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Should a piano teacher be able to play pieces assigned to students?

This question, posed on numerous Internet piano forums, elicited varied opinions from teachers and students. One participant asked about Dorothy Delay, who taught some of the most celebrated violinists at the Juilliard School. When this esteemed mentor had reached an advanced age, would she have been able to demonstrate challenging technical passages for her pupils? And was this a necessary ingredient of teaching?

From my perspective, I strongly believe that advanced repertoire requires thorough study by a teacher so that he/she can impart valuable information to a student in the areas of Tone Production, Fingering, Phrasing, Performance Practice, Articulation/Technique and Form. Even a student with a virtuoso level technique requires a mentor who has embedded himself in a composition thoroughly enough to communicate graduated learning steps from the first reading to performance level.

If a student is not a performing musician and doesn’t aspire to a concert career, a teacher should still respect the composition and its demands, trying to attain the best possible understanding of its features, with attention to details that assist the pupil along the way. If the teacher studies a composition from the ground up, with a particular awareness of the problems/challenges it might pose for the pupil, then it’s an introduction that lays an important foundation. In addition, layered learning, where a piece is taken apart, voice by voice, and put together numerous times, sets up a paradigm for independent study in the future. To ignite this process, a teacher can take baby steps along with the student, as they both experience each and every learning landmark. Having said that, it’s probably advantageous for the mentor to have walked the walk in advance of the student.

In this regard, I always remember my teacher, Lillian Freundlich telling me at my very first lesson, that it was her job to teach me how to learn on my own, a metaphor related to life, growth, and self sustenance. And it was apparent that she did her homework as was revealed by her understanding of tone production, voicing, harmony, fingering and phrasing.

A Teaching/learning Example:

One of my pupils who had a predilection for studying some of the most technically challenging pieces in the literature, would come to her lesson with a “free” score, like “Flight of the Bumblebee,” by Rimsky-Korsakov, arranged by Rachmaninoff, downloaded from the Internet with no trace of fingering. (My preference would have been a better edition, but nowadays, we sometimes work with what we are given)

While I knew Bumblebee from many recorded and “live” performances, having a perception of its hallmark chromatic movement, I couldn’t begin to teach it with enough depth required to make instruction meaningful. “Meaningful” carries many associations and so does the word, “depth.” For each teacher, both words have their own valid definitions. It might be that working on phrasing and fingering is an area that a teacher feels comfortable with, having a sense of security and confidence associated with it. For others, theory and harmonic analysis might be their strength, making this dimension of study a “meaningful” and in-depth” experience for the student. Not all teachers are equipped with powerhouse techniques or comprehensive theory backgrounds, but each brings something unique and substantive to the learning environment.

Having been handed Bumblebee without ample advanced notice, I decided to learn the piece page-by-page alongside the student, but with a head start of a week, so I could assign fingering and explore rudimentary chordal movement in the bass. Harmonically mapping out a piece, deepens knowledge, orients a student to keys and modulations, and aids memorization. It presumes the student has had consistent theory exposures and Harmonic Analysis. But even a pupil with a minimal theory background can benefit from a capsuled understanding of a piece’s harmonic flow of harmony without precisely mapping out secondary dominants and pivot chords.

When a teacher, wades through a piece to pre-discover form, content, harmonic motion, as well as technical and musical challenges, he can be the best guide through a pupil’s musical journey.

I’ve extracted the first page of Bumblebee, to relate what I learned in my initial reading and what awareness it offered the student. We were both engaged in a simultaneous musical/technical exploration, knowing that practicing in slow, deliberate tempo was a necessity.

If I had the benefit of a video, I would enlist it to flesh out more details, but just as a visual overview of the score, I had to explain how the stem down, single sixteenth note preceding a stream of those slurred together, was played with the left hand. Naturally, I waded through the composition, fingering it to finite detai. Because the “standard” chromatic fingering did not always apply (white, black, white, black using 1, 3, 1, 3 Right Hand) and for white/white 1,2, I went out of my way to finger each and every note. This involved careful “housekeeping.” (What I term as laying the bare groundwork of finger choreography to advance smoothness of phrasing) This fingering was not necessarily set in stone, as minor adjustments were made as the student and myself progressed along. But basically, we had in place a very firm and practical fingering that proved to be efficacious in the long run. A Presto tempo was set aside as a future goal, without a fixed deadline for attainment.

As an overall suggestion to the flow of notes, I modeled a legato (in slow motion) that was shaped and contoured. It was easy for the student to fall into a typed out rendering of chromatic notes without realizing they needed to roll out, imitating a buzzing, swirling bumble bee. Grouping notes and using various rhythms such as the dotted eight/sixteenth figure advanced fluidity and firmed up fingering.

I had also outlined some basic harmonies to give TONAL context and to compare melodic and harmonic sequences as they unfolded.

Looking at the Key Signature alone might not assist a student in defining the key center, as the choice of no flats and sharps could be C Major or A minor. And since the opening measures had no appearance of a bass line, inserting an A minor or C Major chord through the first few measures would have confirmed the MINOR key. On line three I pointed to the A Minor chord as reinforcing the tonality. To flesh out chords that did not belong to A minor was also important. The D MAJOR chord following the Tonic A minor, would have been a conversion of the sub-dominant (iv chord) from Minor as it would exist in the A minor scale, to MAJOR. (D MAJOR CHORD) This Tonic i to IV (upper case Roman Numeral for Major) progression happened to re-appear at many points in the piece, transposed to other Key centers.

On the bottom line, the composer modulated to D Minor, and therefore used a conversion of its sub-dominant or iv chord to Major IV (a G Major Chord) setting up a sequential pattern that occurred at various junctures of the piece.

Experiencing a deeper level of assimilation, noting a change of key as transpired on the last line of page one, helped with navigating so many closely spaced, chromatically driven 16th notes, giving them an underlying harmonic frame.

The AURAL experience of the Tonic minor i to the Major IV, if nothing else would enrich the student’s learning experience and could be a springboard to more complex harmonic analysis.

“KNOWING” on many levels is pivotal to musical assimilation and retention. It’s not enough to play only the right notes. Putting them in context on a horizontal and vertical level, while perceiving the FORM of a composition are great long-term learning assists.

Assessing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” as a whole, marking out key centers, and discovering melodic similarities and differences, helps reinforce learning. Finding places that are not strictly chromatic is another form of processing. Circling pertinent measures, flags departures from expectation.

These rudimentary steps taken by the teacher and student are the seeds of learning that should blossom over time into a fully satisfying musical result. If the teacher can model and GUIDE the pupil through the creative process by having done advance work on the piece, it will always be helpful in nurturing the student along.

4 thoughts on “Should a piano teacher be able to play pieces assigned to students?”

  1. That’s a lot of work. I don’t think I’ve ever had a teacher who did that much preparation for my lessons. (In fact, sometimes I’ve been grateful if he/she remembered my name!)

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    1. Hi Harriet, Thanks for your comment. I think if a teacher does his/her homework, it greatly benefits the student. And in many cases, the teacher will expand his repertoire by taking opportunities the student presents as pertains to working though
      technically challenging literature.

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  2. As an advanced-level (midlife) student, I would not expect a teacher to have mastered every piece I undertake — particularly in the kind of collaborative relationship you describe where the student has a role in choosing repertoire. But I agree one hundred percent with your approach to preparation and staying “one step ahead” of the student. In fact, I think that I would find it immensely instructive to observe the PROCESS of how a teacher (and I assume, accomplished pianist) goes about tackling a new piece from the ground up.

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