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How do you teach technique to beginning piano students?

How do you teach technique to beginning piano students?

Beginning piano technique: Back to basics

"He's just trying it out, so he doesn't need an expert teacher. We'll just go to the most inexpensive teacher we can find until we know he likes it." How many times have we bristled at this kind of statement? We know that the first experience with any new endeavor is the most important, the most lasting. Beginning students need highly committed, highly skilled teachers.

Serious piano teachers should encounter a student's first lesson with a feeling of great responsibility. After all, habits are being formed during the student's very first minutes at the piano, including the physical approach to the instrument. Excellent teachers understand that establishing good habits from the very beginning is crucial to a student's technical development. Allowing bad habits to take hold can lead to many problems down the road, and these problems can be very difficult to fix. Experience tells us that it is much easier to develop a good habit than to undo a bad habit.

What is "good piano technique?" Frances Clark once defined technique as "the ability to bring the score to sound." Clark was well-known for applying philosophical and educational principles to the art of piano teaching, and in that spirit we will explore the topic using educational principles as a guide.

Principle #1: We must develop "friendly habits" that will be used from this point on.

Clark was deeply influenced by William James, who used the following example to illustrate the importance of habit: a coat which has been creased will forever fall in that shape. It is the teacher's job to form the habits, not the student's. Whenever developing a new habit, we must do our best to never allow an exception to occur until a new habit is securely rooted.

What are some of the most important friendly habits that we want to develop?

  • Proper height and distance.

Having proper bench height and distance from the keyboard sets the stage for healthy alignment of hands, wrists, and arms. The forearm should be level with the keys.

A student seated at the proper height, with a level forearm.

Sitting too low will create problems such as raised shoulders and wrists. Sitting too close will restrict freedom of movement. Many other technical problems are solved when the student is seated correctly. Students must always be set up carefully at the start of each lesson; additionally, teachers should be vigilant about emphasizing the importance of sitting correctly at home, providing specific guidelines.

Students can use their arms to check for proper seating distance at the start of every practice session.
  • Awareness of posture.

At the very beginning of piano study, we can help students develop an awareness of posture, using vivid contrasts as an aid. A student can hunch shoulders up to the ears, then release the tension to illustrate the difference between tension and relaxation. When Richard Chronister visited the New School, he asked a class to show "bad posture," then correct to "good posture." The students had fun slumping in their chairs then sitting more upright. Continued attention to posture is an essential component of effective piano teaching.

  • Always start with a breath.

One might imagine the long-term benefits of starting each piece or warm-up with a "breath." The way we demonstrate this breath may vary from teacher to teacher, but the habit of breathing will set the stage for artistry and poise. In the warm-up shown below, Frances Clark would always instruct students to say: "float, touch, breath" as students moved from one octave to the next.

Black-key warm-up frequently used by Frances Clark.
  • Freedom of movement.

From the very first lesson, we can introduce pieces that move from one octave to the next, checking for loose arms and fluent technique.

“Take Off” from Time To Begin, by Frances Clark and Louise Goss.
  • Attentiveness to hand position.

Students become aware of the look and feel of the hand, and they can watch for desirable qualities such as a supported arch, loose thumb, and stable nail joints. To begin, it is useful to ask students to silently find the moves of pieces such as the one shown above, providing a visual model for a healthy hand position.

Principle #2: We proceed from the known to the unknown

  • Larger muscle movements.

What does the student know? The student knows how to walk, shifting weight from one foot to the other. Therefore, the first pieces in Time to Begin alternate from one hand to the other. Larger muscle movements are much easier to control at the outset than small muscle movements, such as finger control. By using more natural, large muscle groups, students have initial success, forming good technical habits as well as developing a steady pulse

  • Black keys.

It is easier to see the pattern created by the black keys, so our first warm-ups begin on black keys. The black keys have an additional advantage in preventing the "hanging thumb," a common tendency among beginning pianists.

  • Inside of the hand.

The inside of the hand is often easier to control than the outside of the hand, so our first warm-ups begin with fingers 2 and 3 on groups of two black keys, and then fingers 2, 3, and 4 on groups of three black keys. Once students are playing these warm-ups securely on black keys and white keys, fingers 1 and 5 are introduced on white keys.

  • Natural hand position.

We want our students to begin learning by observing what they know. Students note how their hands naturally look when hanging loosely. We then proceed to the unknown, which is how to use this natural hand position in piano playing. Students develop the vocabulary to describe what they see: knuckle bridge, loose thumb, level wrist. In order to work effectively with students, we must enter their world, using what they know. A student might not yet be excited about a knuckle bridge, but might instead be excited about what can fit underneath the bridge. Could a mouse fit underneath? Imagery is useful in innumerable ways: we have all heard about the "hot stove" staccato. Contrast this image with a complicated series of directions about exactly how to release the key. We must speak the student's language.

  • Preparation.

Warm-ups can prepare us for concepts that will later appear in repertoire. The acquired new technical skill will later be transferred to the unknown (a new piece). For example, a blocked interval warm-up would likely be introduced a few weeks before the appearance of blocked intervals in repertoire.

A blocked interval warm-up from The Music Tree, Part 1, by Frances Clark, Louise Goss, and Sam Holland.
“First Boogie,” by Sam Holland from The Music Tree, Part 1. This piece applies the skills learned in the earlier warm-up.

At the New School, we often compose our own short warm-ups or ask students to compose their own warm-ups focusing on a particular skill.

Principle #3: We proceed from the general to the particular.

Our ability to see details in a larger framework determines the degree of our success. In the case of piano technique, the "general" may be the student's overall posture at the instrument, and the "particular" may be the shape of the tip of the finger. Correcting a collapsed nail joint without noticing that the student's shoulders are tight would be an example of working on details while ignoring the larger context.

Principle #4: We must train the senses.

Warm-ups for elementary students should be generally memorized, and taught through demonstration. When unencumbered by the score, students can focus on the sound, look, and feel. For this reason, rote pieces are particularly useful with elementary students.

Principle #5: The teacher must be a perfect model.

Frances Clark noted that, "Learning is contagious." One might believe that this principle is obvious, but we must not overestimate its importance. Students unknowingly mimic their teachers, who may also be unaware of their full impact. Consider the way we too often demonstrate when we are standing up, with posture that is less than ideal. While we are demonstrating, we must be certain that the student is fully engaged and observing our demonstration closely.

Principle #6: "Telling is not teaching."

This is probably one of Frances Clark's most enduring quotes. She expanded upon this quote by saying, "Get the pupil to think, feel, do. Words are not the key, actions are the key."

Contrast the following statements: "Can you release the last note of the two-note slur by gently raising your wrist?" vs. "Watch me (demonstrate). Your turn." The first one uses too many words, while the second one efficiently communicates the point through action. An alternative might be: "Put your hand on top of my hand while I play (demonstrate). Your turn."

In addition to being efficient and effective in our use of language, we must be careful not to dwell on technical work; instead our goal is to weave it seamlessly into our work with students. For example, each time a student begins a piece in the lesson, he can be directed to come to the keys with a beautiful hand position and to take a mental picture of this look. Additionally, if it is still difficult to play each note of the piece without fingertip buckles, can the very last note of each phrase be played without collapsing the fingertip? Non-verbal cues (such as a quick hands-on adjustment) and demonstration are useful, efficient teaching tools. An experiential approach is key.

Principle #7: Education must be practical

Teachers should seize opportunities to capitalize on the moments in the lesson where a technical approach has an immediate, practical benefit. If a student is working on a piece that calls for accents, the teacher might say, "We want these accented notes to sound very strong (followed with quick demonstration). How might you use your arms to get that sound?" If the piece requires a very soft staccato sound, instead of a long discussion of technique, the student may be directed to improvise any notes she wants with a soft staccato. How does she need to approach the instrument to get that desired sound?

The Advancing Pianist

A continuing focus on sound, feel, look

As students advance, we continue with easily memorized patterns that enable the student to focus on the sound, feel and look of the hand. Musical Fingers is one series that provides these sorts of warm-ups.

Preparation for technical demands of advancing repertoire

We may also continue to compose our own warm-ups that prepare students for an upcoming technical challenge, such as legato thirds, or use a very brief excerpt from a piece to play in several different registers as a warm-up. An example of such a warm-up is provided below.

Warm-up exercises from Musical Fingers, Book 2, by Frances Clark and Louise Goss.
Warm-up exercise composed to help students prepare for “Arabesque,” Op. 100, No. 2, by Johann Friedrich Bürgmuller

The New School for Music Study is one of the country's leading centers in piano education and provides a variety of programs and classes for piano students. The school was founded by Frances Clark and Louise Goss in 1960 and served as a laboratory school for their innovative teaching practices. Today, the school serves 250 students, ranging in age from five years through adult, and in level from beginner to advanced. NSMS is committed to providing transformative music lessons at the piano for all students. Lessons and classes are held in the historic district of Kingston, NJ. To learn more about the teaching at NSMS, please visit our website at pianopedagogy.org, or make plans to attend our summer seminar, Practical Piano Pedagogy.

Piano Progressions (Keyboard Skills)

During recent years, The New School for Music Study has developed a school-wide curriculum designed to ensure that our students develop as complete musicians. Each spring, we hold an in-house festival called "Piano Progressions." During our Piano Progressions week, instead of lessons, students perform technical skills from our syllabus for a faculty adjudicator. Students are also assessed on ear-training, sight-playing, written theory, and performances of repertoire. Marvin Blickenstaff, Director of the New School for Music Study's Program for Excellence in Piano Study (PEPS), has said that Western piano music has three main technical requirements: scales, chords, and arpeggios. These skills are at the center of the Piano Progressions curriculum, which spans eight levels. Piano teachers are naturally quite familiar with scales, chords, and arpeggios, but may not know of some special warm-ups compiled by Marvin Blickenstaff, shown below:


FIVE FINGER PATTERNS: For independence between the hands, we use the "2x1" warm-up:

ROTATIONAL PATTERNS:

SCALES: For finger independence: "Jane Allen Warm-up." (Jane Allen was a prominent teacher in Saint Louis. Mr. Blickenstaff attended her Music Teachers National Association technique presentation featuring this warm-up.)

TRIPLETS, INDEPENDENCE BETWEEN THE HANDS: "Ann Farber Routine" (Ann Farber is Director of the Dalcroze School Ann of Music at the Lucy Moses School in New York City. The warm-up shown below was explored at a workshop in Princeton, New Jersey.)

ALBERTI BASS:

CHORDS: We use the "Official New School Chord Exercise" to develop a deepening understanding of I, IV, and V, along with triads and inversions.

Since the New School for Music Study's beginnings in 1960, our faculty have striven to keep three elements in balance at the piano: Musicianship, Practice Habits, and Technique. We want our students to have the ability to imagine the sound that they want to produce and the technique to create this sound reliably and easily.

Amy Glennon is a faculty member at The New School for Music Study, where she also serves as Educational Director. She holds degrees from The University of Connecticut and The University of Louisville, completed the post-graduate studies with Frances Clark and Louise Goss, and is coauthor (with Ted Cooper) of the Side by Side series.

Rebecca Mergen Pennington is a faculty member at the New School for Music Study, where she also serves as Administrative Director. She completed her DMA at the University of Kansas in 2007 and remains an active performer.

Additional contributions from the collective faculty at The New School for Music Study: Marvin Blickenstaff, Kristin Cahill, Fiona Christano, Allison Fog, Tracy Grandy, Emily Lau, Angela Leising-Catalan, Charl Louw, Kairy Koshoeva, Margie Nelson, Angela Triandafillou, and Todd Van Kekerix.

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