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Embracing emotions

As a pianist and teacher, feelings and emotions have always helped me to connect to the pieces I play or teach. When I study piano myself, I realize that I retain more information and I transmit it better when I am able to connect it to an emotion or a story (as I mentioned in my previous post The great benefits of using stories and mind maps to learn new songs in a more engaging way). Then, why not use this same method with my piano students to engage them more when they study a new piece? This idea has been stuck in my mind and I actually came to the conclusion that I have been doing this with my students for years without being aware of it and it really works!

When thinking about this topic, I searched for information and found an article called “Music and emotions in the brain: familiarity matters”, which was a great inspiration for me. Summing up, it is a research article about how emotions that are familiar to you can influence your level of understanding information and about the differences in your brain when you listen to something for the first time and when you listen to something that is familiar to you.

How can a teacher inspire or engage a student in a lesson using emotions?

These are the ideas I always use in order to help my students to connect emotionally with the pieces they play:

  • Talk about the title or concept of the piece.

In a beginner piece, it is very easy to connect with its topic. For example, let’s say that the student is playing a piece about a dog. Then, a way to connect with this student would be asking something like: Do you have a dog? If the student has a dog, then it is very easy to connect immediately. If this is not the case, I would try to find a connection (his/her friend has a dog, in a movie he/she likes there is a dog, etc.). At this point, I already have a connection point with the student and this dog is going to be our best tool to learn the piece. For example, a two-note slur could be represented with the kid stroking the dog, as this movement is similar to the articulation of the slur.

In a more advanced piece, other kinds of connections could be found. Let’s imagine that the student is playing a dance from a J.S. Bach’s suite. In this case, we could picture one of these ballroom dances from Bach’s times where people were clothed in 18th century garb, which can be a great tool to feel the ternary rhythm. Then, I would ask the student if he/she knows these dances. Normally, they know them and, if not, I would explain it so he/she can relate to that and create that connection.

These are a couple of examples, but this can be adapted to any piece.

  • Talk about the composer of the piece.

For example, if the student is playing a piece by F.J. Haydn, a good idea could be telling him/her about the Surprise Symphony, in which Haydn shows his funny sense of humor perfectly. By picturing this, the student might find it easier to interpret all the different contrasts in Haydn’s pieces.

Another example could be Beethoven. Let's say the student is playing “Für Elise” or Sonata “À Thérèse”. Both are pieces which Beethoven composed for the woman he was in love with. Sometimes, these kinds of stories don’t help you to solve a specific technical or musical problem you have when studying a piece, but by letting the student know about the backgrounds of the pieces, they normally feel more engaged and connected to them. It looks like suddenly the piece they play is not a paper full of notes, but a story to tell.

  • Assign emotions to a piece or certain moments of it.

This concept is a bit more abstract than the others. However, in my personal experience as a teacher I have noticed that it is a very powerful tool. In this case, the student must use introspection in order to identify the kind of feelings that a piece or a passage evokes to him/her. I normally use this with more experienced students. The only risk this method has is that some students might feel a bit overwhelmed when thinking deeply about their emotions and letting them go when playing the piano. I experienced this once with a teenage girl, who became very emotional at that moment. But when this method is used and we find the balance, it is very strong and the student grows in a lot of ways, not only musically.

This method of using emotions or assigning them to a piece/moment of a piece, makes me look back to a comment someone wrote in my last post, which said “besides telling made-up stories I find it even more powerful to associate the music with situations or experiences you have lived personally”. I found it very interesting, as associating music with your own experiences might be a great way to connect with your emotions more easily.


Pereira, C. S., Teixeira, J., Figueiredo, P., Xavier, J., Castro, S. L., & Brattico, E. (2011). Music and emotions in the brain: familiarity matters. PloS one, 6(11), e27241.


Did you find this post interesting? If you found it helpful or you have any ideas or experiences you want to share, I would love to read in the comments!



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