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4 minutes reading time (715 words)

Winter 2021: Wellness in Applied Piano Teaching: A Two-Way Street


Many years ago, at the Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media in Germany, my piano teacher Professor Einar Steen-Nøkleberg used to greet us students with a handshake when entering his studio. He took our hand, pulled us into the room, and closed the door. "Now you forget all your woes and worries. In here, only the music matters." I still feed upon the warmth and focus Herr Nøkleberg created in his room during those years. He taught us about physiological aspects of playing the piano, always in relation to sound production, and inspired us to let our musicality roam freely. Once, when unexpectedly emphasizing an inner voice in Scriabin's Etude in B-flat Minor, Op. 8 No. 11, I heard an appreciative grunt, followed by the commentary, "I have absolutely nothing to say against hearing a beautiful middle voice."


In tandem with course offerings at the Hannover Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians' Medicine, headed by Professor Dr. Eckart Altenmüller, my college piano studies led me to realize the importance of understanding wellness in applied piano teaching as a two-way street: Music itself can make us well, but we also need to be well in order to make music. Wellness through music, as I experienced it in Herr Nøkleberg's piano lessons, and wellness for music, as provided by the Altenmüller
institute, were indeed two sides of the same coin. How can we independent private piano instructors and university faculty members complement teaching healthy keyboard technique, and integrate this bidirectional understanding of wellness into our pedagogical routine? My answer includes three simple, yet crucial steps every piano teacher may take without much field-specific knowledge or preparation (the three Cs, if you will): creating a culture of open communication and awareness, identifying resources for care and healing, and developing a positively framed mindset in the spirit of comfort.

Toward Communication and Awareness

The first step in overcoming a hurdle is often acknowledging its existence. As teachers, it is our responsibility to create an atmosphere in which the student feels at ease to convey potential problems. I believe in a proactive approach. I am open to my students about challenges I have faced and about limitations I currently experience in my musical life. I have found that, instead of diminishing their respect for me, this openness has had quite the opposite effect. Relating personal histories instills trust and the desire for mutual problem solving. Leon Fleisher's life with focal dystonia stands as an inspirational example. And what a line-up of students he had! 

Toward Care and Healing

In recent years, health care professionals have discovered the arts. In the United States, the National Athletic Trainers' Association has identified the performing arts as an emerging field of employment for both preventative and rehabilitative care. The Performing Arts Medicine Association is an organization entirely dedicated to the health of performing artists. The Music Teachers National Association and the International Society for Music Education host wellness symposia at their conferences. Many higher education institutions have launched wellness initiatives, like the Center for Wellness in the Arts at Marshall University, my own employer. Physicians at major hospitals have specialized in treating performing artists. For any applied piano teacher on the various levels of instruction, it is helpful to identify healthcare professionals and physicians in the area who have experience or specialize in musicians' wellness. These individuals can become invaluable partners, should physical or mental distress hinder a student's musicianship.

Toward Comfort and Positivity

I will enlist my former teacher, Professor Steen-Nøkleberg one more time. I vividly recall when he explained to me how through touching the piano keys, through engaging the tactile sense we can derive joy and physical pleasure. Without having to sacrifice rigor, structure, and clear expectations, framing practice and performance not as work and test, but as inherently joyful and pleasurable activities will lead to the comfort students need for a satisfying and fulfilling musical experience—at home,
during the piano lesson, and in recital. In detailing the steps toward open communication, care, and comfort (the three Cs), I have implied movement. The wellness street is one that needs to be traveled in both directions, back-and-forth, through constant self-examination, close observation of one's students, and through professional development. Wellness is not a static concept. The three steps are interlinked and reinforce each other. Communicating the availability of care provides comfort, not just for the students but also for their parents. Considering wellness in applied piano teaching as a two-way street, i.e., both as a necessary condition for and as a wonderful result of music-making, renders the benefits of open communication, access to musicians' healthcare, and comfort in practice and performance true complements to the time-honored understanding of healthy keyboard technique.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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