Teaching Piano Articulation: How, When and Where

Teaching piano articulation isn’t always easy. We need our students to understand what each of these markings mean, the correct technique to use and the sound they’re trying to achieve. 

If you’ve been struggling to know the right order and method to use for teaching piano articulation, this post will help. 🤞

It can be a whole world of confusion.

Let’s get you teaching what all of these signs mean so your students play in a healthy and expressive way. We’ll start with the how, then move on to the when and finish up with the where. 🗺️

How to Teach Piano Articulation

The most effective way to teach articulation in my opinion is to move from sound to movement to words. This sequence isn’t the only “right” way but it will give you a framework to follow if teaching piano articulation has felt scattered to you.

Step 1: Listen

Before you show your student any new articulation marks or teach them the technique required, they need to know how it should sound. Have your student close their eyes while you demonstrate, so they can really focus on the sound alone. 

Step 2: Mime

As soon as the piano keys come into the picture, many students will be more concerned with hitting the right note than the way they move their arms and hands. That’s why I like to start with technique work away on an air-piano or table-piano. 

Having your student imitate the perfect staccato touch or smooth legato on a silent surface will help prepare them to focus on the movement over the notes. 

Step 3: Mirror

Sit side-by-side with your student, either at one piano or your second instrument if you have one. Demonstrate a simple pattern using the new articulation slowly and have your student mirror your actions on the surface of the keys. 

mirror

Tell them the goal is that if someone saw only your hands and couldn’t see the keys, they wouldn’t know who was playing and who was miming. This makes it a fun challenge!

Step 4: Play

It’s finally time to play. Have your student play the pattern they were mirroring on their own now. Make sure they repeat it lots of times to get really comfy. 

This may seem like a lot of preparation to do before they actually play anything, but it probably took longer to read about it than it would take to actually do in a lesson. 😊

Step 5: Describe

The last step is to have them describe to you:

  • The sound of this articulation
  • The movement required

Notice that you’ve done almost no describing in the steps above. It’s all imitation and listening. So, when it comes to the description, it really will be in your student’s own words. 

I recommend writing this on a post-it and putting it on the piece they’ll be playing with the new articulation. It’ll be much more powerful than the most elegant description you could have provided yourself. 

Do you struggle to find the time to teach articulation and healthy piano technique? Check out the resources in my Planning Piano Lessons hub page.

When to Teach Piano Articulation

I went through the order in which I teach piano articulation and why in this article, but I’ll give you a quick run-down here as a refresher.

Piano Technique 1: Non-Legato

We start with non-legato so students get used to using their whole arm to play. They don’t need to know the portato notation at all at this stage; it’s all done by rote.

Piano Technique 2: Legato

When they’re ready, I’ll introduce legato. I won’t do this until they can play with a good hand shape and strong fingertip joint. We stick with non-legato for as long as they need to – sometimes even years for a really young student. 

Piano Technique 3: Staccato

Next is staccato. Extra caution needs to be taken at this stage to make sure they’re playing with their whole arm and no unnecessary tension is introduced.

Piano Technique 4: Slurs

Short slurs (2-3 notes) are really a combination of legato and portato playing, in some ways. Playing 2- or 3-note slurs requires some finesse and will only be successful once the legato and portato techniques are very secure.

All The Others…

After these 4 basic articulations are covered, we will approach other articulation as it comes up in their repertoire. 

Where to Teach Piano Articulation

As with anything, piano articulation requires lots of practice. 🤓

intense piano practice

Your students are not going to “get it” in one session and from then on apply the perfect staccato technique every time they see those little dots. They need opportunities to use the articulation regularly and their learning will be more flexible and enduring if the context is varied.

Remember the Rote Pieces 

Teaching with rote or pattern pieces is a wonderful way for your students to work on expression, articulation, and dynamics. Because your student won’t be so focussed on the written music, they’ll have more brain space to work on feeling and listening. 

Inspire with Improvisation

Any time you’re doing improvisation with your piano students, be sure to include articulation in the discussion. Use imagery to bring this to life so your students can tell a story with their playing. 

Concrete with Composition

The moment when articulation really starts to matter for most of my students is when they’re writing their own music. 

Before they add any articulation marks, I demonstrate all the different ways I as a performer might play their piece if they don’t add any. Would they be happy if I played it like this? How about like this? I ham this up a bit and make some truly inappropriate articulation choices, so they can see the need for the correct notation. 😉 

Mess with the Rep!

Your students need to know how to follow what the composer intended, yes. But often they will learn even more from rewriting the articulation on a piece. 

Have your students take some of their favourite pieces and create multiple different articulation versions. This could be a great opportunity for some music notation practice too, either by hand on manuscript paper or in music notation software.

What part of teaching piano articulation is most difficult for you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂

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