We're experts at seeing it coming: The shortening concentration spans, more frequent cancellations, and a mind that is increasingly elsewhere: Your student is going to quit lessons.
You can't always blame them. I wish I could remember who it was so I could share the exact quote (if you know, please comment!), but one of the enlightenment philosophers (Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire), wrote that the amount of time it takes to gain even a moderate proficiency in music so consuming that he questioned the worth of even learning an instrument, when one could simply spend their time listening. Compounded with today's academic pressures and myriad of activities, as hard as it can be teaching under-practiced students, I need to frequently remind myself that it's a miracle so many people even stick with piano lessons as long as they do.
If too much time is spent week after week in visually colorful yet artistically and intellectually dreary method books, a student is bound to lose interest. One of the strongest remedies I've found in reigniting a student's spark is to assign a breed of music that :
- Is able to be learned QUICKLY. This usually means a piece that sounds a lot harder and more impressive than it actually is.
- Is atmospheric and emotional
- Uses lots of the piano (Both in range and pedal)
- Is in a minor key (The verdict is in: most people like sadder and darker things)
- Is something that has instant appeal.
- Is primarily Pattern-Based (Via Ostinatos Sequences, Rhythmic repetition, etc)
Granted, most pieces of great and rewarding piano music do NOT meet these specifications, but there is a time and place for those that do. The following selections highlight some of those qualities put to use in artistic and innovative ways that have left my students hooked and with a (at least temporary) renewed desire to practice.
1.) "The Great Smoky Mountains", by David Carr Glover:
Level: Early Intermediate
Perhaps my all-time favorite teaching piece. This epic, sweeping etude highlights better than any piece of its level how what SOUNDS like a complex flourish of notes that spans the keyboard is actually just recycling of a single triad. Once students catch onto this, they are usually hooked (and relieved). It is also a fantastic tool for teaching weight follow-through in chords to achieve a large, ringing sound.
2.) "Golden Dreams" by Javad Maroufi:
Level: Late Beginner
I've always felt that a word should exist in the English language for the feeling one gets the second they hear a new and exceptionally beautiful melody - as this feeling is so specific and unique. Whatever that word would be, this piece hits you with it from the start.
It's a piece virtually unknown to almost all western musicians, but one of the most popular pieces in Iran. (I discovered this during a period when I had an exclusively Persian studio). It is almost Schubertian in the simplicity of its beauty. A sad and simple melody unfolds over 3 triads in the Left Hand. Can be taught by rote, and is a good exercise for singing out the melody over the accompaniment.
Note: The version in the YouTube video above is a slighter more elaborate version of a more common simplified one, the sheet music of which is easily found online.
3.) Intermezzo No. 1 - Manuel Ponce:
Level: Early Advanced
Written by Mexico's foremost composer. I've never understood why this piece has not caught on elsewhere in the world. (Although Lang Lang recently played it, which has given it some notoriety).
The hardest piece on this list, this may be a challenge for less advanced pianists.
A melancholic and rueful series of double notes over a circle of 5th's progression
always entices listeners with Fur-Elise-Level appeal.
4.) "Comptine d'un Autre Ete" by Yann Tiersen:
One day a student called me who had never had lessons before, didn't know how to read music, but wanted to learn how to play this piece. I wanted to say no, but I wanted money more. I learned that day that rote-teaching (The "Showing" method), was indeed possible and sometimes is effective for certain people. I also got to learn that this piece was one of the most effective and appealing pieces for adult and adolescent students.
5.) "21 Amazingly Easy Pieces", By Barbara Arens :
Every piece in this collection is a gem, and - although the notation might not look "amazingly" easy at first glance, they are so pattern-oriented (and have finger-numbers written in), that they can be learned by reading or rote easily. Such is their brevity that you can play them in a matter of a few seconds for students, one after another, until they find one they like.
6.) "Rawahi" By Elissa Milne:
Level: Early Intermediate
Restless, mysterious, and full of longing. Again, another piece on this list that is almost minimalistic - that makes so much from so little. Trance-like, repetitive structures that don't feel repetitive. This is a piece that, to me, can be successful at any tempo, and we can encourage our students to experiment with such.
Several years ago I was practicing the Tchaikovsky Concerto in between lessons at a school I had been teaching at. My next student and parent came in a bit late and said "Sorry! We heard the metronome, so we thought you were still with a student". It made me question something I'd always done as a matter of habit - why was I using the metronome? I already knew if I was keeping steady time or not. I had far reached a point in my musical development where I didn't conflate rhythmic values. The passage question was not really metronomic, and the piece was already well in my fingers.
There doesn't seem to be a general consensus amongst pianists and teachers about the effectiveness of the metronome.While almost every single teacher will invariably agree that the metronome is paramount in the early years and they encourage students to practice with it, many students seem to do fine with admitting they got away without every really using it, and the same goes for concert artists: The pianist Mischa Dichter says he uses it "about twice a year, which I need to borrow from my kids' room". The teacher-guru Graham Fitch admits as well he hardly touches it. By stark contrast, the pianist Ruth Slyencznska in her book "Music at Your Fingertips", recommends an obsessive use of the metronome - from the first minute a new piece is being learned, to "Six metronome speeds of every piece you intend to play on the day of a concert - Nocturne or Etude". At summer festivals I have overhead famous artist-faculty practicing with the metronome. The pianist David Dubal loves to tell his students that the "Metronome is the only teacher you'll ever need", reminding students that Chopin's metronome never left his piano.
First of all, a distinction needs to be made between beginning and more advanced students. In my experience, it is very trying to get a beginning or early intermediate student to play a piece beginning to end with the metronome. A few bars may go okay, but when a particularly rhythmical or technically challenging passage appears, they will stop or it will go haywire. While it may be possible to get them to do it, I've found usually the struggle and time is not worth it, and can ultimately lead to discouraging attitude towards practicing. (I know I never did this at that level). Far more effective is to encourage some preliminary drills with the metronome. I've had success with the following:
1.) Have them clap with the metronome as you call out note values. First, start with quarter notes. One clap per note. Without warning, I'll switch to whole notes. Then eighth notes. Then half notes, then triplets, and so on. Once this is mastered it can be switched to playing as the students plays notes, or chords, etc.
2.) Have ghe student clap so exactly in sync with the metronome, that the sound of the clap blocks out the tick - completely. All you see it the light coming on. Yes, this IS possible, and it's VERY fun. It usually takes a few seconds for the student to catch on and they will eventually drift off, but it engrains a strong sense of pulse.
3.) Have them take a particularly knotty rhythmic passage and have them hum it with the metronome. This takes away the physical challenges of dealing with the instrument and frees up the mind to concentrate on rhythm only.
After a while of the type of work, the metronome can seem much less intimidating and it is easier to apply towards repertoire. If the student continues piano study, as their overall technique and understanding of rhythm continues, it becomes more feasible to play larger sections or whole pieces with the metronome. I tell my students that the metronome is liked braces: It is this ugly, painful contraction that is only temporary, to smooth out the rough edges, and will ultimately leave their playing straight and smooth, and through it they will earn the right to play with an ultimately non-metronomic freedom and breath.
For the more advanced student or the professional who already has develop a sense of pulse, the purpose of the metronome becomes much more abstract.
When I was thirteen I began studies with a serious teacher who opened up to me what I've found the metronome's ultimate purpose in my life has served: A way to organize your practicing and keep it focused. Much of the piano literature has passages that require many hundreds (if not thousands), of repetitions over weeks and months. This repetitive work is almost unimaginable to those in other fields, and it requires almost superhuman patience and discipline. Personally, the metronome is how I've managed to complete these repetitions in a constructive way. To sit down and say to yourself "I am going to repeat this passage twenty times", is a recipe for self-torture and mental (or physical..) wanderlust. But to play a passage starting with the metronome at 60 and working up incrementally to 120, suddenly the perception changes from one of repetition to progress. Like a journey on a train, your eyes and ears suddenly become attuned to the subtle change in the musical and physical landscape of what you are playing at its existence in many different tempi. It's a slow-to-fast journey aided by a device that has a sense of subtly and perfection more than any human can have.
It's worth noting that the above has actually very little to do with rhythm, (the aspect of which the metronome is most commonly associated with..) and almost everything to do with focus. With the right mindset, the compulsive and annoying tick becomes a gentle and encouraging practice coach - telling us to be patient, that all great things are worth waiting for, and that our time will come.
It should be noted that ultimately performances need to be free and non-metronomic. Where I part views with Madame Slencynska is that in the ultimate stages of learning a piece there should probably be less - rather than more - metronome work. Certainly - if you always train yourself to play with a metronome your final product is going to reflect that. The very beauty of most classical music lies in the mysterious "In-betweeness" of rhythmic exactitude, those split-second breathes and pauses and breaking of the rules that are the moments we live for.
But until we get there, I think aptly of Tennessee William's wisdom: "Time is short, and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to it's opposition". The monosyllabe of the metronome is "Patience, progress, stick with me...you'll get this.."
Occasionally, well-meaning and concerned parents of a new prospective students will call or come in for a trial lesson, and mention their child's seemingly deficient "Hand Position" as the primary cause of concern or change of teacher.
While healthy ergonomics should of course be a concern for ANY physical activity (piano, ballet, soccer), etc; it's my opinion that there should be some consideration whether or not this it should be considered the chief concern.
First of all, I think there is an erroneous conflation in the piano teaching world of the terms "Hand Position" and "Technique". Many people generally assume they are the same thing, when in reality this could not be further from the truth. "Position" implies something that is fixed - yet a healthy and fluid piano technique is anything BUT fixed: When a student reaches an octave their hand is more open, and fingers flatter than when playing a fifth; When the thumb tucks under the third finger during a scale, the hand contracts slightly and the wrist and forearm raise a bit, when you want to get a singing tone in a Chopin Nocturne you play on the cushion of your fingertip, making your finger flat. etc. A technique that is fluid and truly does justice to the music is always one in which individual motions are giving way to new ones every second with effortless evervescne.
This notion aside though, I think it is possible to define - if not a fixed position - at least some guiding physical principals about what our hands should be doing at the keyboard. (These guidelines are generally for beginners only, once one gets into even intermediate repertoire the music demands too many counterexamples to let them be rules) :
1.) The hand should be supported by the knuckles that create the bridge; they should not be collapsing. The individual finger joints should generally be out (although some collapsing is not the end of the world). From all of this joint support, the general shape of an arch is formed - which is the strongest shape in nature.
2.) The base position should be natural. What is a "Natural" position?: Find out by standing up, letting both arms drop with dead weight to your sides, and observing what your hand looks like when it is in this completely neutral position: The fingers are only moderately curved (Unlike the death-grip claw that we are often told is the basic feature of a good technique).
3.) There should be relaxation. Obviously, not total relaxation, because tension is what creates muscular contraction, which is what we need to play the piano. But there should not be extra tension. (Extra tension is basically anything we are doing that is not NECESSARY to make the sound we want: Tightening and lifting of the shoulders, making squinty faces, and just a general sense of pressing and holding more than necessary for the task at hand.)
4.) There should be alignment. When playing the middle fingers (2,3, and 4), one should feel they are not separated from the the arm, but that the wrist and whole arm are cozily and supportively behind them like loving parents in a "line". Avoidance of anything "twisty". Leon Fleisher says that pianists spend too much time thinking about "fingering" passages, when we should spend more time "arming" passages, as the fingers are just the ends of the arm broken up.
All that being said (And this is where I stand ready for the fire that awaits me in the comments section) if these things don't happen, it's okay and not the end of the world - particularly for young students, and ignoring it might even be beneficial. I do believe correct technique should be explained, and regularly and gently encouraged, but should not be dogmatically insisted upon, at least on the expense of other things, for these reasons:
1.) The core feature of a healthy technique is relaxation and freedom. But by continuous berating and insistence upon maintaining a certain position or doing specific things with one's hands, it is possible that this stress and anxiety may cause a student (Who is still developing phsyilcaly and psychogocially) to paradoxically become even more tense, all in the name of relaxation and "proper" technique. (I studied for one semester with a teacher renowned for "technique". In her impatience, frustration, and exceeding desire to get her students to play freely and without tension, she would scream at us to "RELAX!!! RELAX!!!, with a fury and vexation so great that scalping her cat could not have evoked more rage. Needless to say, that particular semester, none of our "techniques" got any better.
2.) For some students, particularly very young students 7 and under (and especially those who have ADHD), it does seem quite impossible for them to maintain a "proper" hand position outside of the very moments you are asking them to do so. In order for you to work on this, you would need to spend every second of every lesson making sure that they have proper form - and the only hope for home practice would be to make use of some contraction like a hand rail placed alongside the bottom of the keyboard (Which was popular in the Leipzig schools the 19th century). I think that aside mentioning it a few times, or demonstrating what it should "Feel" Like (Perhaps with one of those cute ladybugs going around in circles), you just have to let it go and teach. I know some pedagogy is still very strict about this: Some teachers will assign only five finger patterns and nothing else until a student has learned to play with "proper form". At best, I believe, that is a demonstration of patience and faith that I've yet to discover, but at worst I believe will cause many students to drop study and become uninspired early on, when it could have easily been easily avoided. It may be strict, but strictness is not necessarily indicative of good teaching.
3.) Although playing the piano involves physical processes, it beings and ends with non-physical processes - things that are in the mind and ear. This contrasts with sport, which also begins as a mental process but in which the end result is purely physical. Few people go to a piano recital to watch the way the fingers move across the keys (At least not in the same way one would watch a figure skater), they come to marvel at the sounds made by the fingers, which, although related, are two separate things.
Playing a musical instrument successfully makes use of a mysterious Boomerang effect; we pre-hear, pre-want (all in the mind), then the Boomerang flying through the air is the actual playing (the outward manifestation of what we hope to achieve), and the sound that results from that paying and reaches other listeners and ourselves, is the return of it. While the Boomerang successfully flying back to us depends on how it flew, how it flew is a direct result of what we did before we threw it. This can be likened to the going-on's in our head before we play in the moments that don't even involve our fingers, or any technique. All of the impulses, thoughts, and decisions we make before we throw will eventually determine if it comes back.
Given this, I think that there are aspects of music education that are much more primal than technique and hand position - things like rhythm, pattern-recognition, dynamic perception, emotional connection and love of music. If these things are all firmly in place, then not only does it become easier to work on technique, but there is a greater chance that one's technique will form more naturally, because when one has a clear idea of what they want to do in the inner ear, It is easier for the physical components to take shape in a natural way. If a student can recognize the hallmarks of a steady pulse, beautiful tone, and eloquently shaped phrase, they will discover that it is impossible to create these things without the proper physical components. But, if we work backwards, if the primary concern is to be aware of what we are doing physically, it is impossible for them to know and hear the why of what they are working towards, which will make it all the more difficult (and boring).
So when somebody is worried that a student has a poor hand position, it may be true that it needs addressing and drilling to fix. But this should never come at the expense of the more important (in my opinion) aspects of study. If the student has no sense of what a pulse is, no aural or reading abilities, poor rhythm, no interest or love for music, no inquisitiveness about symbols and words on the page, or an inability to focus, then a "poor hand position" is the least of their worries.
A deep look at Performance Anxiety and what to do about it.
How an artist deals with their nerves may be the single most determining factor in her or his success in a musical career. This issue is the all-important bridge between the artist's inner life (Their ability to produce sound from feeling in an artistic and personal way), and their outer life (Their ability to effectively communicate these feelings to others.)
The very fact that such a bridge need exist is unfortunate. Why can't we perform the same way in front of others as we can alone? It would seem they should be unified. Apparently, evolution is to blame; the adrenaline hormones the body releases when it feels under threat (which make our hearts beat faster and our minds go into panic mode, and which appear when we perform), helped us millennia ago when we needed to outrun a saber-tooth tiger, but have little use in the 21st century (unless you live in war-torn regions). Perhaps in another few thousands years we will have completely out-evolved this phenomena, but since we live in the here-and-now, we need to find here-and-now solutions.
I've noticed that the authorities in the field of coaching nervousness tend to be those who never make it to the stage much anymore, or who have never been there in the first place. They prescribe wishy-washy techniques saturated with new ageism (Visualization, deep breathing, self-acceptance, self-love, affirmations, positive thinking, centering, etc.) And it's not that these things can't be helpful; they can. But they don't even begin to scratch the surface of the real issue. They are the Alpha and Omega, without much in between.
Yet the coping mechanisms used by some of the most prominent performing artists of our time include some of the most bizzare and extreme concoctions mankind has devised - Electroshock Therapy (Vladimir Horowitz), Freudian Analysis (Claudio Arrau) Scientology (Cyprien Katsaris), Hypno-Therapay (Stephen Kovacevich), cancelling concerts when the stars are not aligned (Martha Argerich), or practicing each bar of a piece 100 times in a single sitting (Sviatoslav Richter), Beta Blockers, Xanax, and Valium (Too many to name).
And who can blame them? Any spirit destined to perform has a right to attempt any possible remedy that might obliterate the demon that blocks them from doing the very thing they were put on this earth to do.
However, one of the refreshingly insightful pieces of advice comes from non other than one of the great performing heroes of our time - Violinist Itzak Perlman. His words of wisdom? Know thy ENEMY! The enemy, contrary to what one may think, is not nerves. The enemy is the way nerves effect YOU - the individual. Part of the problem is that "nerves" is actually a suitcase word that encompasses dozens of different symptoms in dozens of different people, and they are all wildly different.
Some people rush uncontrollably. Some people have memory blackouts. Some people constrict their emotions. Some people lose control of their coordination while playing fast. Part of the problem with traditional remedies and advises is that they offer a blanket procedure for everyone, while in reality most people are just fine in most elements of performance, but suffer because of a singular type of blockage their nerves present. Specificity being a key to success, the issue is to then look deep within yourself, ask the hard questions, pinpoint a tangible, recurring side-effect of your nerves, and work on that. Once this is determined, one can outline a workable, regimented plan of action to address these steps.
The first thing, however, is to step back and see if your symptoms are even worth addressing. All performers are well aware of being too scared to program a specific composer, texture, or type of piece. Maybe you're fine with a program of hearty romantic music, but the idea of playing Bach Fugues is too much for you. It's easy to then convince yourself that performing is not in the cards. Not necessarily so. Why not just perform music you love, and leave Bach for the contrapuntalists? Maybe you're fine in a group setting, but the idea of performing solo recitals and concertos induces too much insomnia. Is a career as a chamber musician or accompanist really something that has too much shame? If your fingers fly like a jet fighter when the score is in front of you, but clam up as soon as it's taken away, is performing with the score really too much of a taboo? Tim Ferris has an interesting theory that one should really only focus on capitalizing on their strengths while ignoring their weakness. His reasoning being that no matter how hard you try, your weaknesses can only be mediocre at best, and all the time you spend honing them is time lost refining your strengths to be the best that they can be. Something to think about.
But let's say you really want to go all out. Tackle everything in every way. Then you must go back to your OWN weakness. The weakness that owns you. Your nemesis. And you must tackle this in the most ruthless, painstaking, down-to-the nails way humanely possible.
Let's take a common problem: Memory Slips. A former teacher of mine is a musical genius in every sense of the term. A child prodigy who had been Nadia Boulanger's last student, with a perfect pitch so developed he could memorize a score of any length after one readthrough. One of his uncanny abilities was being able to play - on call - every individual voice of every Bach Fugue from the Well Tempered Claiver. Alto of C minor, book 2? He could solfege it for you, at tempo.
Needless to say, he had no problems playing things from memory. The fear most of us face in this situation was never a reality of his consciousness, because every voice seemed to reside in a permanent home in his neural pathways.
Just because most of us don't have this ability doesn't mean we can't aspire to this type of learning. So let's say you are indeed working on a Bach Fugue. Chances are you have practiced it, many many times. Slowly, hands separately. Probably practiced the individual voices, maybe tried to play one voice and sing the other.
If doing all this still doesn't yield the results you are looking for, it's tempting to think you've done all you can do. But really, you've just scratched the surface. You can go deeper. Much deeper. There are many more tactics you can take to make sure your performance is actually bullet-proof. Some examples:
1.) Write out, on staff paper, every voice individually. Devote each day of the week to practicing only one voice. The next week, mix and match; pair each voice with one other. The following week, try putting them all together. Do this with the traditional fingering as well as using completely random fingering (This will scramble your reflexes, forcing you to rely only on aural memory, and discarding the tactical.) See if you can eventually do this process from memory.
2.) Pick random spots throughout the piece and label these as "Emergency Spots".
Be able to start from each individual spot, on call. This will increase your knowledge of the geography of the score, and take away the fear of getting lost when the heat is on.
3.) Be able to write out large sections of the piece from memory on scratch paper.
(One famous pianist says that the only way he could memorize was if the visual imprint of the score was so ingrained in his memory that he could actually "Play" it in his mind as if a movie reel was going by. I can't imagine doing this. To each is own).
4.) Be able to map the whole piece (Or at least the problematic spots), intervallically. Diagram the piece on paper the way you used to diagram sentences in middle school - (i.e., the subject starts by going up a perfect 5th, dropping a titan, moving up by major 3rd, etc).
Doing this type of work is akin to building a safety net below you while tightrope walking; The fear of falling is almost eliminated because we know if we fall, we'll be able to have something right underneath us to catch us. Many of us perform, fall, and with the knowledge that we don't have a safety net underneath take that as the assumption that we must not perform, when in reality we just never learned the techniques of building a sturdy-enough safety net. In a similar analogy, the pianist John Browning said that practicing is really insurance: 50% of it we need to do, the other 50% is just insurance, in case something goes wrong.
The steps I've outlined above were just one specific example catered specifically to the issue of memory. If memory is not a symptom of your nerves, it takes a little imagination (and a lot of digging) to figure out all the possible ways your nemesis can be confronted. But ways there are - we just must learn to be as probing as we can, to dissect every aspect of our shameful performances and figure out activities that will incrementally squeeze the most amount of progress out of our work. The more specific you are with finding out exactly the cause of your slips (They will likely all stem from your same personal root-cause), the less likely it will that you will waste your time on practice strategies that do nothing to address the problem.
The key is to pinpoint, analyze, then practice. It is of paramount importance to have incremental, low-stress performances along the way to test if your specific methods have been working. A fallacy in thinking that leads many people depressed and forlorn is this:
Practice ---> Perform
When the performance goes horribly wrong (as it likely will, the first time of a new piece), They will automatically deduce that even thought they put in the work, the results are not consistent with the work. The ends aren't justifying the means. They are wasting their life. It's not worth it.
A more fruitful way to think:
Practice --> Perform --> Practice and refine your strategies--> Perform--->Practice and refine your strategies-->Perform--->Practice--->Practice ---> Finally give the performance you wanted to give the first time.
A good teacher can help here (Although teachers who have battled your specific problems can be notoriously hard to find). Over time and with patience, these improvements will show up in our performances. It's impossible for them not to, if the right techniques are used. One of my favorite quotes is by the pianist/pedagogue Seymour Bernstein "The stage is a battlefield between the performer and himself; the outcome determined by how he practiced."
OBVIOUSLY, the problem is that if you follow the steps I've outlined in the example above, you will need to practice 6 hours a day for 6 months on just one aspect of your performance. But now finally for some good news; once you experience even a single success onstage, it can become contagious. Success begets success. Just as nothing is more lethal in performance as the memory of a previously failed passage or performance of a piece, nothing is more assuring than the memory of a recent, similar success. Prepare once like you've never prepared before, and there are chances that the next time around, you'll only need to prepare half that, and the time after that, a quarter - for the psychological aspect has been conquered. And that's the most important one. Because we are what we think. The problem is that no matter how much we TELL ourselves what to think, it doesn't matter. We have to have an experience that will naturally open the gates to the correct through process the next time it counts. With tenacity, patience, and militantly scheduled regular work, we can begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
It's true that there are a few great artists don't seem to particularly seem to be victims of this plight. They are few and far in between, and my theory about why they don't have this problem is that most of them began performing at such a young age and with such expert teaching, careful guidance, that they never had a chance to not experience the feeling of no safety net or any colossal faliure in performance, so successful performance for them is something that is almost as natural as breathing. One such example of somebody who most certainly did not fall into this category was the great, American pianist William Kapell. This is an excerpt penned by Kapell a few days before his he was killed in a plane crash en route from Sydney to California: (Full text at the bottom of this link http://www.williamkapell.com/articles/notes.html)
"Your plight with your work is sad, but I believe it is one of the penalties of having sensitivities and fire for an art. It seems to me that on the highest levels of achievement, even with those who represent those levels on stage, that there is inherent in those achievements a kind of agony that results from an inability to cope successfully with the material......Consider each challenge soberly, and then, step by step, meet it, in your own way. That's what I try to do. Sometimes my fingers work, sometimes not, - the hell with them! I want to sing anyway. And my heart seldom doesn't work".
The last line really gets to me; "My heart seldom does not work". Finally, as a last resort, we can return to a bit of new-ageism; Performance is ultimately an act of giving. Regardless of how stellar your preparation is, things will still go wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. It doesn't matter. If you've given your all to your preparation and have something to say, people will still enjoy it. Although this is not as pragmatically helpful as it is philosophically true, just re-affirming yourself of it will go a long way in giving yourself the permission to perform freely. While it is true that in academic and competitive circles, every error can count against you, that is not true for the larger world who comes to a performance in order to be moved by music, which is the world that ultimately counts. There is a greater good that comes from the act of sharing music with other people than that of personal ego and the pleasure one feels from overcoming one's weaknesses.
I'm reminded of Mother Teresa's famous prayer "Do It Anyway":
"People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway."
"If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway"
"If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway"
"If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway"
"Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway."
........and how this can translate into a psychology of performing:
"You may humiliate yourself and be the source of Schadenfreude. Perform anyway."
"You may feel you have wasted your time practicing for something that will eventually not go as planned. Practice anyway."
"You may worry that you won't do justice to the music that so many others have done justice to in the past. Do it anyway."
Yes - do it! Results only come from action.
Unless one has the luxury of teaching only the most devoted and driven of music students (or children of the most devoted and driven of parents), a reality that must be faced by teachers is that at the majority of lessons, week after week, month after month - the amount of practice we hold ideal for our students is simply not met. When I started out teaching, during such lessons I would plunder with as much enthusiasm as I could muster as the student plodded through their piece, asking "What note is that?" for what felt like the 33rd billionth time that week. (My apologies to my students at the time!!) As the years went on, however, I came to realize that - in a certain light - a student coming to a lesson with virtually nothing to show was an opportunity that could be capitalized on. Since we have a certain number of minutes to fill, we might well fill them to the extent our imaginations will allow.
The following are a list of activities that have proven fruitful and interesting in most circumstances, and I hope that they will be able to aid you in dispelling the inevitably occasional boredom that accompanies our profession, and enrich the minds of any students who could benefit from them. I'll state that not all of the things on this list are mine - some have been adapted from ideas by wonderful colleagues I've had the pleasure to know from around the world (both in person and in cyberspace), and I've attempted to give due credit where merited.
1.) Have them give you a lesson. So they didn't practice this week; Physically being unable to execute the motions required to play something are different from the intellectual understanding of knowing how a piece should "go". Play them portions of their repertoire and let errors abound. Rhythm, dynamics, and notes should be all over the place.
Two skills will be honed here: listening and communication. The former is something that should have been engrained already, but the latter is something that is often an entirely overlooked skill in the piano lesson. The average student will probably be able to hear that something is off, but their attempt at correction will likely be overly-simplistic, or come in the form of a single blanket statement ("This note should be a D"), that targets the symptom of the error, but not the disease.
Now is your chance to arm their thought process and diagnostic skills with a more pointed specificity. One way this can be done is by implementation of mature musical vocabulary: Perhaps (in reaction to a note mistake), they will simply say "You're supposed to play an F# here". Your response? "We're missing an accidental here" Play the piece obviously too slow? They will say "It's too slow!". You say "The tempo is too slow!!" (Yes, you DO risk sound like a pedantic poseur, but this is a lesson after all.) Guiding students along the specifics of any given vocabulary in whichever field will sharpen their minds and give clarity to their thoughts.
Additionally, you can have them reshape simple commands into the form of questions, which will automatically require them to think harder and broader. If you play a piece which is supposed to be lyrical and cantabile with a harsh and percussive tone, you'll likely get a "It's supposed to be soft". Ok - at least they are listening, but how can this statement be reshaped into the form of a probing question? "What are the dynamics?". Definitely better, but could we go even further? How about "What does the character/emotion of this piece feel like to you, and do your dynamics, voicing, and articulations express that to me?. This lets them string together many thoughts, and makes them think about the ultimate purpose of dynamics and articulation.
Not only will this type of work increase awareness in piano playing, but honing communication skills during piano lessons can easily carry over into all areas of students' lives.
2.)Have an "Articulation Dictation". This one is fun. We all remember doing melodic and harmonic dictations in music school, but those might be a bit over the top for our purposes. Better to begin with qualities of sound that are easily recognizable. Find a sight-reading book and white-out the articulation markings (Or, better yet, print some sight-reading flashcards from teacher-guru Diane Hidy's website), and give them a clean slate: notes and rhythm, but nothing else. Perform it for them while adding an abundance of slurs, staccatos, crescendos, fermatas, and dynamics to the excerpt. Play it multiple times, and have them pencil in what they hear. Having to aurally recognize these symbols that are often visually taken for granted is much more difficult than flash-card like activities, and engrains them much better into the memory. For students who are advanced enough, even a bit of theory can be thrown into the mix: If the passage is major, lower the third, and ask them to put in the correct accidental they heard that made it sound minor.
3.)Have a "Practice Practice Session" I originally heard of this concept from Daniel Epstein - professor of piano at the Manhattan School of Music. He would have his students come in for a whole lesson and do nothing but watch them practice, take notes, and at the end give them constructive advice about how they could better spend their time. (The teacher Dan Severino also has an excellent article on his blog titled 'The Silent Piano Lesson").
When you do this, you will likely be absolutely horrified at what you hear, and want to intervene immediately. Resist. If the student stops completely, then give some minimal instructions on how they should carry on. Very often a student will start playing from the beginning until they hit a rough patch, then begin again from the beginning - continuing ad infinitum. They likely won't utilize any of the practice techniques we spend whole lessons drilling (Hands separately, slowly, blocked, small sections, isolation, etc). About halfway through the lesson, you can give them some ideas for further practice, and then continue to watch in silence. Being told to do something at home and being encouraged to do it in the lesson are completely different things. This technique is something that may take multiple lessons before improvement can begin to be noticed, but it really is one of the surest ways of diagnosing whether or not instruction has been absorbed.
4.) Give a Piano Literature Class. I've often been amazed at how sometimes a new student will show up and play something for me (sometimes quite well), and not even know the name of the composition, not to mention the composer. Does the student who feels deeply about the Chopin Prelude she is playing know that this is just one star in the solar system of Chopin Preludes, in the galaxy of Chopin, and in the universe of the piano repertoire? These days with smartphones, nothing could be easier than giving students a sneak preview of the vast amount of music they can explore online, and introduce them to different genres, styles, and composers. You can talk about which characteristics make Schumann Schumann, and why Schumann cannot be Bartok, etc. You can then quiz them by having them listen to one piece by Bach, one by Chopin, one by Prokofiev, and one by Schoenberg, and asking if they can identify which is Bach and why (based on what they heard). Learning to listen for specific things in music is a way to inspire independent listening at home.
5.) Discuss Time-Managment Strategies - This somewhat related to #3. (I will devote a separate post exclusively to practicing and time-management). Practicing is a solitary and often boring and lonely activity. Unlike soccer, dance, or debate team - practicing has no built-in structure; no hardly defined schedule. It is little wonder that it's not apparently obvious how much practice actually needs to take place outside a lesson for improvement. Take out a sheet of paper and have them write their Monday-Sunday daily schedule, with all actives, etc. Find a block of time every day where they can devote exclusively to practice, and then discuss exactly what can be done during this time. Practicing (like anything), can seem much less daunting when one realize's that it can be chunked down in manageable blocks, and with different activities scheulded for differnet times (Scales and technique the first 10 minutes, Bach the next 20, theory workbook on Thursdays, etc.) While most students and parents already know there should be some regimented structure for pracitce, many don't go through the motions of putting it down on paper. This will likely not go as exactly as planned, but the act of having them put it down on paper is a huge step in the right direction.
6.) Record your Student Playing Something and Listen Back Together. All professional musicians put themselves through the agony of recording themselves so they can listen back for improvement. Some of us also tell our students to record themselves. (My fanatically dedicated teacher at Indiana University - Emile Naoumoff - would film all of our performances in studio class on his iPhone and immediately afterward upload them privately to Youtube, sending us email links to the performances for us to review). But how often do we spent the time to listen back to performances WITH our students - hitting the pause and rewind buttons, and probing them to articulate exactly what it is that does not sound quite right - OR - noticing the encouragement in their spirit when they hear it was not as bad as they though it was?? Collaborative listening and discussion is an integral part of music making and should not be ignored. If you want to take this a step further, you can instruct them to write comments about their own performance, as an adjudicator would in a festival or competition.
7.) Have Fun With the Metronome. The pianist Louise Earhart (Current president of the MTAC), once introduced a fascinating procedure to me: Take an electronic metronome, set it to a moderate tempo, and have the student clap loudly, and so exactly in synch with the beat that you reach a point where you can't even HEAR the metronome. What has happened is that the internal pulse has taken over, and the body is doing all the time-keeping independently. This might take a bit of time, but is incredibly fun when it happens. Then you can have the student clap different rhythmic variations in this manner. Other ideas are to take a piece that has already been thoroughly mastered and have the metronome click first to a sixteenth note, then and eighth note, then to a quarter, then a half, etc. Doing this may give the student a heighten sense of subdivision - an indespensible tool for any musician, and will also be an incredible exercise in patience!
A less creative (but no less valaube) option is to go through the tried and true method of taking a difficult passage, setting the metronome to the slowest speed, and gradually working up the tempo notch by notch. Hearing a passage many times, at many different tempi is like looking at a painting from many degrees of distance: each step you take reveals a different type of details about the composition.
8.)Compose. This is probably better as a long-term home assignment as opposed to something that can be done in one lesson, but it can certainly be started in a lesson. Memorization and identification of such theoretical elements like time signatures, key signatures, chords, etc, are really only the tip of the comprehension iceberg in comparison to having to actually create music from scratch. Nothing reinforces concepts (of any kind) as much as having to actually decide when and where to utilize them. Although this may depend on your student's current level of ability, a good way to start would simply be to pick a mode and key, and jointly browse through the rich array of accompaniment possibilities on the piano for the left hand (This alone is such a great learning experience, and can take a long time). Once the mood has been set and this is done, the concepts of what makes a successful melody can be introduced, and the student can experiment with that. After these basics are in place, you can talk about where you want the main stresses to fall - which will lead to selecting a time signature. At this point we can set up our staff paper page basics, and the student will likely be filled with motivation to go home writing.
That last sentence may seem overly optimistic, but allow me to share personal experience: Every year, I teach multiple college group-piano classes. True to human nature, a few minutes before the end of class, bags are packed and people start looking at the clock. An exception to this is on the days when I assign a composition assignment and we begin in class: when the time comes for class to be dismissed, virtually every head is quietly buried in staff paper, blatantly unaware of the time. I pushed the limits to see how far some of them would remain unaware (or apathetic) to what time it was, and about 20 minutes after the end of class, about half remained.
This past week I had the fortune of visiting a hip, up-and-coming international music school in Shanghai that my undergrad classmate and her fiancé recently founded. As it happened, one of the teachers got sick last minute and I inherited his teaching load.
The experience I had confirmed what we already hear about the boom of the piano culture there: That the scope and scale of it is incomparable. (Perhaps even surpassing the pianomania that shook Europe in the 1840's when Liszt was storming the concert halls and having women trying to get a lock of his hair as a concert souvenir).
The average practice time of some of the students clocks in at 8-11 hours per day. They have studied all of the Chopin etudes. (k12 aged students). They travel hundreds of miles to come to lessons (A group of students comes weekly by train from the neighboring city of Nanjing), and after their piano lessons stay around for interactive music theory and history classes. They practice their technical studies with the same care, craftsmanship and invested fervor as if they were practicing a Beethoven sonata. The rate for piano lessons is 800 RMB per hour (U.S $130). Most notable, however , is their attitude towards study; it's completely accepted that music is something one JUST DOES, and works as hard as much as any other subject. Practicing piano taking a back seat to sports activities and school projects is an alien concept. Contrary to Western perception, despite any "pushing" that may be going on into forcing students to study music, all the pupils I interacted with demonstrated exceedingly keen and sincere earnestness to dig as deeply as they could into the music, and this alone seemed their sole motivation for studying. (It was an endearing moment to watch a young teen explain to me, even with communication gaps, how one voicing possibility in a Chopin Nocturne touched his heart more than another, and ask for advice on how to achieve that). The only places in the USA were I could imagine and equivalency to this are the pre colleges of Juilliard and Curtis.
Granted, this is a very well-established and marketed school and is by no means representative of the entire country at all. (Some of the students came as "refugees" from far stricter and more "traditional" schools in northern China, where they suffered broken noses and ears from teachers due to bad preparation in lessons) - but even within the confines of such an elite school one can feel the nation's collective surge of passion for piano music that is overtaking the place like a tidal wave.
During a walk in the downtown area I stumbled across a street that made me wonder if my unaccustomed American palate had reacted to the Jiangsu Cuisine in a way that induced hallucinatory visions: For six blocks (minus the occasional violin shop or bakery)..there was nothing but piano stores. There must have been about twenty total, all standard sized and stocked with traditional German, American, and Chinese brands, each store mounted one against the other.
Everyone's entitled to their own opinion about this phenomena and it's connotations; but what is for sure is that if you're anybody in the piano world has never had the Chinese experience it will be the trippiest trip you've been on ~~~
Enough of my own words in this blog. This post is a dedication to some phrases that have struck me as particularly meaningful and/or pragmatic by various musicians and teachers on a loosely related theme of piano playing. I share them with my students, and now decided to post them here. Enjoy!!
"Timing is the art of being as late as possible without being too late"
"Education is planned amnesia!!"
"Really good piano lessons are actually elevated practice sessions"
"Think of practicing as investing, and performance (or playing through) as spending. Too much of both isn't a good thing. Successful people in the business world have learned to strike a balance between the two"
"Here is the gradual resurgence of the heartbeat" - Edwin Fischer on the beginning of the G major chords after the second arioso of Beethoven op. 110, last movement.
"It takes 10% of the work to get a piece 90% of the way there, and 90% of the work to get that last 10%" - John Perry
"Silence is the canvas on which music is painted" - Joseph Levine
"Rhythm is the canvas on which music is painted" - John Perry
"Sometimes a missed note in performance is more expressive and exciting than the right note. I'm not talking about wrong notes due to sloppiness or lack of preparation, but the other kind - when you are in the heat of the moment, you take a risk, lunge for a note because you feel it passionately - but miss. It's kind of like saying "I love you" to somebody for the first time: It's possible to be so nervous, so overwhelmed with anticipation - that in the heat of the moment you croak - the words don't come out. That vulnerability - the human sensitivity that was revealed in that mishap can be more human and more touching than if you had said it cleanly" - Emile Naoumoff
"Better to play the wrong notes the right way than the right notes the wrong way"
"There are no wrong notes, only wrong (physical) movements"
-Evelyne Bran cart
An uninspired, gray march morning in Bloomington, Indiana, 2011. After the usual rounds of the Gmail/Facebook/BBC morning splurges I made my semi-weekly excursion to the YouTube channel of my teacher at the time, Emile Naoumoff. Most musicians in this day and age use YouTube in some regard or another, but for EN, the popular video-sharing site was more than just a self-promotional tool, it was an actual museum of his past and present musical self. Everything from childhood lessons with Nadia Boulanger, debut appearances in Tokyo and London, and current performances of his works could be found on one of his two channels.
What I found uploaded just a few minutes earlier on this particular morning was an "Improvisation". (An improvisation is a work that is not written down, but rather made up on the spot as one goes along.) The melancholic, introspective music of this piece with overtones of Satie and Poulenc were hallmarks of Naoumoff's compositional style, although this was the first time when an improvisation (which, in classical music, is generally done (if ever) only in solitude for recreation or for others after considerable inebriation) had been recorded in real time and publicly made available; where there was nothing else for the pianist to depend upon except for the inspiration of the moment; where the music that was to occur just three or four bars ahead was equally a mystery to listener as performer. (To be fair, I had heard the famous improvisations of Gabriela Montero, although those tend to be more variations on know themes given to her by audience members as encores).
A single improvisation uploaded to YouTube on a wintry day two years ago, however much it might have temporarily drawn me out of the dreary midwestern lull I was in, is not something to write home about. What IS, however, is what has come to follow in the time since - equally as impressive in quality as in quantity: At the steady average of 3 or 4 per day, - every day - the improvisations have kept coming, without ceasing. At this writing, Naoumoff has just finished improvisation number 2,435 - uploaded 3 hours ago. By the time you are reading this, that number will surely be higher. They are uploaded every few hours on his YouTube channel, labeled all by number in Roman Numerals.
The music itself never seems to follow any particular style or form.
Many are musical caricatures, evoking or poking fun at stylistic trends. Some sardonic, some melancholic, some humorously lighthearted. Some are exploitations of a single chords. Some are passionately rhapsodic, long, interspersed with sections of great dramatic sorrow , some are soliloquies of incredible melodic beauty , Some are as visually intriguing as they are musically. The creative juices flow even when Naoumoff is away from his Bloomington studio, with photographs of wherever he is pasted in the background, as this moody ballade in the foreground of a rainy London slideshow demonstrates: Thousands of other examples exist.
Whatever the motive(s) behind these never-ceasing improvisations, they don't matter much to me. While they seem to have garnered a steady, loyal following amongst a small group, they still remain relatively unknown to the public at large. There has been, so far, one article about them in a Canadian publication.
Some friends I have talked with think that he is trying to set a Guinness world record of most videos ever uploaded to YouTube, (which, at the rate of over 1,000 per year and no sign of stopping, is not an unrealistic prediction). Another suggested that he is little by little creating material that will one day be combined into a grand, Magnum Opus. Or, since Naoumoff once said that for him composition is a need "equal to eating, or perhaps, greater than eating", these could be daily, artistic meals where he can gorge on a few creative impulses in the midst of a dry, inartistic, academic setting. In any case, there is - at least for me - an exhilarating intoxication to be found in daily offering of something so original and wondrously strange.