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Should piano students listen to recorded performances of pieces they are first beginning to learn?

I was thinking of Palmer’s edition of Chopin, an Introduction to His Music, and when I first purchased it years ago there was no inserted CD of recorded selections contained in the album.

With subsequent published editions, a CD popped into an envelope, beckoning a player to sample another pianist’s interpretation of music he had just barely sight-read through.

I am here emphasizing the fledgling who is embarking upon a virgin learning process, finding correct notes, counting out beats, piecing out fingering, etc. with a guiding teacher at the helm.

In this regard, I remember telling Claudia, one of my ten-year old students who was feasting on a new journey into the Romantic period, about to study the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous, NOT to listen to X pianist’s CD sample of the work, not because it might not have been a sterling interpretation, but because it could, in my opinion, stultify her individual, creative, developmental musical process.

An additional reason for my admonition was that I felt listening so quickly to a piece played at performance tempo by a competent pianist, might make the child feel intimidated by a composition she was just beginning to learn. Polished to a high level of performance, it would separate the student from the baby-step approach I would encourage and implement over weeks and months.

One might say, that jumping too quickly into trying to COPY another pianist’s performance, or benefit from exposure to various nuanced interpretations could prevent the pupil from trusting his/her own musical intuition, with the assistance of the piano teacher.

Now I’m sure that I will be barraged by opposing opinions which will have valid arguments at their foundation.

I, for one, can say, that I like to listen/watch performances on You Tube of compositions I have lived with over time, studied in-depth, struggled with on many levels, and put my autograph on as best I can, because after all, we’re all exposed to performances of our pieces through studies with our piano teachers, and on the Internet when we least expect to encounter them.

But I always hesitate to consult another artist’s performance until I’ve fully absorbed a piece on many intricate levels. At that point I feel open to other pianists’ interpretations and ideas. Let’s say that I feel that I can most benefit from these outside musical influences on You Tube, CD, whatever, after I’ve allowed myself an unassisted deep-sea dive into the composition.

Here are a few counter-arguments to my premise that are valid where it even applies to my particular music-learning journey.

1) I’m having difficulty with a passage because of meter complexity or rhythm, and I’m not near a teacher, or have one at the moment.

Why not find a You Tube of Perahia, Richter, et al, playing the piece, and use as the clarifying reference.

2) If I’m a beginning student, or one of intermediate or advanced level, I can resolve the problem with my teacher at lessons. But If I’m advanced enough to have the issue addressed by way of a sample recording in between lessons, why not use an outside resource.

Most of the time with beginners, however, they need the teacher to help them along with the basics of rhythm, articulation, fingering, etc. so You Tubes performances, CDs, DVDs, whatever will usually not do the job.

Therefore, my premise of not being CONDITIONED to another interpretation at the very BEGINNING of a learning experience still holds, though I open myself to this resonating opposition to my thesis:

Well, then, isn’t the piano TEACHER the biggest outside influence upon the student in the artistic shaping of a composition?

Okay, YES, I would have to admit that, but I would NOT sit down and keep playing the whole composition at a polished level, at every lesson while the student was struggling along. That would be the perfect antidote to the pupil’s engagement with the composition. She would feel discouraged before she began to piece out measures at a time.

If I was an empathetic teacher who wanted to advance a student along the path to fluency, I would put myself in the shoes of the pupil, and take the baby steps, one at a time, with her. Over weeks and months, where individual measures led to mastery of phrases, sections, and finally to an absorption of an entire piece, the teacher and student would have been on the same wave-length.

In addition, where interpretation was concerned, I would expect the teacher to have an understanding of performance practice, so that certain choices made by the student could be considered in the context of a musical historical period and the style of the time. (This opens the door to a long-winded polemic about tempos taken, and various turns of the phrase which will be deferred. Two hot topics in one blog are a NO NO!)

So, yes, the teacher’s spin on the piece would have to factor in and be considered in this discussion.

In this connection, one of my basic reservations with the Suzuki method of teaching piano is that at its core, the approach is based upon COPYING THE TEACHER along with ingesting the contents of a CD loaded into the program. A student must be on playback after the teacher delivers a “live” musical sample, supplemented by a recording that is supposed to saturate the student for days and weeks. That is, if the Suzuki method is applied in its purest form.

One could say that a standardized performance is the rule, with deviations at beginner level being discouraged.

On that score alone I am decisively opinionated but open to feedback from students, teachers, and all music lovers.

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