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Playing Grace Notes, Trills, and Glissandos on the Piano

1 of 7 in Series: The Essentials of Bringing Expression to Your Piano Playing

Aside from the range of regular notes, composers occasionally enliven piano pieces with fancy note combinations that add a bit or interest and elegance to the music. Grace notes, trills, and glissandos add cool effects and are fun to play.

Touching on grace notes

A grace note is a note that you play just slightly before a real note — your finger just grazes the grace note before playing the real note. This very simple effect can make your music sound more complex.

Grace notes are written in a number of different ways, many shown in the following figure. A single grace note looks like a small eighth note with a slash through it. Think of the slash as meaning “cancel the rhythmic value.” Multiple grace notes look like small sixteenth notes. You play them very quickly, too, so that it sounds like you’re rolling into the main note.

Amazing grace notes, how sweet the sound.
Amazing grace notes, how sweet the sound.

You don’t always have to play grace notes super-fast. The character and effect of a grace note is determined by the tempo and style of the music. The idea is to use a grace note to give its main note a little lift. The best grace notes are those that are a half-step or a whole step away from the full melodic note, but feel free to try ones that are even farther apart. Beginning a song’s melody with a grace note is an excellent idea, especially if the song is in the jazz or blues style.

Just trillin’

If you’ve ever heard the sound of a piccolo twittering high above the band in a John Phillip Sousa march, you’ve heard the effect of a trill. What sounds like a very elaborate trick is actually a very simple procedure of alternating between two notes in rapid succession.

A trill sounds like a bunch of 32nd or 64th notes. Trills add a certain classical finesse to your playing style.

What a trill sounds like.
What a trill sounds like.

Generally speaking, a note is trilled upward to the note a whole-step above the main note. However, sometimes a composer wants a downward trill or even a half-step trill, and he or she writes the specific note to be used in the trill in one of several ways: A tr above the trilled note; a sharp or flat sign, which tells you to trill to the note’s sharp or to the note’s flat; or a sharp or flat sign, which tells you to trill to the note’s sharp or to the note’s flat:

Simon says,
Simon says, "Trill this note."

Don’t wait for the composer to give you permission to trill — add ’em yourself. Find a note that you think would sound good played as a trill and write tr above it. Half notes and whole notes are usually the best note lengths to trill because they’re long enough to allow you time to get those fingers fluttering. Experiment with half-step and whole-step trills in different directions.

Don’t miss the glissando

A glissando (also known as a gliss in this lazy music industry) is a fast slide across several keys on the keyboard. There’s nothing quite like starting and ending a song with this effect — it will dazzle any audience.

To try a right-hand gliss, put your thumb on a high C note and drag your thumb nail down across the keys very quickly all the way to the bottom of the keyboard. Cool, huh? You can also use the nails of your middle and ring fingers to go both up and down.

Generally composers notate this effect with a wavy line and the abbreviation gliss going from the starting note in the direction of the gliss. For example, if you see a wavy line going up from C, play the note C and slide up the keyboard. Sometimes the specific ending note is shown at the other end of the wavy line; other times, it’s up to you to decide where to stop.

Gliss me, gliss me, now you gotta kiss me.
Gliss me, gliss me, now you gotta kiss me.

When the composer specifies both the beginning and ending notes of the gliss, all you can do is practice, practice, practice. Starting on a specific note is easy, but stopping on the right note is like trying to stop a car on a dime. Sometimes you can use your other hand to play the final note if it’s not busy playing something else.

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SERIES
The Essentials of Bringing Expression to Your Piano Playing

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