Debussy, Jingle Bells, Elephants and Dogs……..or a comparative study of 2 piano lessons.

The-piano-lesson for July BlogScene 1:  Adult student arrives to piano lesson.    Nervous as she is due to perform her new piece.   She had been working on it very hard and was able to play it fairly competently at home.   She plays the piece for her teacher. More mistakes that she would have liked, but also better than she had thought it would be.

Teacher:   So how did you feel about that performance?

Student:  Ok, but I can play it much better at home.   But I thought it may have gone worse.  I wish I hadn’t made all those silly mistakes though – and I really thought I had ‘got’ those bars (pointing to page)

Teacher:  That’s ok, you haven’t been working on it for very long, and those bars are tricky.  It’s common when performing in front of someone that the weakest bits are those where there are problems.

Student:  But I had worked on them so hard – hands separately, very slowly, even with my eyes closed.  I really thought I had got them.

Teacher:  Ok, let’s have a look at a few more suggestions….

Lesson continues with some insightful tips given by the teacher and the student returns home feeling pleased overall with her performance and keen to get back to those tricky bars and try the new suggestions…..

Scene 2:  Adult student arrives to piano lesson.   Nervous as he knows he will need to play the new piece he has been working on this week.   He arrives at the lesson:

Teacher:  Hi, how has your week been?  How have you got on with the new piece?

Student:  Not too bad but the last bars are really tricky, I can just about do them but I find them really hard.  I think I may have some sort of mental block about them.

Teacher:  Ok, well let’s hear the piece and then we can work through anything we need to

Student plays piece.  It doesn’t go too badly, but – as he feared – he slips up on the last two bars.

Student:  I’m frustrated – I thought I may just be able to get those last bars right – I got them right when I played it at home this morning.

Teacher:  That’s ok, it’s often the way that you play in front of someone.  And you played the piece very well overall.   In fact, those last bars are really tricky – I think the composer may have done that deliberately to trip you up!   Let’s break it all apart and really look at them.

Lesson continues – teacher demonstrates a few tips which can be used to avoid the slip-ups.   Student plays through again with definite improvement.   Feels overall pleased by the end of the lesson and keen to get home and try out the new tips.

Despite the similarity of these 2 conversations, the students in question are very different in terms of their experience.  The first student is playing at a fairly advanced level and the piece in question was Debussy’s First Arabesque – a piece selected as part of a ‘Quick study’ project set by her teacher, Graham Fitch. The second student is an adult beginner, and this conversation took place in his third lesson.   The piece in question was an adaptation of ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Alfred Adult Basic Piano Course.

You have probably already guessed that in the first conversation I was the student, and in the second I was the teacher.    I am lucky enough to be able to study with Graham Fitch who is an international prize-winning pianist, teacher and adjudicator.   (In fact, he writes about the ‘Quick Study’ project in his excellent blog ‘Practising the Piano’ here).   I am often surprised and interested to observe how some of the issues I have as a relatively advanced student have parallels with my beginner pupils.   The most common probably is “I play it so much better at home!”   (I’m still not convinced Graham believes me when I tell him this….)   I often find myself adapting a piece of advice, an exercise or practice tip that I have received from Graham and distilling it for one of my beginner pupils.  In fact my pupils probably don’t realise how lucky they are to have a bit of Graham Fitch thrown into their lessons for the price of one Rebecca Singerman-Knight!

As well as issues surrounding the performance of pieces in lessons, another area of commonality is around the development of ‘muscle memory’ in working with difficult passages.   I am currently working on the second movement of Schubert’s D850 Sonata and there are some tricky passages which just didn’t seem to be ‘sticking’ – a combination of some complex chords in the left hand and flighty ornamental-type passages in the right hand.   Graham advised me to really focus on the left hand but – rather than play it on its own – ‘mime’ the right hand at the same time so as not to forget what the right hand needs to do, but to allow the left hand to fully sound and therefore better embed itself in my memory.   And so far so good, the passage is improving!    Similarly I often encourage my students to really focus on getting the left hand solid – whether playing just chords as an accompaniment or more tricky harmonies and counter-melodies etc.

On the subject of chords, Graham has some great exercises for working with these and encouraging the hand (and wrist and arm) to ‘remember’ quite complex chord positions (there is a video of him discussing this here).   My adult beginners are working through the Alfred Adult course which introduces  tonic and dominant 7th chords very early on.  They often find the hand position of the 7th chords quite uncomfortable, particularly when they involve the 4th finger as that is the weakest, and not a finger that many non-pianists are used to using.  Adapting and simplifying the tips I have received from Graham, I encourage them to work on exercises to get their hands comfortable, not only with the 7th chord, but also with the transition between the tonic and & 7th so that they are set-up for many of the pieces they will learn in the early stages of their learning (as well as being able to play almost every pop song ever written!)  These exercises are also a good opportunity to encourage a good and relaxed and posture and to use the whole arm – flexibly, not stiffly – in their playing.

As readers of my blog will know, as well as working with adult beginners I also specialise in early years’ teaching.  Even with three and four years-olds I have noticed some parallels between my own development as a pianist and the very early stages of piano learning.   Like in so many things when working with very young children, when encouraging good posture and arm / wrist technique at the piano, the best way to communicate is through the use of metaphor.   Graham is a great believer in metaphor in his teaching, and one of his that I have adapted for my early years’ teaching is that of the elephant trunk – i.e. a pianist should use the arm as an elephant trunk – strong, yet flexible.   (I write more about this in my guest post on Frances Wilson’s teaching blog here).

I can only stretch the parallels so far, however.  Most are between my own lessons and those of my adult beginners – rather than the early years’ children.   I have yet to turn up to a lesson and have Graham ask me to find all the dogs on the piano…….


Why Music, Why Piano – and Why Early Years?

Why Early Years?

Many Piano teachers will tell you that the minimum age to start the piano is 5.

I agree with them – if we are talking about formal, structured piano lessons.

However, the approach I use – “Dogs and Birds” – is designed specifically for very young children and can be used from the age of 3.    It is based on the famous Kodaly principles for music education and has been developed over the last 12 years by Elza Lusher who trained as a piano teacher at the Liszt Academy in Hungary.

To quote from the very informative Dogs and Birds website:

“As with any other language, the language of music is best learnt from an early age. The benefits of teaching music to very young children through the keyboard are enormous. As well as learning to read, sing and play music, they also develop a basic sense of pulse, and improve their inner ear”.

I learnt to play the piano from the age of 4, and learnt to read music at the same time as learning to read.  In fact, I cannot remember there ever being a time when I could not read music – just like most of us probably can’t remember not being able to read.

And, whilst I am not suggesting that starting the piano young will automatically turn any child into a prodigy we should remember that Mozart was already composing by age 5 and Lang Lang started at 3, winning his first competition at 5!

Why Music? 

Again, to quote from Dogs and Birds:

“Learning to play the keyboard or piano from an early age has a tremendously positive effect on a child’s development, in particular reading and maths. It also boosts memory and relaxation and teaches concentration, co-ordination, patience and perseverance. It is therefore an excellent preparation or support for schoolwork”.

The study of music engages both the left and right brain – the intellectual, logical half which is used in subjects such as maths and science – as well as the creative, intuitive part used in english, and art appreciation.

So studying music from a young age should help with a child’s academic achievement and school career.   Is that all?

No.   Developing a love for music is something that will be with the child for life – if taught effectively from the beginning.   Whether or not they use music in any type of career, they will always have a very special past-time that will be with them throughout the highs and lows of their lives.  In fact, studies show that being able to play music – and the piano, in particular – is an excellent form of stress relief (I write more about this here).

Why Piano? 

The piano will repay efforts from day one – no months of learning to create a beautiful sound with a screechy violin or breathy clarinet!   It requires no accompaniment and yet is also an excellent form of accompaniment for all other instruments.  Therefore playing the piano can be both a fulfilling solo pursuit or a way to create music with others in groups of any size.   It is, in many ways, more difficult to learn than other solo instruments – particularly when it comes to doing very different things with each hand!   But it is therefore intellectually and culturally fulfilling.

So – in my very unbiased opinion – music is a wonderful skill to learn, piano is the best instrument to learn it on, and early years is the best time to start learning it!