by Bruce Berr, Editor
e all want our students to fly through each new piece with the greatest of ease and accuracy, to play with abandon and deep heartfelt expression. The less help they require to play their pieces this way, the better, because then we know they are moving toward independence. The ultimate confirmation of this is when we assign an "on-your-own" piece, and the student returns with the piece solidly and musically learned. When students of average ability are consistently able to do this, it is no accident. It is an indication that the students possess a set of solid identifiable skills that allow for such literacy, efficiency, expressiveness, and independence.
However, more often than we would like to admit, on-your-own pieces do not return to us so elegantly learned. Why is it such a challenge to implant these skills in our students? Why does teaching sometimes feel like trying to cover a wall with paint that evaporates a few moments after it's applied?
There are many possible answers of course, especially having to do with motivation, the student's aptitude, and a host of others. But in this issue, I will focus on the aspect of this question that is most directly under the teacher's control: how we approach the teaching of skills. I will deviate from this column's usual practice of focussing primarily on rhythm, and instead examine different facets of the teaching of musical and pianistic skills.
The general plan is well-known and easy to understand-it makes teaching look simple and straightforward:
In actual practice, of course, it is not that simple-complexities and pitfalls abound. Here are a few of the most common:
There is a subtle relationship between mastery of pieces and mastery of underlying skills:
Thus, mastering each piece along the way is a necessary step, although not necessarily a sufficient one.
Newer teachers sometimes assume that because students are at an elementary level, they cannot play their pieces with mastery and artistry-this is not true! This is a matter of confusing standard with level. Instruction on any musical instrument is based on mastery learning. This hinges on the highly-successful completion of each unit of study along the way, especially and particularly the first few. Since students have varying levels of aptitude, and learn at different paces and in different ways, the main variant should be how much time and reinforcement is needed for that mastery, not the degree to which that mastery occurs.
To be more specific, when a well-taught student at any level successfully learns a piece, the student's performance is virtually as good as the teacher's:
This is true even for the beginner's first few lessons! Yes, perhaps there are subtle nuances of shaping and timing and other aspects that a more advanced player might bring to an early-level piece. And an older player may understand the music on a deeper intellectual and emotional level, but these are not absolutely essential for each piece to shine and express. If we focus too much on these exceptions, they can become a smoke screen that hides from us an essential fact: if students' final playing of most of their pieces is not excellent or very close to it, we are in effect building a structure whose foundation is of questionable strength to support what will be added on later.
Setting a goal of complete mastery right from the start, communicating that goal repeatedly to the student, and giving the student the means for meeting that goal-all of this acts as a springboard for many good habits: efficient practice, careful listening, etc. Conversely, if our initial goals for each piece are not set to the highest standards, we sell students short before giving them a chance to fully blossom into what they can become.
Novice teachers and interns in college piano pedagogy programs tend to pass through phases in the way they view method books. At first, each book is seen mainly as a collection of pieces that get harder and harder-the student plays each piece and thus progresses, right?
Then, after more pedagogical awareness, more attention is paid to the preparation and introduction of the new material in each unit, such as whole notes, forte, intervals of a third, etc. But there is a booby trap here: method books introduce new elements and provide pieces that use those new elements, but they do not explicitly mention all of the associated skills that belong with each element. The teacher must know what they are, and teach these associated skills along with each element. Additionally, the majority of the vital skills needed over one's lifetime for effective piano learning and playing must develop within the first few years of lessons; it is easy to see why a teacher can feel overwhelmed.
For example, consider Octave Echo, a piece that might show up in an early unit of a hypothetical modern method series:
(If you would like the score of Octave Echo to show up in a separate window while you read the rest of the article, click here)
For a student to read and play this piece, the following elements need to have been already introduced:
This looks like a hefty number of elements for a student to digest, but it is manageable. The larger issue is that these elements are only the what to do-the tip of the iceberg; each element itself has associated skills which are the how to do it, and these together comprise a much larger set of items.
When students read and play Octave Echo expressively with ease and accuracy, they need, minimally, the skills listed below. Mastery of these skills also allows the student to progress to more advanced repertoire.
More on this last skill: Touch-first means that the release of one note is the gesture that shifts the hand to the new keyboard position; releasing and shifting become one and the same motion. Then the hand waits patiently in a relaxed manner until it plays the next phrase.
Students who do not learn how to do touch-first while shifting have ongoing difficulties with changes in keyboard position as well as other skills such as playing softly immediately after a shift. This vital skill also helps develop the kinesthetic sense more keenly (see below), because the body starts to learn the feel of various-sized jumps at the keyboard; without the skill of touch-first, mastery of the octave shift takes much longer and is not as reliable.
(If you would like the score of Octave Echo to show up in a separate window while you go on to the next page, click here)
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