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15 minutes reading time (2910 words)

What is your plan for teaching a new piece? How does it vary for different levels of students?

Learning a new piece is like building a house. First there is a conception of the end result. The foundation is then laid - the more solid and stable, the better. Then the frame is erected and the most basic infrastructural elements are added. The skeleton then has more "flesh" progressively added until the process is nearly complete. The finishing touches that are most obvious to the casual user are then applied. Before anyone moves in, some time passes while the house sits complete, undergoes minor adjustments, and passes inspection.

Of course this analogy between an architectural plan and an artistic one is not exact. The composer does provide a "blue- print" but it cannot inherently be precise because notes can be written down but music cannot. Therefore, each player's completed structure is slightly different. Regardless, the general plan of putting it all together needs to be logical and organic. 

The general plan

I use the same plan with my students that I have utilized in my own practicing for a long time (See Diagram 1). This diagram reflects the house-building analogy, so please look first at the bottom, then work your way upward.

Most successful players tend to follow a sequence like this. The more that practicers are aware of where they are in it at any given time, the more successful the learning tends to be. Each phase is implemented slightly differently according to level.

Overview is acquiring a sense of the whole before practicing details. Doing this first provides the imagination with a tentative vision of where everything might be headed. The remainder of the learning process tries to turn that into reality, mak- ing course adjustments as more discoveries are made along the way. Overviewing can involve listening to the piece, brainstorming what kinds of sounds and feelings might be implied by the title, mapping its form, tracing the most pervasive element throughout, or any combination of these and other activities that enable the player to get a feeling for the personality of the complete work. Communicating this at the piano then becomes the goal. If the subsequent practice is successful , unity and simplicity will also be characteristics in the end.

Proceeding without an Overview first is a handicap. Not having a feel for the whole can be counterproductive, even discouraging later on, because so much of the work- out of a new piece requires focusing on details; the Overview creates the structure in which to position and re-position these details. Good home-builders don't start nailing boards together without first having a sense of the large-scale plan.

Basics is the phase when one learns the notes, rests, initial fingerings, and then the most straightforward aspects of the articulation and rhythm. This is the foundation of the pianistic and musical structure to be built. The work is detailed and should focus at first mainly on small sections. While exhilarating music-making is not necessarily created during this stage - i.e., it's not very sexy - mastery of the Basics is compulsory to indulging later in the more expressive and sophisticated aspects of the music. (Perhaps this lack of excitement is why some students appear to have difficulty following up with Basics in home practice, but usually it is because they don't know how to do it successfully in a short time.)

The demarcation between phases is level- dependent: the more advanced the player, the more that musical aspects can be integrated into the learning of the Basics. Early- level students, however, usually benefit from exclusive focus on it for a few lessons. Mastering the Basics at any level can be gratifying if the practicer has a large, varied set of tools and knows when and how to use each. More on this later.

Interpretation & Expression is the phase when the music can come to life, especially if the skills of the Basics are solid. While it is possible to start at the beginning and musically enhance one measure at a time, the process is more effective if instead only a few pervasive strands unique to that piece (such as textural changes or the lyricism of the melodic lines) are enhanced throughout. This layered strategy - a "horizontal" approach - is in contrast to the "vertical" phrase-by-phrase (or even smaller) approach that is usually necessary to master the Basics.

Advanced players benefit at the end of this phase by going "small" again and refining individual gestures. Early-level students typically don't require this since their music is less nuanced; at that level, mastery of the one or two musical layers present usually results in an expressive performance.

Polishing of Basics usually takes place at the same time as Interpretation & Expression. This phase is an acknowledgement that the "mastery" of the Basics acquired during initial practicing was likely just partial - roots need time to deepen. After more musical decisions have been made, fingerings may need changing and physical gestures may require adjustments and fine- tuning to match the desired musical results at a performance tempo. This phase is simpler for early-level students; sometimes adding pedaling may be all that is needed.

By the end of this phase, players at all levels profit from maintenance practice - retaining ease and accuracy despite repeated playings (which can dull the sensibilities) . Effective techniques include performances at starkly different tempos, and starting from the beginnings of all major sections (especially if memorized). The best additional strategy is to stay open to the possibility of new musical insights.

Synthesis is vital for all levels. Much of the earlier work on the piece consisted of slicing and dicing, layering and lengthening. It takes time not only to start putting it all together, but to live with the music in its put-together form long enough so that the "scars" of previous dissections have time to heal; in other words, so that the piece can be played as one entity, similar to what one envisioned during the Overview. It is also advantageous to do multiple performances (if possible, in different venues) and to put the piece aside for a while, then re-learn it. This phase can be a boon for elementary students, for whom quantity is sometimes as important as quality. Students who replay many finished pieces well each day tend to develop more fluency than students who don't. This can be the beginner's other "teacher."

Now that I have briefly described each phase, please see Diagram 2 on page 58 for a more detailed look.

The items listed under each block are aspects that might be significant for any given piece. However, the details under "Basics" are a complete list and are operative in all pieces.1

Excerpt 1

Application to three levels of study 

I will share with you how I specifically implement these strategies in my teach- ing, using three representative pieces as examples. The discussion will be organized according to the phases on the diagrams, and will go from least to most advanced within each phase. Due to space limitations, I will not elaborate any further on the phases of Polishing of Basics and Synthesis.

The three pieces are:

• Mid-elementary: "Storms on Saturn" by Nancy & Randall Faber, FJH, from Piano Adventures - Lessons Level 2A (Excerpt 1 on pages 60-61).

• Early intermediate: "Prelude No.3 in E major" by Elvina Pearce, Alfred, from Seven Preludes, Bk. I (Excerpt 2 on page 62).

• Early-mid advanced: Fantasy in C minor, K. 475 (A section only, mm. 1- 20) by W. A. Mozart (Excerpt 3 on pages 64-65). 

Excerpt 2

Overview phase 

The elementary piece "Storms":

I alert students that this music is not like any other they've played before - it is a "sound effects" piece like that used in a science-fiction movie. This usually piques

their interest. I tell them about its special' scale that helps create the spooky sound. I rote-teach a one octave whole-tone scale (although I call it a "whole step" scale at first to be consistent with previous terminology) played tetrachord style with pedal. Then they sight-play everything to hear the scale and the other effects in context. After they have started on the Basics and have independently decoded the eighth-note rhythms, I perform the piece with exaggerated contrasts.

The intermediate piece "Prelude":

I usually perform new pieces for intermediate students right away. Since their rhythm decoding skills are more developed, I'm not concerned about their imitating my rhythms. Before I play it, I ask them to focus on the form and afterward describe it. I also ask them to wonder about why the composer used a meter change (not a usual event at this level), but I don't answer it yet - I leave it as a thought provoker that we will revist in a lesson or two. 

The advanced piece "Fantasy":

I perform it, then evoke what aspects make it worthy of its title - what makes it sound improvised, temperamental, unpredictable, etc. I also overview the tonal centers that the music passes through, and assign blocking of chord changes while they are learning the notes for the next lesson. This helps sensitize their listening to set up musical responses that will hopefully occur soon.

Excerpt 1

Basics phase

"Storm":

The slowest way to learn a piece is to play it through over and over from the beginning, hoping to get lucky (so why do so many students do this?)! Instead, "small practice" is best for mastering Basics in the shortest time. We first decide on a chunk size - how much music will be practiced at once. I have students mark off two- or four- measure groups, then practice one group at a time. Within each one, we first work toward mastery of only the notes, fingerings, rests, and shifts - also the articulation if it is easy to do. Counting/rhythm is not added until after these skills are mastered in that chunk; this is usually accomplished in a few minutes of slow focused practice with successful repetitions.

We start on the first chunk in the piece so they hear the main melodic and harmonic content. We then do the last chunk at the end. Like most endings, this one has surprises, therefore it is more challenging. Stu- dents block the shifts before playing the chunk as written without rhythm, then with.

After all chunks have been individually mastered, linking them can be done sequentially from the beginning of the piece, but I have found over the years that linking is achieved more securely with backward practice. This is not literal (playing Hebrew- style from the last note)! Instead, it means combining the last two chunks of the piece with successful repetitions, then doing the same with the last three chunks, etc. Why is this so marvelously effective? As linked chunks get longer in time, concentration thins out; having practiced the last chunks the most compensates. It also keeps serial learning in check by holding the reins on excitation, and it strengthens reading skills because to start at different places in the score, you must read the notes!

"Prelude":

Quick note mastery of most of the piece is achieved by blocking the shifts first, followed by small practice of one-phrase chunks. However, the coda's continua l shifts and cross-overs require immediate attention so that they will not delay "large practice" of the whole piece. Mixed articulation (legato against staccato) challenges some students. If so, they chunk-practice starting at that spot (m. 8) and then come into it from two measures before (backward practice). Rhythm is easy in this piece as long as students don't inadvertently play mm. 6-7 as if they are in 4/4. More on this in the next phase. 

"Fantasy":

Students who don't listen harmonically tend to mislearn notes throughout this opening section, so I follow-up aggressively on their Overview assignment to make sure they can identify and hear the chord functions. Two places are physically challeng- ing: the four-voice texture in m. 21 needs voice isolation and pairing. Also, the LH 32nd notes in mm. 18-19 need small practice with leggiero, otherwise they tend to be uneven, blurry, or heavy. 
Excerpt 2

Interpretation & expression

"Storms":

Bringing this piece to life is as easy as exaggerating its dynamic contrasts. Since it's harder to suddenly drop from forte to piano, I have students backward-practice mm. 3-4, then 1-4. However, I immediately evoke an echo image so that the approach to the rest of the dynamic scheme relates to the title. One nicety: if the G-flat in m. 12 is well-accented, it remains audible through to the end. I ask students to play the final low D as if it were a "glow" within the sustained sound, rather than as an additional sound; this portrayal frequently works. This is a very successful one-layer piece. 

"Prelude":

have students exaggerate the articulation contrasts throughout so that the staccatos are crisp and exciting. Then I layer in phrase shaping with slight exaggeration to project the frenetic spirit of this marvelous piece. At that lesson or the next, we speed it up and progress from feeling it in 4 to feeling it in 2. If the student is not conveying the breathless quality of the truncated motifs (meter change) at m. 6, I have them practice an altered version - with the quarter rest "reinserted" into each of those two measures. After several repetitions of this pedantic rendition, when they once again play it as notated, they can hear its "catch- breath" quality.

"Fantasy":

Each section has different layers:

• Mm. 1-5: Maintaining the continuity of the melodic line while projecting timbral/dynamic contrasts is challenging. I have students play just the soprano voice several times at double tempo so they perceive it as one long melody, then play as written progressively slower, keeping continuity and contrast in balance.

• Mm. 6-9: Phrase shaping and balance predominate here. How to do the orchestral-type-f-p without sounding harsh usually requires that I demonstrate.

• Mm. 10-26: Some of these harmonic events are jarring and unexpected, others are not. The challenge is to get the student to hear and feel the difference, then respond in the playing. Altering the music can also help here. I have students resolve chords to where they should go, rather than where they actually do; this helps them listen with new ears to the degree of disjunctness of the harmonic moves. If this fails, then I demonstrate how I use dynamics and agogic accents to respond to these extraordinary harmonic events.

The stages for learning pieces at all levels are thus surprisingly similar, even though implementations at various levels are different. Therefore, the investment of learning how to practice well at any level is an excellent one- it is truly a spiral and accumulating skill set.

I think of the lesson as providing the model for how to practice at home all week, so I use a large portion of it to teach practice strategies and techniques, right from the first lesson. I also help students learn how to manage their home practice, including always having a reason for what you are doing. However, this executive skill takes time to develop - much time for some students. It is one thing to know about something intellectually, and quite different to have the discipline (and eventually the internal need) to put it into effect. Ultimately, the motivation for students to practice well comes from their successfully connecting with each piece in mean- ingful ways, without needing an eternity to achieve it. It is almost impossible to devote too much time at lessons instructing students how to practice, so that they can play their music with expression, ease, and accuracy.

Excerpt 3

Note

There does appear to be an ideal order for early-level students to master the Basics of a new piece. Rhythm (the timing aspect of that term) is usually last for the logical reason that you can't play the notes in rhythm if you don't know the notes! Fingering and notes need to be learned together so that the player is not inadvertently practicing different physical versions of the same passage. (Sometimes fingerings are adjusted later in the learning process, but that is usually true only at more advanced levels.) Shifts are usually the most challenging aspects of elementary-level pieces, so it is best to target security in them right away at the beginning; the same with rests. Articulation is usually easiest to add next, but I have found that whatever is easier should be layered next; i.e., if a piece's articulation is complex, then it is better to play everything legato and learn the rhythm, then go back and put in the articulation (hence the circular arrows on Diagram 2). 

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