Teaching Piano

Decorating the Cake: Helping Piano Students Play With Expression and Heart

For piano teachers, it’s that time of year: recital season! We are in the process of coaching our students to polish and perfect their recital selections.

Does it ever feel to you like sometimes students have set the bar at only playing the right notes? Haven’t our students realized there more to music than this? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up to be a piano teacher to become the “rhythm police”. 😉

We want our students to realize there is more to sharing music through performance than “getting it right”. They’ve set the bar too low. And perhaps at times we inadvertently reinforce the idea that this is all there is to piano playing.

There’s no doubt it’s important to perform a piece with accuracy. But we don’t want students to think their job is complete upon merely being able to play “the right notes at the right time”, when the reality is that even our youngest students are completely capable of getting “beyond the notes”.

Instead, we want our students to play with heart, to play with expression and individuality. We want our students to be confidently play their hearts out, and deliver a performance that moves their listeners.

Today, I’ll share a simple analogy I use to help students (1) understand what it means to get “beyond the notes” and (2) become motivated to attend to the details of and add expression to their performance. 


When I encounter students who can play their pieces accurately but don’t seem to be thinking “beyond the notes”, often I will share with them my “cake analogy”. Here’s how it goes:

Have you ever baked a cake? 

What kind of cake do you like: chocolate, or vanilla? 

What’s the first step to baking a cake? Yes, we need get out the ingredients, and mix them together.

Next what do we need to do? That’s right. We pour the mixture into the cake pan, and bake it in the oven. When it’s done, we remove it from the oven.

Should we put frosting on it right away? No, we need to let it cool first if we don’t want the frosting to melt off.

Once it cools, we can frost it and then we can even decorate it! What if we added some fancy frosting around the edge? And maybe some flowers? And how about some sprinkles? And birthday candles? Sounds pretty great, right? 

Now, you’re probably wondering why we are talking about decorating a cake. Well, your performance is like a cake. You’ve been working hard over the past couple of weeks on mixing the ingredients and baking the cake. You’ve got that part done. You’ve basically learned the piece, and can perform it with the correct notes and rhythms.

But your performance sounding a bit bland right now. We’re ready for some frosting. And some decorations. Let’s make this cake look great! We don’t want a performance that is merely accurate. We want the music to SPEAK to your listeners. To move and impact them. Let’s talk about how you can capture the spirit of what this piece is about through the way you play it. 

After presenting my cake decorating analogy, my students and I can move on to discuss the specifics of what they can do to play with expression and heart. They are now primed and motivated to work on matters such as following the dynamic markings to the greatest degree (and perhaps even adding their own dynamic changes), observing the articulation markings carefully, and shaping the phrases.

Even better, the door is now open for discussions about THEIR ideas for how they can capture the essence of the piece through their playing. They are motivated to express through music, rather than just following directions.

I have found this analogy to be very useful for students who need to shift more of their focus on getting “beyond the notes” to express the mood and character of the piece. To me, this is the most exciting part of music making. Figuring out how to express something through music is rewarding and fun.

Even our youngest students are capable of playing with expression and heart. The earlier we discuss these matters with our students, the better.

Feel free to pass along my cake decorating analogy to your students. I wish you and your students much expressive music making!

What are your best tips for helping students play with expression and heart? Please share and leave a comment. 

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12 thoughts on “Decorating the Cake: Helping Piano Students Play With Expression and Heart”

  1. I love this analogy, and it could be just what I have needed!! Thanks so much for sharing : D

  2. I decided to have a cupcake theme for my summer teaching. This idea came to me when I bought the cutest cupcake stickers from Office Depot. The “icing on the cake,” though, was when I read your blog about this analogy of decorating a cake (or cupcakes). This was perfect for my theme! Now the goal is for students to decorate and memorize their pieces and then share them–all baked and decorated with the extras of expression–at the end of summer. Oh, that, and we’ll decorate real cupcakes and share those, too!

    1. Amy, that is a WONDERFUL idea! What a fun way to make things “sweet” during the summer months. 😉 I love the idea of having a cupcake gathering for students to perform their memorized and decorated pieces. Fabulous! <3

  3. I, too, use a cake analogy with my students to describe music, but I incorporate the actual cake, too! I describe the components of music as a 3 layer cake. “Rhythm” is the first layer, as one can have a 1 layer cake, and it’s just fine, just as playing a rhythm only in music is just fine. (Ask any percussionist!) I then play a rhythm on sticks, and ask if they know the song. (Usually not) Next, I add the second layer of cake, “melody”, making our cake, and music a bit more exciting. Now I add the melody to the previous rhythm, and they recognize “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Lastly, just like a 3rd layer of cake, adds richness and depth to the cake, so does our 3rd layer of “harmony”. I add chords to our song to pull it all together. Lastly, I add the icing, which like you said is the time to be creative, and add our expression, via dynamics and articulation. I draw these symbols as the the sprinkles on the icing. I make this cake using those foam rubber sheets, or just draw it, and have had the kids make their own in camp, and at times have had them decorate cupcakes with music symbols. Fun discussion, like you, is I ask “ Do you like the cake or icing better?” But best is one it all comes together, just like in music!! Thanks for sharing all your wonderful ideas. They keep my brain fresh!

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