Italian in Adult Piano Lessons

The Delight of Learning Musical Terms

Italian in Adult Piano Lessons
One of my secret pleasures of taking adult piano lessons is the smattering of Italian terms in the music. In the pocket between the treble and bass staffs are instructions about dynamics and tempo, transmitted directly from the composer to the pianist, written in Italian. Although these markings appear in music ranging from a Beethoven sonata to a Debussy prelude, in my experience Chopin was a particularly heavy user.

“I just love those Italian words,” I exclaim to my sister-in-law, a first generation Italian American and also a surgeon. “Smorzando!” I exclaim, drawing out the vowels and giving each syllable of this delicious word its full worth. “Slentando!” I add with gusto, raising my hand. I’ve inherited my corny sense of humor from my father.

My sister-in-law Costanza gives me a perplexed look, then shakes her head as if to say she is too polite to let me know she thinks I’m acting strangely. In Costanza’s perfect English I sometimes detect a hint of the rolling hills and valleys of the Italian language. At first I cannot understand why she doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the musical terms. Then I consider how offbeat it would be if someone were to declare “Fading Away!” and “Gradually Slower!” to me in English in a stilted accent.

A few of my favorite Italian musical terms are:
1) Slentando: means gradually slower. I can sense the slowness in the voluptuous sle of the first syllable.
2) Sotto voce: means quietly, in a soft voice; has a mysterious allure
3) Dolcissimo: means very sweetly. I can picture sweet white cream from a puff pastry in the music.

The Italian instructions have made me more of a dictionary user. Of course, some words, like “poco tranquillo,” are obvious. Despite the fact that I didn’t pay much attention in high school Spanish—I used to shoot rubber bands at the boys in the back—I managed to pick up that poco means little. Poco tranquillo: play this section with a little tranquility.

But other terms such as sostenuto are so indecipherable that they require hauling myself out of the music’s allure, sliding back the piano bench, walking across the room, and thumbing through my Hal Leonard pocket music dictionary. Sos-teh-NOO-toh means sustained, to sustain the pealing melody.

These quirky Italian terms are just one more reason why I find my playing the piano so sustaining.

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