teaching

Some Thoughts on Mental Tension

When we think of tension in piano playing, we correctly label this as negative – it is a thing that hampers us and our objective should be to locate its source and then eliminate it. This tension might be physical or mental, or perhaps a bit of both! Inadequate or inefficient technique, or incorrect use of the body manifests in physical tension. Mental tension (such as stage fright, exam nerves, etc.) may have its origins in the mind but it soon becomes very apparent in our breathing and the tightening of our arm muscles, the wrist and our shoulders. If we are particularly apprehensive, our legs may also tighten up and this affects our whole system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body and this alters the way our muscles feel and the way we respond physically to what we perceive as stress and danger. When muscles tense up our ability to move freely across the keyboard is compromised, often severely. This leads to all kinds of clumsy and uncoordinated errors until eventually we can no longer play. Poisonous Pedagogy Unfortunately, many teachers (including some with excellent reputations at the top of the profession) teach by shaming the student, making them feel inadequate and inferior. Once worn down and confidence eroded, the idea is to rebuild them in the image of the teacher. This sets up unhealthy dependency and a host of psychological problems. I am not suggesting this is deliberate cruelty on the part of the teacher, because this behaviour is usually unconscious. The teacher is simply passing on like a hot potato the way they themselves were taught. Despite the quality of the information we might get from such a teacher, nobody needs to be subjected to this […]

“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 […]

Chopin’s First Ballade – a Practice Suggestion

Chopin’s evergreen First Ballade has never been more popular, thanks in part to Alan Rusbridger’s book about his personal quest with the piece, Play It Again. It is a piece that most aspiring young pianists yearn to play (often before they are ready for it) and you’ll hear it coming out of conservatory practice room doors the world over. Given the exposure of the piece, it is easy to forget that it presents formidable challenges for all who choose to play it, amateur and professional alike. I thought I would offer some occasional suggestions for practice, starting with a small section that seems to trip a lot of players up. Let’s look at the section beginning in bar 138, a waltz if ever there was one (compare this with Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, op. 34, no. 1): I am sure many players give a lot of attention to the RH here, and yet without a beautifully crafted LH this passage is doomed to fall off the rails. The filigree passagework of the RH is only going to work if the LH can provide a buoyant, rhythmical underpinning – think of the RH as the dancer and the LH as the orchestra. Make sure you can play the LH by itself fluently, up to speed and beautifully shaped. Listen to the second slurred crotchet, making sure it is softer than the first; enjoy the dissonance between the A flat and the A natural in the second beat. Of the many editions available in The Petrucci Library, only a few include LH fingering for this passage and in his excellent study edition (available in Petrucci in French), Alfred Cortot gives but one practice suggestion here. Cortot’s perverse fingering for […]

The Piano Teachers’ Course EPTA UK

The life of a pianist can be very lonely indeed. For polished performances hours and hours need to be spent at the instrument. Teaching (and for the majority of pianists, this is the most secure career) means rewarding contact with pupils, but what is so often sadly missing is the contact with other pianists, the feeling of camaraderie that comes from knowing we’re all in this together. There is also a danger of becoming stale and out of touch, perhaps teaching the same familiar pieces in the same way for some years. We can all use a bit of inspiration from time to time – some new ideas, learning about new trends in piano pedagogy, finding out about new repertoire and other resources you were unaware of.  I advise colleagues to join EPTA  – The European Piano Teachers Association, a professional body for piano teachers. Founded in 1978 by Carola Grindea, the aims of EPTA are to promote excellence in piano teaching and performance, to bring teachers and performers together and to raise standards within the profession. There are Associations in almost every European country, and an annual conference. At grass roots level, each area in the UK has a local area representative. In addition to attracting pupils via your entry in the list of teachers, benefits of membership include the many events arranged throughout the year – classes, workshops, presentations as well as the annual piano competition. I was delighted to be invited to join the staff  of principal tutors for  The Piano Teachers’ Course EPTA UK, the UK’s leading professional development course solely for piano teachers directed by Lucinda Mackworth-Young. The course is suitable for pianists and piano teachers who wish to enhance their […]

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