There are those teachers who demonstrate for their students all the time in piano lessons, and those others who don’t go near the instrument. I have studied with both types. Does a demonstration necessarily have to be a perfect model though, to be listened to reverentially and copied verbatim? Or might a teacher’s hands on the keyboard serve other purposes? To illustrate different ways of practising, or to give various suggestions as to how a phrase might be shaped, or indeed how not to do something?

In his interview with Frederic Gaussin for Yevgeny Kissin reminisces about his teacher, Alice Kantor.

Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools.

For me the term “demonstration” does not capture what’s really going on, it feels way too pretentious. I like to think of what I do at the piano in a lesson as an extension of speech, a soundtrack over what I am saying.

The Dangers of Copying

Have you noticed how listening to a recording of a great artist playing a piece you are learning can immediately change your own playing? The danger of listening to recordings is that you can easily end up copying without developing your own authentic ideas about the piece. I’ve seen it regularly – students who have listened to, and copied so many recordings they end up being literally spoiled for choice – incapable of finding their own voice or forming their own artistic impressions of the work they are learning.

There is one form of copying that I think is really wonderful. This is the type of demonstration we can make for ourselves when we work. Unless we have the right sound in our ear, we can struggle in our practice and end up frustrated. Ideally, we pause and hear the sounds we want to hear in our imagination before we connect with the keyboard. Sometimes, it really helps to strip it down a bit and use two hands to create a vivid sound picture of a passage we will eventually need to play with one hand.

The LH opening of Chopin’s second Prelude is a good example of this. How many of us have stopped after a few notes, dissatisfied with our results? We start again, only to be disappointed and disillusioned further.

The Ideal Demonstration

We would reach our goal much quicker and more directly if someone were there to deliver a perfect demonstration of the passage so that we could immediately emulate it. The good news is we can do this for ourselves – when we practise hands separately. If we made an arrangement that was technically far easier to manage, we could recreate the sound we are after with vastly reduced technical difficulty. I propose a two-handed version that would function as a crib, an aural role model for the one hand to aspire to.

I’ve come up with three possibilities for the opening phrase of this prelude. Experiment further and you are bound to generate more. Practise the crib in alternation with the original until they sound and feel identical (I’m assuming nobody would even consider doing this without some pedal).

All of which brings me nicely to another work of Chopin, one that students tend to practise all wrong – the so-called “Winter Wind”, op 25 no 11. Because the technical difficulty lies in the right hand, it’s easy to forget that without an incredible underpinning from the left hand the study is just not going to sound. What makes Chopin’s studies so great is the main technical difficulties often lie in the accompaniments, and op 25 no 11 is a supreme example of this.

I suggest beginning your work on this study by making a fabulous two-handed arrangement of the lower stave until you can make it sound amazing. Next, aim to recreate this soundscape with the left hand alone. Continue to refine the left hand tone poem using the two-handed model even as you begin the technical work on the right hand, and carry on chipping away at it regularly thereafter until it is memorised.

In performance, if your listening is directed to the left hand the paradox is you’ll hardly even need the right hand – a truth not lost on Artur Rubinstein. At the beginning of his career he admitted he got away with murder in this study by focussing the audience’s attention onto the left hand, not troubling too much about accuracy in the right hand. In later life he came clean – listen to his own account of the story.

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