Musical expression arises from the deepest part of ourselves so as we relax into the here and now, focused on the flow and shape of phrases, our arms, wrists and fingers work together as an ensemble to produce an artful outpouring. Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano describes such an approach to music making that is central to my own philosophy. She explores the singing tone and its connection to the heart. She awakens pianists to deep breathing and experiencing the ebb and flow of music as it happens. Technique, phrasing, fingering, shaping, sculpting the musical line in slow motion, gradually nursed to tempo, make musicians out of pianists.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of listening through every stage of the learning process. Evelyn Glennie, a celebrated percussionist, puts great emphasis on “whole body listening” in her many presentations and forums, the most notable taking place in Monterey, California. Even a deaf, world-renowned performer such as Glennie gives testimony to listening from the tips of her fingers to her toes, not to mention every inch of her flesh and bones. You can experience her side-by-side expressions of phrases that arise from two different attitudes: one revealing an emotional and physical turn off to volumes, density, and musical shape– the other, open to the unfolding of a musical mosaic as it’s spun out.
Rather than drilling students to methodically find the right notes when they approach their pieces and technical studies, it’s best to lay emphasis on singing the musical line as a phrase would unfold. It can be done an octave or so lower in the range of the pupil’s voice. Another approach is to use the vitality of the dotted-eighth/16th rhythm to energize the flow of a scale as an example, allowing the student a built in timed delay to anticipate the next finger. The delay should not be a halt, but rather a spring forward motion of flexible wrists. There is always follow-through in all playing.
The most important ingredients of studying piano, are to be open and responsive to the heart, body, mind connection in music-making and to enjoy the experience as its own reward.