phrasing, phrasing at the piano, pianists, piano, piano instruction, piano learning

What you Learn by Teaching Piano

I was inspired by the sagacious words of Peter Takacs, Oberlin Conservatory piano faculty member, in response to a query by Zsolt Bognar. (Living the Classical Life interview)

Zsolt: “Should a pianist teach?” (I was a bit surprised by a question that sowed doubt about the endeavor of mentoring–as if it proliferated the weak cliche that those who don’t perform are left with the lesser option of teaching.)

Bognar fine-tuned his inquiry, If “not of necessity,” should “pianists” teach?

Takacs deftly navigated through bumpy terrain by providing a glowing set of reasons why teaching is central to a musician’s total development. He referenced Schnabel and Fleisher as paragons of mentorship, quelling stereotypical cultural bias that a real performer has no need spend precious time developing the skills and artistry of pupils.

“Everyone should teach–not just out of necessity,” he reiterated. (Takacs was a “student” of Leon Fleisher, and underscored the value of what the maestro imparted.)


“You learn huge amounts by teaching.

“You have to diagnose problems.

“You have to think of solutions.

“You have to think of expressing things that would make sense to someone else.

“You have to become verbal.

“It’s a learning experience for everybody.”

(Perhaps the inference is that the learning journey is reciprocal between mentor and student.)


All points embraced by Takacs pose “challenges” that he articulated in his well-outlined reply.

They offer a springboard to specific examples that those of us in the teaching profession share among ourselves and through posts on Pedagogy cyber-forums.

From my perspective, each pupil, no matter what level of achievement, presents with individual problems that must have custom-designed solutions.

As mentors, we carefully “diagnose” what might be impeding the shape and flow of phrases, and then address solutions with multi-tiered remedies. It’s not as simple as the wrist is too stiff, or thumb shifts are burdened with hand twists.

The student needs to have the “shape” of a musical line internalized, if not externalized through a vocal model, where possible. In this effort, the teacher can “sing” and nudge along “contouring,” with the assistance of a pupil in a duo vocal undertaking. (Not all teachers and students, however, have great voices, but ebb and flow are what count–as well as awareness of the “breath” in creating beautifully spun phrases.)

I concur as well with Takacs about being “verbal.” We all have our personal “prompts” that assist students along. For me, “destinations” in phrase outpourings, allied to notation and “harmonic rhythm” can imbue music with needed “direction” and “nuance.” I also emphasize “floating” arms, and “horizontal” movement.

The keyboard is not hard turf but a bed of “density” for deep layer immersion. (“weight transfer” is the attendant partner of a gorgeous singing tone that requires “supple wrists” and relaxed arms) “Voicing and balance” are synthesized with so many basic elements of musical understanding that include “spacing” and “framing pulse,” not to mention the vital ingredients of “structural/harmonic” analyses.


In technical warm-ups, I use syllables, to encompass various rhythmic approaches to weak parts of scales and arpeggios. The turnarounds for example are often “squeezed,” with flow or circulation cut off. For this issue, I might suggest a “rounded” corner at the top instead of an angular one–with “Rotation” becoming central to realizing this desired shape in “circular,” counter-clockwise motions.

For example, this past week, I worked with a student, (NOT over Skype or Face Time) who needed extra clarification in physical and verbal terms about the outflow of C Major 4-note (double root) arpeggios through inversions. While the footage below was edited for teacher demonstrations, it speaks to the “challenges” of communicating clearly how to create more effortless, smoothly rendered broken chords. By the end of this lesson, the student was on her way to “unlock” the tension embedded in her playing. (We enlisted Rhythms, “swinging” modes, blocking for fingering, sense of “feel,” “pantomiming” inverted blocks with circular arm/hand “motions,” etc.)

When I review lesson-in-progress videos, I continue to fine tune my own playing and teaching, nurturing along personal growth and development while my students do the same.

It’s a two-way give-and-take learning opportunity that’s worth the effort, commitment, and challenge.


Living the Classical Life interview with Peter Takacs

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