As you’re aware, one of the ultimate goals in playing musically is to play with expression as the composer intended. Merely playing the notes correctly is simply playing notes, not playing music. To transform notes into music, students need to understand phrasing and be competent in the tools to interpret phrases, namely employing the appropriate overall dynamic level, crescendos and decrescendos, and accents.
Introducing Dynamic Concepts
Of course, introducing these concepts and techniques to a beginning student is actually counterproductive, because the student is concentrating on just the coordination aspect of doing three things at the same time; well, four including thinking. Consequently, I initially don’t instruct about achieving dynamics, but rather how to keep the sound steady without variations in volume for the entire duration of a pull/push sequence. Similar to the adage that one must learn how to walk before being able to run, I’ve found that having students able to achieve steady, monotone phrases actually better prepares them to start playing dynamically, because they have a baseline to work from. Also, if they’re unable to play smoothly without spikes in volume, teaching them expression nuances is like putting the cart before the horse.
When to introduce these techniques is largely dependent on the progress of the student, but I’ve generally noted that about two months is a good time to start working on these elements. I don’t like to wait too long, because it takes considerable effort for students to master these elements. I usually begin by mentioning to the student that music phrases should always be traveling to a destination and then returning to a state of repose. I liken this to the swells of the ocean, in which the ocean rises to a peak as it nears the shore, then tapers down and fades away as it reaches the beach.
Before progressing to progressive volume changes, I first make sure that students understand the basic dynamic ranges and their notation, and that they’re able to at least play softly and loudly. The nuances required between ranges, such as mezzo forte vs. forte, are deferred until a later time after progressive volume changes, discussed below, are introduced.
I will typically introduce these concepts in simpler pieces by hand-writing them in, such as accents, for selected measures so that the student is prepared when encountering the notation in more difficult pieces. I also have a certain project piece aside from other assigned pieces that’s played repeatedly over perhaps several weeks to perfect and reinforce the technique.
Introducing Crescendos and Decrescendos
I first instruct about executing crescendos and decrescendos, and then work with accents later. I first demonstrate how to execute these on my accordion, then I move over to the student’s bellows side and physically execute both of these while their wrist is connected to the accordion so that they can feel the proper pressure and elapsed time required to succeed. To do this properly, it’s important to convey the two aspects of achieving satisfactory results: gradual and continuous volume increase along with a pre-determined note duration for execution.
Similar to overall dynamic ranges, I strive to have students understand the concept, even if that means exaggerating the volume contrast from soft to loud and vice versa. Students can execute subtleties only after they’ve mastered the primary concept. Consequently, I mention to the student that it’s better to do this with more intensity than they think is prudent, even if it feels like an exaggeration to them.
I don’t have students play pieces with these elements in them until they can demonstrate basic proficiency with the preparatory exercise.
For a crescendo/decrescendo exercise, I ask the student the student to hold any whole note for two measures starting out softly, and then progressing to forte at the beginning of the second measure, tapering back to piano by the conclusion of the fourth beat. Played correctly, the two measures should sound like mirror images of each other, in that the volume for beat 1 of the first measure sounds like beat 4 of the second measure, beat 2 of the first measure sounds like beat 3 of the second measure, and so forth.
I’ve observed that it’s more difficult to explain how to execute an accent when just playing a single short note, such as a quarter note. The problem is that using this method is out of context with a baseline to demonstrate the contrasting volumes. It’s much easier to establish a baseline in which the student holds a note at a certain volume, then accents the note by jerking the bellows, then returns to the previous volume and continues this pattern for a few iterations. In this manner, the student can associate the original static volume with what is required to transform it into an accent. The second benefit is that the student will now know how to play a longer note, such as a half-note that’s accented, by initially accenting the note, then backing off immediately for the remainder of the note’s duration.
As with my approach to teaching crescendos and decrescendos, I first demonstrate how to execute these on my accordion, then I move over to the student’s bellows side and physically execute these while their wrist is connected to the accordion so that they can feel the abrupt and explosive movements. Likewise, I don’t have students play pieces with accents in them until they can demonstrate proficiency with the preparatory exercise. You’ll see that the student holds a long note and doesn’t accent the note until the second beat in order to establish a dynamic baseline from which to operate upon.