The first skill is a subtle one, but when it is not present, the result is not subtle at all: students stumble and play many wrong notes because they are playing faster than they can actually read (and listen and think).
The second skill is a crucial one, yet it is frequently overlooked by novice teachers. From a purely practical standpoint, it can easily be justified to a reluctant learner: one cannot look at the page and the hands at the same time. But this is not the most pressing reason for students to develop this skill-it is to help students develop their kinesthetic sense; that is, the sense that detects body position, weight, or movement. It is ultimately this sense that allows our bodies to perform and control complex gestures. Our visual sense is primitive and slow in comparison. Playing that is guided by the visual sense rather than by the extraordinary powers of the kinesthetic sense is doomed to lethargic muddling.
But some beginning students don't believe this-they may think it's easier to look at their hands while playing; this misconception (or worse-a habit which has been allowed to fester through inattentive teaching) must be put to rest immediately. Notice that in Octave Echo, except for the octave shift which is guided by looking, the student must be able to play all of the piece by feel rather than sight. This is true also where the melody switches from the left hand to the right; melodies that migrate between the hands commonly tempt students to peek at their hands. An alert teacher can prevent this tendency so that the skill of blind playing can be firmly established. The earlier a student addresses this, the easier it is to learn, and the more potent a skill it becomes.
The student must not only know (intellectually and physically) that the filled-in note gets one pulse and the other one gets two, but must also be able to:
Pre-counting is more of a habit than a skill, but it is included here because it so powerful. Pre-counting gets students focussed on the pulse and tempo before they play even one note. This helps with accurate rhythm decoding of the page, since it minimizes the occurrence of those unfortunate times when students play their rhythms any old way, then line up their "correct" counting with their incorrect playing. Pre-counting can also force students to commit to a particular articulation and dynamic feel if they pre-count in the same way that the piece's first few phrases will sound. In a nutshell, pre-counting can get the music started inside the student before the student attempts to create the music outside at the keyboard.
The skill of being able to count out loud while playing does not happen by itself, of course. It is easiest for students to play and count if they learn to do it right from their very first piece. As each new rhythm element is learned in subsequent lessons, counting out loud should be learned along with it. In other words, if an associated skill is mastered along with each new element, the learning is easiest and potentially most secure. (To read more about the powers of counting, see the following back issues of KEYBOARD COMPANION: Summer 1994 and Spring 1991. To read more about the limitations of counting out loud, see Autumn 1998, which also has an audio clip on this website.
For example, in Octave Echo, it is not enough for a student to simply play one part louder or softer; the contrast must be dramatic and sudden, and distinct enough that the echo effect is clearly communicated to a listener.
Notice how many skills are needed! Also notice how easy it would be to overlook a few of the vital skills that are associated with the elements and music of this piece. What is truly remarkable, however, is how far-reaching these skills are. If one made a list of the skills required of an intermediate or advanced student, it would not be much longer!
The message is loud and clear: those of us who teach beginners have the heady responsibility of establishing the lion's share of skills that will be needed for the student's lifetime.
A clear example of this is the interplay between posture, tone quality, and rhythm. The vitality and flexibility of a student's rhythm is squelched if the tone quality is wimpy and nondescript; in turn, solid tone quality is usually not present if the student's overall posture is not good.
Another example is blind playing. Since this is the primary means of first developing the kinesthetic sense at the keyboard, it needs to be learned right from the first few lessons. Almost all skills that will be needed later will depend upon this most basic of all skills.
All of this is yet another reminder that first things need to come first. If the skills we teach in the first few months of lessons are strongly learned, it increases the likelihood of continuing excellence as the music gets more advanced. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. The most common reason that intermediate students have difficulty mastering pieces is that they never truly mastered the underlying skills that were present in the elementary pieces.
How long does it take for an activity to become a skill? How do we know when it has become a skill? A skill is something that we can use, not something that still requires continuous attention and heroic effort. And it certainly is not something that looks or sounds "iffy," not something that occurs unsuccessfully more than every once in a while. A skill is a skill when it becomes predictably successful, reliable in a number of different situations, and feels easy to the person doing it.
The ease aspect is critical. As has been said by many, successful practice is not about learning how to do a difficult thing-it is about learning how to make something no longer feel difficult. Skill mastery generates a margin of comfort that is obvious in students' playing-solidity, smoothness, poise, naturalness. Contrast this with what seems to be successful playing but instead looks and sounds more like a circus act because it appears so difficult and risky for the person doing it-this can be a hallmark of playing that is without skills. Such playing is also usually not expressive and musical.
Here are some situations that can deceive us into thinking that skill has been developed:
Notice that in the above three situations, there was the appearance of correctness without true mastery of the essential underlying skills.
Why are we so easily fooled? How is it possible for superficiality to be confused for skill mastery and control?
Maybe at times we still unconsciously believe that all that counts is the student "getting through" the music unscathed. Maybe we forget how much successful flexible repetition is needed for the body to be able to faithfully reproduce a gesture. Or maybe we feel time pressure in a lesson, thinking that we don't really have enough time to splurge on something to get it more deeply learned. Of course this is misleading, because if a foundation is securely laid, there will be much less time spent later on repairing what wasn't learned in the first place.
Maybe it is wishful thinking-we see students struggling with something and we so badly want them to be successful. We may fall into the trap of saying to ourselves, "Oh, but this student is only ten years old-the playing is pretty good for that age, isn't it?" Well, it might be pretty good, but it may also fall far short of what the student is capable of.
Maybe we are leery of pushing students further. Their learning curve may routinely take them to the 20-yard-line, but if we mistakenly keep calling this a touchdown in the earliest lessons, then that's what we will continue to get-no more, and eventually less.
Regardless of the reasons, when we stop aggressively reinforcing an activity before it has matured into a true skill, the student loses, and, our subsequent teaching over the long haul becomes more difficult and less fruitful. Continually stopping short of mastery, particularly in the first few years of instruction, may possibly be the single largest cause of ineffective teaching.
Persistence & patience
So what does persistence and patience have to do with the teaching of skills? Almost everything. Skill development takes time, and lots of it. Effective teaching requires us to persistently guide and re-guide our students into successfully honing these skills until they are theirs. Because mastery of each piece is a necessary but insufficient condition for mastery of skills, it takes many lessons using different pieces to foster true skills; persistence must reign.
But there appears to be a natural human tendency to let our guard down. I see it in my own teaching when I allow a student to slither over something that I know needs more refinement and could be accomplished with a little more effort on both of our parts (and I don't mean during those times when an appropriate balance between precision and romance dictates that we do ignore some lack of precision). I also see this kind of letting down in the teaching done by my college pedagogy interns, despite my constantly reminding them to be on the lookout for it. I see it occasionally in others' teaching when I've judged competitions and festivals. Tending tenaciously to the nurturing and mastery of skills is more an act of will and commitment and endurance than it is anything else. Ultimately, this unremitting determination on the part of the teacher may be more significant than talent and experience.
But persistence must always be accompanied by patience; our determination must be borne of kindness. At times, students get discouraged about how long it takes for true skill mastery; our patience can also become theirs through our own understanding and honest communication of how real learning takes place. We also need to be patient with ourselves and for ourselves. When a student has not yet mastered the skills at a particular level, it takes patience on our part to refrain from assigning that student even more advanced music so that the student can continue "progressing." Patience will lead us instead to take the trouble to find more repertoire at the same level that allows the student yet another chance to master those same skills. We need to be patient in general with how much repetition and reinforcement students need in order to finally claim ownership of a skill.
In other words, patience provides the warm and safe environment in which persistence can do its awesome work.
After teaching piano and piano pedagogy for many years, I realize that there are a multitude of things about piano teaching that are mysterious and difficult to pin down. But I am convinced of this: by our being unyieldingly dogged and yet infinitely patient in our insistence that students execute their gestures in only the most skillful ways, students have the greatest chance of growing and maturing on the instrument. I know of no better way to foster love for the piano and music, and for learning in general.
Below is a copy of a typical final exam given by Bruce Berr in first semester piano musicianship classes at Chicago Musical College. These classes are comprised of undergraduate music majors who may be advanced on other instruments but who are beginners (or very close to it) on the piano. The course includes both repertoire and keyboard theory topics. Although these students are adults, many of the same skills are addressed early on, as with children, but at a faster pace.
Notice that the emphasis of this test is not on the activities themselves, but on the underlying skills (where the sheet says, Focus).
Piano Musicianship 1
Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University
Professor: Dr. Berr
WARM-UP (played blind; i.e., without looking at your hands): 1 unit
MAJOR SCALES: 1.5 units
CHORD PROGRESSION: 2 units
HARMONIZATION by ear, Texture 1 1 unit
HARMONIZATIONS using a leadsheet, Texture 1 1 unit
REPERTOIRE: 1 unit
DUET REPERTOIRE: 1.5 units
SIGHT-READING: 1.5 units
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