Piano Teaching Tips from Joyce Grill – Using Words to Aid with Interpretation

Joyce GrillMost beginning piano methods include illustrations, words, and descriptive titles that help students develop interpretative ideas about tempo, dynamics, touch and mood. Many of these beginning pieces can be considered easy “character pieces,” a form associated with the Romantic era. After a while, students study pieces without words and with very few pictures (if any). Finally, they perform pieces with no words or pictures and with generic word titles such as nocturne, prelude, scherzo, and ballade.

When writing Musical Scenes, Books 1-3, my intention was to create musical “character pieces” with titles that help create the mental picture of a particular scene, event, or feeling. When introducing these pieces to students, I often ask them to try writing lyrics for the music to reflect the title. The title of the piece often fits the melody line, and adding these words can help with touch, phrasing, and mood. I have also found that the lyrics can help students play musically and with feeling.

I'm Happy

“I’m Happy” from
Musical Scenes, Book 1

An example of the title fitting the music is “I’m Happy” from Book 1. When saying the word “happy,” the emphasis is on “hap,” and “py” is spoken with less emphases. In the music, a staccato dot on “py” requires students to lift the hands to get ready for the rest that follows. The hands then drop to start the new identical phrase.


“Practicing” from
Musical Scenes, Book 1

Students may not always come up with lyrics that you like! An example of words that one of my students created for “Practicing” from Book 1 follows. When you read the words, you will know why I did not really like the words, but the student was honest. The piece opens up with a four-measure, smooth phrase with a crescendo. It is followed by two short phrases that decrescendo. At measure 16, the B section suggests a mood change.



When I was writing these pieces, I particularly had teenagers in mind since this age group is known for changes in emotions. One day they are up; the next day they are down. They may be full of tears one minute and filled with laughter the next minute. I wanted them to be able to express their feelings through the music in the pieces in Musical Scenes.

In “Why?” from Book 2, the title is a questioning word. Because it is not possible to crescendo on a single note, saying the word “why” on a long note helps students feel that the sound is sustaining.


“Why” from
Musical Scenes, Book 2

Other pieces in the series suggest other emotions.

  • “I Just Get So Mad!” from Book 1 – anger
  • “Tension” from Book 1 – uptight
  • “Wishing on a Star” from Book 1 – hopeful
  • “Being Silly” from Book 1 – happy
  • “Where Am I Going?” from Book 2 – confusion
  • “The Stay-at-Home Blues” from Book 2 -boredom
  • “Storm” from Book 3 – anger
  • “Skeletons’ Ball” from Book 3 – happy

In my experience, students can create interesting, thoughtful, and provocative words. It is also acceptable to only create words for specific phrases or sections rather than for the entire piece. Some students will sing the words, but others feel more comfortable just speaking them. Even just thinking about the words can help them with interpretation.

My favorite lyrics created by my students were for “More Salsa, Please!” from Book 2.


“More Salsa” from
Musical Scenes, Book 2

The pieces in Musical Scenes are really similar to preludes, nocturnes, and scherzos. By studying these pieces and adding words, I hope that students will be able to apply similar interpretative techniques to such pieces by master composers from the Romantic era.

Joyce Grill
Author, Arranger, Composer


6 responses to “Piano Teaching Tips from Joyce Grill – Using Words to Aid with Interpretation

  1. Thank You for sharing your tips about lyrics! Ive been teaching over 15 years and never thought to use lyrics to teach the moods.

  2. I so wish I had been able to read the lyrics written in Joyce Grill’s piano music–they’re so faint that I can’t make them out! –Judy Harrison

  3. I can’t read the lyrics.

  4. Thank you for the email. I respect your compositions and enjoy a number of them for my students. I bought your book on accompanying a number of years ago and it is a staple in my library.

  5. Loved your ideas. My students often struggle to write words. For some of them thinking of a story that relates to their piece, or writing their own is easier..

  6. I think this a great way to work on young students musical articulation! They have grown up knowing the importance of articulation with their speech, and if you are able to link that to their musical articulation you can make a massive impact on their playing! Great idea!

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