Teaching Piano

Dynamics & The Beginner Piano Student

Music-forte-pianoWhen I was a 5-year-old beginner piano student, I remember being re-assigned one-/two-line method book pieces when the only thing lacking was dynamic contrast.  And I remember being frustrated with this.  My frustration was partly due to the fact that I was bored with the music I was playing; I wanted to be reading staff notation instead of pre-staff notation, as my mother taught me to do before she found me a piano teacher.  Regardless, having to re-practice pieces that were already mastered, due to forgetting to drop from forte-piano to piano in one place was a hard thing for me to swallow.

Looking back, I do realize the importance of dynamics.  As a teacher, I am a stickler about them even with the most beginner of students.  However, as tempting as it is, I do not generally reassign a beginning-level piece from a method book if the ONLY thing lacking is the dynamics.  I have decided that holding a student back in their progress is not worth it, because learning to observe dynamic markings is something that can be mastered over time through the next few pieces in their method books.  

Rather than letting dynamics go completely, though, here is my spiel:

“Overall, you did a great job with this piece.  Your notes were correct, and the rhythm was spot-on, too.  But I didn’t really hear much of the dynamics…did you?  *wait for them to confirm, then work on the piece together until they observe the dynamic markings properly*  So, here’s the thing about dynamics: they are really easy to do…but they are not easy to remember to do.  This is why you must practice the dynamics at home.  That way, you’ll automatically do them when you come to your lesson, or perform on a recital.  Now, I am not going to have you work on this piece another week just because of the dynamics, but we are going to continue working on the dynamics in future pieces.  How does that sound?”

And I always follow through.  This resolves the dynamics problem, without holding the student back or causing frustration.

My other spiel about dynamics is this, used in cases when students protest that they DID do the dynamics (but they were barely perceptible to my ears):

“There may have been enough dynamic contrast for YOU to hear, but if you want your listeners to be able to tell what the dynamics on the page are without having seen the score, you had better do a lot more that that!  Exaggerate them.  Make the difference between the various dynamic levels MORE than what you think is necessary.”

Sometimes, I will continue pushing their dynamic contrast to the point that it will “make me say it is too much.”  Their idea of “too much” dynamic contrast, of course, rarely is.  :)

Other language I use:

“Was that actually soft?”

“Is that really as loud as you can play?”

“Does that really sound soft to your ears?”

How do YOU handle these situations with your students?  I’d love to hear your ideas!

21 thoughts on “Dynamics & The Beginner Piano Student”

  1. I like to say nothing, but play their piece myself their way, then more musically. Then I ask “which one do you like better?” This solves the problem :)

  2. I love this post. It’s really helpful to hear what language other teachers use in tackling specific problem areas. How we speak to our students and the language we chose impacts how they learn. In the future, I’d be interested in what you might say for other problem areas, such as forgetting repeats, working on good wrist motion (and hand position/shape for the youngest ones). My students seem to want to know WHY they have to do things a certain way, and although I’m generally very patient, I sometimes I have to resist the urge to say “because I said so”!

  3. Engaging the student’s imagination often helps. I make suggestions such as “pretend a little baby is asleep near the piano and you don’t want to wake her up” to encourage a student to play truly piano, or “use your big, strong tiger claws” to encourage forte.

    1. Big strong tiger claws…that is absolutely adorable. That’s what I love about Faber’s “My First Piano Adventure.” They make those correlations, which is important because music describes life, and analogies remind us of that :)

  4. I use the Music Mind Games (www.musicmindgames.com) Puppy Pack for a lot of musical games and so I have cards with PP, P, MP, MF, F, FF on them (but you could easily do this yourself, or put them on a dice). If I have a student who consistently forgets dynamics (which honestly is most of them), then we play a little game (which is directly from the Puppy Pack). We say each dynamic name at the volume which is should be played.
    So Pianissimo is whispered, and while we say it we kneel, curled up in a ball.
    Then Piano we sit our body up, but still kneeling, saying it still softly, but not quite as quiet.
    MP we still kneel, but lift our bottom off our feet, saying the name a little louder.
    MF we stand and speak at basically normal voice,
    Forte we extend our arms (and generally this is when shy students don’t like being loud so I have to encourage them to use their voice to make it truly Forte).
    and then Fortissimo we add a big jump and make it really over the top.
    They think this is great fun! Then I shuffle the cards and have them draw one and do the action and say the dynamic out of order. Then we go back and I have them play their piece, thinking of the dynamics that we just demonstrated. It’s amazing how much broader their dynamic range is after we play this game. And it makes it fun!

    1. Thanks for this great game/suggestion. I’ve been having trouble with dynamics with just about all my students. This sounds like it will be a great help with my younger students. And who knows, I might just do it with my older ones just to prove a point :).

  5. I usually play it the same way, so they can hear how they played it. Then I tell them that they just put grandpa, in the back row at the recital, to sleep. I play it one more time with much more expression and they love it.

    We also try to scare the store owner with forte or sneak up on dad with piano. They key is to get them to listen to their playing, to focus beyond the notes.

  6. I confess I have neglected this, partly because a few of my students only have keyboards that don’t play dynamics. Does anyone have any suggestions for this situation? (I teach them at their home on their keyboard.)

    1. In general, I require students to have at least a digital piano with weighted keys. I find anything less than very difficult to teach on, but more importantly, difficult for the student to learn on! But I strongly encourage everybody to have an acoustic piano (and nearly all of them do).

  7. I take exactly the same approach as you. I also remember the days of having to play a song all over again JUST because of dynamics. I want my students (especially the beginners) to come to love piano lessons, not have it be something that they resent. So after they play their song for me the first time (sometimes with no dynamics at all), I give a speech almost identical to yours and then ask them to play it again with proper dynamics. For some students that I know struggle with dynamics week to week, I also sometimes say “shhhh..” or “loud” when they are playing to remind them.

  8. @Kristina, it really depend on the keyboard..I show my students by example and remind them that it is digital so they know what you play is what you get. I have a student working on a piece that play staccato p then into a crescendo f ending,,,

  9. I think there are many issues that, taken alone, should not hold a student back from progressing, although sometimes I just ask them to play it no more than once per day with exceptional dynamics, and that I’m still giving them the same new music I would have given them had I fastened a sticker to the music.

    When students are not playing soft enough, I play copycat with them, except this is one time when I don’t use my second piano: I place my hand where their hand is on their piano and play it much softer than them, challenging them to do the same. They seem to find this quite motivating since it’s almost like a competition. As for when they’re not playing loud enough, I just tell them to break my piano next week. Works every time. (Also good is to challenge them to get me to say next week, “Oh my God, that was way too loud. Please play your fortes softer…”)

  10. I definitely agree with you; to hold a student back just for the sake of dynamics is missing the big picture. Dynamics is simple in theory, but not always easily executed. For my beginner students, I always have them tell me 3 to 4 things about the piece/song they will be play. Often, there are only that many points to be made in the early years, so dynamics are acknowledged BEFORE they play! If not I’ll ask some leading questions, depending on what the piece is about (ex: if it’s about trumpets, I’ll ask a student if they’ll be playing ‘piano’ — they look at me like I’m crazy, and are very enthusiastic then to perform with the proper dynamic).

    Thank you for this post! I’ll keep looking around your blog! :)

  11. I record them on my ipod, and then I close the book while they listen and ask them to tell me when it gets louder or softer. Ususally they cannot tell. Then I play it like I would like them to play it and ask them if they can tell when the dynamics change.

  12. one of my greatest frustrations with dynamics is students whose parents will not buy them a weighted keyboard. When I start students out I tell parents that a weighted keyboard is a requirement, and then later I find out that they bought a keyboard that wasn’t weighted and thus the students can’t practice dynamics. Any suggestions of how to respond to this?
    On a different note, I have students who just will not dig in and play loudly, and some who won’t play lightly. Thoughts on this?

    1. I don’t know if this helps, but I tell parents that if they are going to go digital, they at least need to buy a full-sized one with all 88 keys. I haven’t seen a full-sized keyboard that doesn’t have weighted keys, so that seems to take care of the problem. :) I’m glad for method books that have students moving and using the entire range of the keyboard from day 1, because it shows parents that those short keyboards with only 61 or 76 keys aren’t good enough!

  13. Whenever I find myself in that situation where kids swear up and down that they ARE doing the dynamics (but somehow you just can’t tell the difference) I tell them to let their voice decide. We pick different sections at a time and sing the melody together on a neutral syllable with dynamics first, and then they play while singing it again. There’s nothing more natural to a student than the sound of their own voice, and so they follow it well. So far I’ve had a ton of luck with this method.

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