I’ve said it before, we piano teachers teach the way we were taught. And we do it because deep in our musical bones and our pianistic DNA we truly believe we were taught well.
But upon deciding that, while our teachers served us well, we can serve our students better, how do we turn around a lifetime of habits we now perceive to be downright dangerous?
The downright dangerous teaching habits are what I’ve called The Lamination Technique, where students are asked to learn the notes first, the rhythm next, then put hands together, then articulation, then dynamics, and so on over a period of months until finally the phrases are all welded together into something called a ‘performance’.
The first thing is to truly believe that there is a better way, even if you are not quite sure what it might be. Like they say, if you don’t want anything to change keep doing what you’ve always done! If you truly believe that change is necessary then you are more than ready to make the change.
The second thing is to look at why we all use(d) this lamination technique of teaching for so long. On my post about How (not) to learn a piece of music I suggested that this became the only way for teachers to get students working on examination material within the first year or two of lessons, and to then continue to move from grade to grade irrespective of the musical and technical accomplishments of the student over the previous twelve months. If our students are working on repertoire far beyond their skill set then the best we will ever be able to do is to master four bars (eight if you are very lucky) at a time. And then hopefully we’ll be able to piece it all together (no pun intended) before the examination day. And then repeat the whole process again next year.
The one aspect of this situation that we can change overnight with our students is the ‘working on repertoire far beyond [the student’s] skill set’. But to do this we need to have a good understanding of exactly what our student’s skill sets actually might comprise. And, surprisingly, as it turns out, if you’ve been teaching using The Lamination Technique you might have very little idea as to the skill sets of your students. And, equally surprisingly, you might have very little idea as to the skills that the repertoire you teach actually does require.
Let’s take a well-known Mozart Minuet (K5) that is currently in the AMEB Grade 1 syllabus as our example. Grade 1 is at such an early stage of a student’s learning that we might expect the skill set to be quite limited, but this is not the case. Here are the skills your student will need to be able to play this Minuet.
1. A two-note slur. Can your student ‘drop-float’ (or whatever terminology you use for the shaping of the two-note slur)?
2. Holding a note in one hand while adding a note in the other. A skill needed in bars 1, 3, 9 and 11. If your student hasn’t done it before it will be a skill to acquire.
3. Playing different rhythms in each hand.
4. Contraction. The right hand finishes bar 1 on a C, then starts bar 2 with a C sharp and then a D. This succession of tones requires the hand to contract into a smaller-than-five-finger position. Can your student easily move into this ‘squashed’ position?
5. Reading sharps. Don’t take it for granted. This is a skill! Does your student have it?! They’ll need it in bars 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 14.
6. Finger substitution. Arguably you could get away without finger substitution in this piece, but it would be tricky, and it wouldn’t be the same. The first instance of finger substitution happens in bar 2 where the right hand plays the first D with a 3rd finger and immediately following plays the D again with the 2nd finger [AMEB edition – and I would think most editions would follow this same pattern]. This happens again (with different notes of course) in bar 4. And there are more instances of finger substitution in bars 2-3, 4-5, 6, 9-10 and 11-12. Can your student easily perform finger substitution?
7. Changing hand position by leap. Both hands move position throughout the piece, sometimes through a small shift, sometimes in a leap.
8. Tenuto touch. The left hand repeated notes need to be held and detached rather than short and detached. Can your student perform this kind of articulation?
9. Stretching one note outside the five finger position. This happens in the right hand in bar 6 where the distance between the 3rd finger and the thumb is a perfect 4th, and again in bars 11 and 14 where the right hand thumb and 5th finger stretch a major 6th.
10. Playing a dotted crotchet + quaver [dotted quarter note + eight note]. Right hand bars 6 and 14. If your student has not performed this rhythm before it will be a new skill.
11. Playing melodic octaves. Students need to perform this skill in the left hand in bars 4, 7 and 12, and need to perform a melodic octave with the 5th degree of the scale in between in bars 8 and 16. This variation on playing a melodic octave might properly be considered a separate skill, particularly as it involves a different balancing action in the hand.
12. Turning over the thumb. Right hand, bar 7 and bar 15.
13. Playing an appoggiatura. Right hand, bar 8 and bar 16.
14. Reading naturals. Well, it is a cautionary accidental in bar 11, but still….
15. Reading a low C in the bass clef.
16. Performing gradations of tone (crescendo and diminuendo). [Specific to the AMEB edition, but probably relevant to any and all editions, certainly to any interesting performance.]
So there we have 16 skills your student will need to be able to successfully perform this piece, and that’s leaving aside an assumption that your student has played quavers [eighth notes] before, has played in 3/4 before, and so forth.
If your student has all these skills mastered prior to learning this piece you can expect the old accuracy-learning that used to take months to build up into a full bar 1 to bar 16 performance to be done within the first week, or even the first day (!) of the student working on the piece.
As a rule of thumb each skill that is new will add an extra week to the learning process. And if your student has none of these skills then you will certainly find yourself right back in the old Lamination Technique habits you’ve vowed to leave behind.
Next post: what else is involved in ‘learning’?