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 and down using the following different touches. Aim to achieve all this in one continuous loop with no stopping. The greatest benefits are achieved when one activity flows seamlessly into the next:
- one hand legato, the other hand staccato
- without stopping, reverse
- both hands slurred in pairs (down-up movements)
- one hand legato, the other slurred
- both hands slurred (again)
- one hand staccato, the other slurred
If they can do even the first two steps of the above, they will have the basic skills to play one hand softer than the other. First they need to hear the difference between a beautifully balanced version of something like Clementi’s Sonatina in C (or whatever piece featuring melody and accompaniment you have assigned) and one where both hands are playing on the same dynamic level (and thus fighting with each other). Two versions will need to be demonstrated to them. If you ask them which they prefer, almost all will recognise the difference.
To the literal-minded, a concept that needs to be brought home is that forte does not mean that all notes are equally loud, or that both hands are equally loud. If I scream the word “elephant”, the last syllable is going to be softer than the first. In this Clementi example, the LH needs to be mf at most. If they struggle to achieve a good balance, there’s a practice tool for that – miming. Miming is where we deliberately prevent fingers from sounding their notes either by touching the surface of the key or by depressing it only partially. We inhibit the full range of motion that produces sound for the purposes of developing muscular control.
First attempts at this will probably be clumsy. Either the LH will not be able to touch the keys without sounding them, or the RH will also join in the mime. A little persistence and it will be much easier to balance the two hands when playing.
Let’s take Edward MacDowell’s charming little piece, To A Wild Rose (from Ten Woodland Sketches, op. 51), currently on the ABRSM syllabus for Grade V. The melody line is on the top of the RH, the lower part of the RH (often just the thumb) and the LH playing the harmonies. We can practise miming the harmony notes for the purpose of bringing out the RH top melody clearly. After we practise like this, we will be better able to control the balance between the top melody line and the harmony below:
I devote a whole chapter to miming – it’s chapter 7 in volume 2 of my new ebook series Practising the Piano. For details, please see below.
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