all things that can be easily taught.  Assuming that this is true, then why don’t we hear them being expressed more often in student performances?  Here’s one possible reason:



  • Lack of musicality in student performances often occurs because the  interpretative and technical demands of the selected repertoire exceed the student’s current capability.

In addition to selecting repertoire which matches a student’s level of maturity and pianistic development, it’s also important that it be music which can be learned with a minimum amount of time and effort so that students’ focus in practice can soon shift off of “mechanics” (doing the procedures necessary for achieving accuracy and technical security), and onto musicality.
Below is a second possible reason for lack of musicality in student performances:



  • Many students do not have acceptable standards for the “should-sound” of their pieces because they don’t have enough opportunities to hear this music played artistically.

How can students ever acquire acceptable standards for musicality unless they are exposed to artistic modeling by their teacher? (As an aside: The subject of teacher modeling always reminds me of a meeting I attended back in the early years of my teaching.  The guest presenter was a woman who had a sterling reputation as both a pianist and a teacher.  Although I don’t recall her lecture topic for that meeting, I do remember these two happenings: 1) she presented beautiful performances of the music she discussed, and 2) she emphatically said, “never play for my students because I don’t want them to imitate me!”  All I could think of at the time was, “What a pity! What would be so terrible about her students actually being able to play their pieces as beautifully as she did?”)
Although the role of the teacher as a model of artistic excellence can never be over-estimated, I don’t subscribe to the “monkey-see-monkey-do” rote/coaching approach to teaching musicianship.  The ideas below suggest some possible alternatives to using rote teaching as the primary means for developing musicality in student performances.


  • Step One: Hearing the piece

I think that the first step in preparing students for achieving a musical performance of a piece is their hearing an exemplary performance of it (ideally a ”live” one!) before they actually start working on it.This not only provides an artistic model for the “should-sound” of the finished product, but it also motivates students to want to learn to play it themselves.(How can we expect them to be turned on about learning to play music they’ve never even heard?).


  • Step Two: Achieving accuracy

Once a piece is assigned, then the primary focus at the lesson should not be just on how toplay it, but most important, on how to practice it.  The lesson happenings should ensure that students understand and are able to successfully apply in their practice each phase of the learning process which will ultimately culminate in a rewarding musical performance.  As soon as students can demonstrate accuracy and technical security with a piece, then both their lessons and their practice can focus primarily on the “good stuff” – interpreting the piece’s musical message.

Dynamic Contrasts

Earlier in this article, “clearly defined dynamic contrasts” was listed as one of the criteria determining an expressive artistic performance.  Surely dynamic contrast plays an important role in musical playing, but when we hear students perform in recitals and auditions, how often is their dynamic palette much too monotonal?
I believe that if students can hear the difference between loud and soft, then this is something that all of them – not just the gifted – can surely learn to project.  But to do this effectively, they need to hear illustrations of it, and of course, here’s where teacher “modeling” enters the picture.  In my own studio, whenever the pedagogical focus is on producing dynamic contrasts, I frequently provide a model for the desired sound, and when I do, I always greatly exaggerate the difference between the louds and softs and I also ask my students to do likewise.
Here are a few other strategies which are helpful in facilitating the expression of effective dynamic contrasts in student performances.

1)   Asking questions: It’s always a good idea to approach dynamics with some questions, i.e., “What is this piece about?  Should it be loud or soft?  Why?  What symbols did the composer use in the music that suggest the desired dynamics?”  

2)   Highlighting dynamic symbols: At the lesson, I often ask early level students to go through the piece and highlight all the f’s (perhaps in red or orange?) that they find in the score; then in a different color (perhaps in blue?), highlight all of the “p’s”

3)   Practicing dynamics:

  1. First, play just the passages marked “f”; then play just those marked “p.” (In each case, exaggerate the volume.)

  2. Next, play the piece as written but stop before each dynamic change to prepare the thought (and the ears!) for the expected change in volume.

  3. Finally, play the whole piece nonstop, focusing only on one thing — hearing the dynamic contrast.

Dealing with Crescendos and Diminuendos

Again, knowing how to create crescendos and diminuendos is something all students can learn to do.  For example, suppose a crescendo is to occur within a 4-bar phrase. (Isn’t the typical student response to seeing the word “crescendo” to just get louder immediately rather than gradually?)  To learn how to produce a gradual crescendo, students first of all need to know that in order to get louder, they always have to begin softer.



  • Preparing for practice:  At the lesson, I ask students to first make a plan for budgeting the increases in volume.  For instance, in the case of a 4-bar crescendo, the student would mark a p in the first measure of the passage; then mark an mp in the 2nd meas., then an mf for meas. 3, and an f for meas. 4.  (This budgeting process of dynamics results in what is called “terraced” dynamics and it is useful in music at all levels.)

  • For practice: (first at the lesson and then at home):

1) Play just the first measure (marked p) of the 4-bar group and stop; then play the 2nd measure (mp) and stop; next, play the mf and f in mm. 3 and 4, continuing to stop between each measure.  (The “stopping” provides thinking time for evaluating what was just heard and then for considering the dynamic level of what comes next.)

2) Next, play all 4 measures without stopping, listening for the “p-mp-mf-f” budgeted dynamic plan.

3) Finally, back up and play the section that precedes the cresc. plus the four measures in which it occurs.

Shaping phrases artistically is another thing which all students – not just the gifted – can learn to do.  This should actually begin the first time a student plays a two-note slur.  Whenever I model shaping a 2-note slur for a student, I often play the slur two ways – first, over-emphasizing the 2nd note of the slur; then I play it again, but this time with the 2ndnote sounding considerably less loud than the first one.(When asked to choose their preference, students almost invariably select the second playing.)
If students can hear this and prefer it, then why do we hear so many student performances in which the last notes of phrases sound accentuated rather than tapered? A good practice strategy to avoid this is to work backwards in a phrase.  For example, in a RH 4-bar melodic phrase, start at the end of the phrase and play just the last two notes, listening for the final note to sound softer than the preceding one.  Then play the last 3 notes of the phrase, then the last 4 notes, etc., always listening for the tapering of the final note.  This “backwards” practice encourages both thinking about and listening for artistically shaped phrase endings.

Dealing effectively with criteria such as those listed in paragraph two of this article is something that all students – not just the gifted – should be able to learn and artistically express in their performances.  I think that as music teachers, we are responsible for both establishing and promoting acceptable standards for musicality, and our students’ performances undoubtedly reflect those standards. We are also responsible for providing  students with artistic models for their musical goals, along with practice procedures which will ensure that they are able to achieve them.  I believe that all of these factors play an important role in the makings of musicality.

Elvina Pearce studied piano in NYC with Isabelle Vengerova (whose students included Samuel Barber, Gary Graffman and Leonard Bernstein).  She was also a pedagogy student of Frances Clark, and one of the founders of the New School for Music Study and the Frances Center for Keyboard Pedagogy in Princeton, NJ.  For 14 years, she taught piano and pedagogy at Northwestern University, and from 2000-2006, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Keyboard Companion Magazine. Elvina’s concert career is highlighted by performances of the Liszt E flat Concerto with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall, and in a coast-to-coast broadcast of the Chicago Theater of the Air, and by solo recitals in Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Elvina  has also presented recitals and workshops in more than 40 states as well as in Canada, the Republic of China, and Australia. She is nationally recognized as a composer of more than 25 published collections of piano music, and is the author of a best-selling book–The Success Factor in Piano Teaching: Making Practice Perfect  (available via AMAZON). Her awards include a 2008 nomination as an MTNA Foundation Fellow. In 2011, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy in recognition of her dedicated service to music-teaching and music-making for more than 50 years, and in 2014, Elvina was inducted into the Illinois Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame.



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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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