Teaching

“But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!”

One of the saddest things about our exam culture is spending the best part of a year on three pieces and a bunch of scales, polishing every little detail until perfect. A couple of weeks after the exam, the student has nothing to play because they have forgotten their old pieces and won’t be ready with the new ones for a while yet. This structure means they often have very poor reading skills and are ill-equipped as practical musicians. It is hard to fathom is that a supposedly advanced piano student with years of lessons behind them would not be able to get up and play Happy Birthday by ear at a party, or to read at sight simple accompaniments when called upon to do so. A very distinguished colleague who taught high-level conservatory students would only ever hear a piece once or twice. Even first year students had to bring something new each week, and while the pressure was often quite intense every single one of them developed the skills to assimilate music very quickly. They had to! Apart from playing extremely well, the best of them became excellent sight readers capable of working out complex scores within a few days. They were flexible and marketable pianists with a large repertoire, just what you want from a conservatory education. Quick Studies Not every one of our students would be able to handle this sort of pressure of course, and don’t get me wrong – spending weeks and months polishing and refining certain pieces is absolutely imperative! There is no way we can develop pianistic excellence and finesse without this. To redress the balance between the type of painstaking and time-consuming practise involved in perfecting a piece and the […]

“Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week…”

How often we piano teachers hear this comment! “Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week.” It has to rank with the exclamation “But I can play it perfectly well at home” as one of the perennials. I always smile inside when I hear this, because it is intended well and actually we’ve all been there. Learning a piece is a process, rather like an investment. It might take several weeks where you don’t feel much progress then suddenly something changes and it feels like the penny has dropped. It is easy to get frustrated and demotivated during the gestation period. I always remind students that not every lesson has to be a performance – during this stage there is much more value in chipping away at the piece together, side by side, rather than attempting to play it through. Wouldn’t it be great if our results at the piano were in direct proportion to the amount of time spent? If practising were an exact science and we were machines, perhaps we could guarantee the perfect performance. I wonder how often any of us can walk onto the concert platform or into the examination room feeling totally confident that we have done enough practice, that we have covered all our bases. There is always that nagging feeling we could have done more – all we need is a few more days and we’d be fine. Time always seems to be at a premium. There are so many demands on our time, and there never seem to be enough hours in the day to fit in as much practice as we want. I can say this, though, without any doubt: if we […]

Inventing Exercises from Pieces

There are pieces that contain passages of technical difficulty that require special attention, a type of practising over and above the routine use of the other practice tools. This could  also apply to whole pieces, of course – concert studies being a good example. We might need to find creative ways to solve these problems by getting into the habit of making our own exercises based on the material from the piece. These exercises might explore different facets of the difficulty by creating extended or slightly varied versions. This tends to make the passage harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when we go back to the original, we understand it better and it just feels easier. Meeting the demands of a technical challenge is a bit like capturing a wild animal. If we approach it from one direction, it will run off in another. Therefore, we need a multi-pronged strategy involving very many different approaches to practising. Inventing exercises can be challenging at first, but once we get into the habit it is amazing how creative we can become at dreaming these up as we practise. My scores are littered with my own exercises, and I return to these when I go back to a particular piece, sometimes coming up with a different or better solution. If you explore any one of the study editions of Alfred Cortot, you will find many ideas for such practice exercises. For me, it was Cortot who primed the pump. Here is Chopin’s set of Etudes, op. 10 in the Cortot edition, made available by Walter Cosand. In Debussy’s First Arabesque, there is an awkward passage that usually confuses the hand, the few bars just before the […]

But I Can Play It Perfectly Well At Home!

Of all the comments students make in lessons, the assertion that they can play it perfectly well at home has to be among the most common. I would guess that this is probably universal, and even though I don’t think the statement is a lie I am not sure I always buy it. I think what they mean is there was nobody at home to judge, or that stopping somewhere in the piece, making a sly correction and restarting were either not noticed even by the players themselves or if they were, these errors had no obvious consequences. Surely the whole point is the (vast) difference between playing in the comforts of your living room, and the stresses and strains of performance where other people are listening. What felt easy and natural when we were alone suddenly becomes treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others. And it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the audience is knowledgable about music or not. There is a virtual reality game called Walk the Plank. In reality you simply walk across a plank placed flat on the floor, in virtual reality you walk the plank over a vast cityscape. The experience is made to feel real by the headset that provides the experience of reality – even though the mind knows you are perfectly safe and at ground level, the brain and body is tricked and terror ensues. When we perform, we need to be responding on many different levels – emotionally, physically, even viscerally. We need to get into character and fully live the music on stage, there is room for spontaneity and magic here! Heaven forbid that when onstage, we are thinking about what notes […]

By |February 23rd, 2013|Teaching|7 Comments

Getting Students to Use the Practice Tools: Separately

The brain is made up of two hemispheres, right and left. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. There is a bridge between the two hemispheres, a thick bundle of cables called the corpus callosum, which connects the left with the right and enables communication between the two. Scientists have discovered the corpus callosum is actually larger and more developed in musicians, and that playing a musical instrument improves skill in other areas of life, such as maths. When we play one hand of a piece of music written for two hands, we are obviously only getting half the story. While the whole is bound to be greater than the sum of its parts (eventually), we will need to start off by attending to the parts by learning each hand separately. By practising one hand by itself, we enable the hemisphere of the brain that controls it to absorb fully the movements that hand has to make. The more we consciously practise these movements, the more skillful we become as our brain processes the sensory information. The absolute necessity to know each hand by itself seems so obvious and so basic, doesn’t it? Yet in my adjudicating work I can always hear when someone has not done this or who has done it briefly and half-heartedly – the end result is sloppy, inaccurate and unreliable. So often, successful piano practice comes down to delaying gratification (the satisfaction we get from the complete sound picture and the visceral enjoyment of playing) and instead digging foundations deep enough so that our playing really can be rock solid. How frustrating and dispiriting to be able to play something rather well one day […]

By |February 16th, 2013|Teaching|0 Comments

Getting Students to Use the Practice Tools (2)

Last week, I discussed how we might encourage our younger students to use the practice tools by incorporating elements of practice into the lesson, so that each week we devote a part of the lesson to checking and supervising what we want to be happening at home. I guess this would be the equivalent of an apprentice in an atelier who polishes and displays the tools of his craft for the master to inspect. There would be enormous pride not only in the product, but the very tools themselves and the proper use of them. We all know that tonal control is a hallmark of excellent piano playing. By this, I mean a full dynamic range as well as a sense of balance between the hands and (later) within the hand. There is no reason why we can’t introduce this concept, and also the skills involved, from the very beginning. Youngsters love a challenge if it is presented playfully, demonstrated well and they can see the value in it. The elementary player often struggles to do one thing in one hand and a different thing in the other hand, such as projecting a RH melody line and playing the accompaniment in the LH softer. Before we can expect them to do this, we need to help them develop the necessary independence between the hands. Games are a good starting point – you can get them to pat their head with one hand while rubbing their stomach with the other, or draw a circle and a square simultaneously. At the piano, we might use a basic five-finger position. I prefer Chopin’s whole-tone position (E-F#-G#-A#-B#) but any position will do. Both hands play in similar motion up […]

By |February 10th, 2013|Teaching|1 Comment

Getting Students To Use The Practice Tools

Following the launch of my ebook series last week, I had an email from a reader who tells me she is enjoying reading about the practice tools. She is excited to start using them herself, but is a bit dubious that she is going to get her students to practise like this. This seems like an excellent point, and one I thought I would address here today. I’ll start by sharing a personal story about my gardening skills – or rather total lack of them. I once had a property with a beautiful garden, designed and laid out by its previous owner with great love and attention to detail. Along with the house came a shed full of garden implements – shears, secateurs, and other gizmos – everything you would ever need. One bright Sunday morning, I decided to do a spot of gardening and got all these things out from the shed. I stood there scratching my head, uncertain as to what needed to be lopped from where, where I needed to dig, what was a weed – it all looked fine to me. So, I promptly put the tools back in the shed and called in the professionals, who looked after the plot beautifully from then on. This showed me there’s no point having tools unless you know how to use them, when to use them, and for what. Probably the single most important and most basic practice tool is the feedback loop. It helps us diagnose what’s good or bad, weak or strong so we can attempt to correct or improve it. This applies universally from beginners to advanced to professionals. It is perfectly possible to get a beginner to use the […]

By |February 3rd, 2013|Teaching|4 Comments

Fun With Scales?

I was planning to write a piece on the uses and abuses of the metronome in my new mini series “The Middle Path”, but a major publication deadline this week has temporarily diverted me from my purpose. Instead, I thought I could write a short addendum to last week’s offering on practising in rhythms as applied to scales, so here it is. Let’s not pretend that practising scales is an unalloyed joy for the aspiring pianist, so anything we can do to spice up this area of our work is to be welcomed. I am most eager to hear your ideas and suggestions – do please share them! For variety, we could take a phrase from a piece and use the rhythmical structure to hang a scale onto. We might practise a scale using the opening rhythm from Dave Brubeck’s Take Five: Or the theme from Bernstein’s America: This could even turn into a game for teacher and student, the one having to guess a well-known piece from its rhythm turned into a scale played by the other (role reversal is encouraged here). Taking this one step further, teacher could ask student to play a scale in the rhythm of a section of a piece they are currently studying – perhaps a section where the rhythm is weak and needs reinforcement? As a youngster, I found the following rhythms extremely useful for gaining control in scales, and in extended passages from pieces. In examples where the beat is divided into 4’s, you play the first 4 notes as crotchets, then the next 4 notes either twice as fast: … or four times as fast, thus: If the beat is divided into 3’s, here is the formula: […]

By |January 13th, 2013|Teaching|2 Comments

Q&A: How Do I Get A 12-Year Old To Practise Slowly?

A reader sent me in the following question, which feels more like a plea! I have been teaching a 12-year old boy for a couple of years now. He has a flair for piano and is quite talented but his playing is always so messy and out of control. I’ve told him he needs to practise slowly and I can get him to do it in the lesson (sort of) but he lacks the discipline at home. I get the feeling he would rather be out playing football. Any suggestions? Thank you so much for this question. There is no doubt that slow, mindful practice is an essential ingredient in our practising, no matter how old we are or what level we’re at. The first step is to get your pupil to appreciate this. You can philosophise, demonstrate and remonstrate all you like but unless he sees the value in practising slowly, he’s not going to do it. Simple! Help him to realise that there are even greater rewards to be had from delaying gratification – remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? – and that even great pianists practise slowly! Seeing as he is into sports, you might want to help him summon up his inner coach by imagining his ten fingers (and his right foot!) are the players in the football team he is managing. He is in charge of every movement they make, every position they need to adopt. He calls the shots, and without his leadership he doesn’t have a team. My best suggestion would be to give him something concrete to do regarding slow practice. If it is a fast piece, you can decide together on the eventual performance tempo and give him a series […]

By |December 7th, 2012|Teaching|3 Comments

Q&A: Exam Preparation

A reader sent in the following question, to which I hope I have given an adequate response. Please feel free to leave comments and let’s start a discussion on the subject! ***   ***   *** Q. One subject I have always had conflicting feelings about is the preparation before an exam or performance – how do you handle the last week before the performance? The last morning before the performance? Do kids play ALL of their repertoire, or just the challenging parts? Or just warm up all morning with scales? It seems to be something that is an individual thing, but it is not something I can speak with much confidence about to my students. A. Thank you very much for the question, which I feel is an extremely good one. You are quite right when you say this is an individual thing, since no two people are alike. Therefore, I would not want to give a one-size-fits-all formula, but I think there is some general advice I can offer. From my experience, I believe we should all aim to be fully ready two to three weeks before the exam or concert, with everything. Last-minute panic learning is, for most of us, disastrous but then again there are those who seem to thrive on the adrenaline! I gave some of my best playing when I had to stand in for a colleague at very short notice, probably because I didn’t have time to get nervous, or maybe if things didn’t go according to plan I would have a very good reason. This only goes to show that, assuming we know what we are doing and have put in the work at some stage, a […]

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