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Should a teacher demonstrate phrasing and interpretation for a student?

I asked a few piano teachers and a harpsichordist if they felt playing passages, phrases for a student was a viable way to teach, and why?

Seymour Bernstein, author, With Your Own Two Hands, rendered a riveting opinion:seymour_bernstein_home revised

“I have never taken a lesson with a pianist-teacher who didn’t demonstrate musical and technical points under discussion. I don’t swallow the idea that they decide not to demonstrate for philosophical reasons: “I don’t want my pupils to copy me. They have to develop their own style,” etc. My feeling is that that when teachers do not play for their pupils, it’s an indication that they can’t demonstrate with any degree of control. Teachers who are injured, notwithstanding, there is no logical reason why a teacher should refuse to demonstrate a musical or technical passage. We’re not talking about a teacher sitting down and tossing off the Chopin 2nd Etude, or the Etude in 3rds up to tempo. But when a pupil sees/hears a demonstration, even at a slower tempo, his ears and eyes absorb vital information that words alone cannot impart. Comprehension is augmented, and the student makes faster progress.

“Some teachers find that when they play too convincingly for their pupils, they defeat them. The pupil thinks, “I can never reach that level!” Really? Send the pupil to a psychologist.”

Rada Bukhman, author, Discovering Color Behind the Keys, The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing, kindly translated the opinion of Russian pianist/teacher, Oxana Yablonskaya where it concerned “copying the mentor.” (I preserved the original Russian text)Oxana

Я предпочитаю, чтобы они подражали моему музыкальному стилю.
Рахманинов приветствовал подражание на разных этапах обучения: “Педагогу следует играть, а студенту – подражать ему. Когда талантливый студент мужает, он должен углубляться в свою интерпретацию”.
Кроме того, я думаю, что пример педагога оказывает огромное, если не решающее влияние на развитие музыкального вкуса ученика. Как говорится, о вкусах не спорят. Но существуют понятия хорошего вкуса, манер, благородного вкуса.
Даже если ты сначала просто копируешь красивый звук твоего педагога, это хорошо. Позже этот звук станет твоим. Чехов говорил, что если маску не снимать, она станет твоим лицом…


“I prefer that students imitate my musical style. Rachmaninoff approved imitation for various levels of the educational process: The teacher should play while the student copies. A talented student will be deepen his own interpretation as he matures.

“The teacher serves as an example of noble musical taste and by copying the teacher’s tone, the student can achieve the same quality of sound production. Chekhov said that if you wear a mask it can become your own face.”

Might this lesson conducted by Nairi Grigorian Akimov, meet the parameters of “copying” the teacher?

Rada Bukhman
provided her own slant on the subject:Rada pic

“This is a very broad topic. It depends on many factors including student level, choice of repertoire, the student’s learning type and so on. An accomplished pianist can learn from any great musician, even if this musician plays another instrument. However, if a pupil is seeking help related to technique, then it’s beneficial to learn from a teacher who knows how to solve the problem and can effectively demonstrate.”

Elaine Comparone, Harpsichordist/teacher shared her thoughts:portraitelainecomparone2

“I just think you have to leave an open area for those who are advanced enough to “interpret”. You just have to be careful not to overwhelm them with, for example, a tempo they cannot handle so that they might feel inadequate to the task. A teacher must always take the level of a student into account when demonstrating. It should not be a situation where the teacher is ‘showing off.’ ”

Jeffrey Biegel
, Concert pianist/teacher expressed the following:Jeffrey B
“I studied with Adele Marcus, who quite often demonstrated and played for her students. It was this ‘aural’ art that we learned, about singing out loud while practicing, counting out loud, breathing within the phrases while singing, which gave us the ability to help ourselves as students and stewards of music.

“First and foremost, is the total respect for the score. Nuances are simply the way we play a phrase, the slightest hesitation perhaps, or breathing between phrases–sometimes within a phrase. These nuances, after time, never repeat themselves, because we don’t exactly say the same thing the same way more than once.

“Teaching interpretation is more, for me, teaching the basic intentions of the composer. What each student and each re-creating artist does with these basic principles is what makes their interpretation uniquely their own. I often say that I learn more about music from teaching, and from students first impressions of works that are too familiar to us. I believe in this approach to teaching, because it is easy to offer fingerings that fit under the hand, almost any hand for that matter, and to write in pedaling according to the harmonic structure or melodic line, but having that unique voice in phrasing, and having the musical touch that each hand can indeed have, is what makes teaching challenging and rewarding. The feeling of the sound emanates from the fingertips–the departure point between the player and the instrument.”

Here’s an example of Biegel teaching a piano lesson by SKYPE:


What Jeffrey Biegel says resonates strongly with me. There are so many elements to explore in the teacher/student exchange and we learn decisively from our pupils as attentive listeners. A two-way feedback allows for mutual demonstration, experimentation, trial and error.

As for the breath and phrasing, here’s an example of my breathing back and forth with an adult student where we both gained from the interaction.

And following, a supplemental “demonstration” video with a tie-in to the breath/phrasing that I sent to the same student. She was studying the Chopin Waltz in A minor:

Video of a Boris Berman masterclass: See for yourself what teaching techniques are used by this distinguished Russian mentor.

Gyorgy Sebok’s Masterclass (Chopin Sonata no. 2, Op. 35)

RADA BUKHMAN comments: “I love master classes of Sebok. What a musician, what a person!”


S.K. I attended one of Sebok’s classes at the Oberlin Conservatory and it made an indelible impression in the area of phrasing and the singing tone.


In conclusion:

From all that I’ve gathered in this post from teachers and performers who have generously shared thoughts about teaching, it seems that demonstrating for the student is an important ingredient of the learning environment. Yet each mentor decides what best meets the needs of an individual pupil without adhering to a fixed or rigid approach.

2 thoughts on “Should a teacher demonstrate phrasing and interpretation for a student?”

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