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Should a piano student be a carbon copy of the teacher?

The whole universe of music teaching and learning became crystallized when I found myself bouncing ideas back and forth with two parents of Suzuki-trained children on a blog COMMENTS forum.

First, I questioned the purist form of the Japanese imported “method” to the piano that delays note-reading to conform with the acquisition of language. Babies, for instance don’t learn to write until years after “speaking” the mother tongue.

But as they move right along to Kindergarten, letters and other symbols enter consciousness, and phonetics progresses to letter groupings, words, sentences, etc.

In the musical realm, there are differing opinions on what age is best to start a child on individualized piano study. The Suzuki followers often begin teaching a fledgling as young as 3 if not younger. Naturally, at that age, reading music is hardly expected.

According to parents who are pleased with the program, they regale the efforts of toddlers who listen to their teachers and copy what she plays.. they insist, without looking at their mentor’s fingers on the keys. (though fingering decisions are pivotal to good phrasing)

This is supposed to be ear training–or more specifically, “playing by ear.”

If this continues for years at a time, perhaps the child will have an ability to hear a tune, and play it back with a minimum of note errors. But what’s next?
And what’s the content of his playing from an interpretive dimension?

Let’s fast forward the clock to a 9-year old, “copying” the teacher week after week, month and after month, etc. and let’s say he’s playing a J.S. Bach Minuet. Whom does he sound like.. himself or an imported version of his teacher? Is he reading the music, looking at harmonic progressions and their influence on phrasing/nuance? Is he analyzing the form of his piece, etc. or still copying the authority figure without a second thought.

I believe a piano student grows over the years with a teacher who tries to imbue a sense of independence in the creative learning process. She takes baby steps with the pupil, but doesn’t leave him tied to her apron strings.

Here’s an exemplary lesson with a 9-year old student where she combines the tactile experience of playing, with singing, and analyzing the music under my guidance. (Gillock’s “Stars on a Summer Night.”)

With adult students, the goal is likewise to nurture them along so their practicing becomes the prototype for musical growth in the long term–and they can feel confident to have landmarks for learning independently.

How is this best done? Singing phrases with the student helps as he looks at the score while he plays– singing helps contour phrases. The greatest teachers like Boris Berman, for example, conspicuously sing and conduct during their public masterclasses with highly gifted pupils. (Fingering choices also need to be discussed)

Choreographing the music as a conductor does with physical gestures in front of an orchestra helps a student shape a musical line.

But why deny the student, his own ideas about how to craft phrases? Certainly over years, that should be a process that unfolds, not leaving a student in the dark, groveling always to copy the teacher.

Here’s an example of a very fine pianist, who tends to push the student off the piano bench to copy her. And while I love the mentor’s playing, I feel the pupil should explore a bit more on her own, with necessary teacher prompts.

Contrast this to my working with an adult student on Mozart’s Andante movement of Sonata k. 545. As a preliminary, we had discussed the composition’s harmonic flow and its influence on phrasing and eventually on pedaling when she was ready to add it.

So going back to the original theme of this writing, I don’t favor a so-called method or approach that makes a student a carbon copy of his/her teacher. (especially when note-reading is absent or not specifically required in a course of piano study–adhering to the “playing by ear model”)

A reminder that the score is a reference that should be the point of departure in the long-term growth of a student’s artistry and love for music. This allows a joyous interchange with the infused elements of learning previously discussed.


The Right Age to Start Piano Lessons?

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