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Self-learners transition to Piano lessons

Over decades of teaching, I’ve observed that “autodidacts” who embark upon formal lessons, experience a common awakening related to the piano as a “singing” instrument with its well of tone/touch discovery.

Their epiphanies about the cosmos of piano tone and color are also shared among some transfer pupils who were previously unexposed to varying dimensions of phrase sculpting, arm weight transfer, supple wrist, floating arms, and the “imagined” sound that is internalized before playing the very first note of a piece. (Leon Fleisher’s mantra: “Hear it before you play it.”)

It’s often a first sunrise experience for self-learners, who like very young children are introduced to a previously unknown world of beauty.

I can remember my own transition from two previous early teachers to the one who opened my ears to the “singing” dimension of piano playing. She devoted many weeks to having me drop my “hanging” arm (with supple wrist hands and relaxed fingers) into a series of keys in a stepwise sequence, while checking my elbows and wrists for any tension, telling me not to “squeeze” keys after a graceful, centered landing. Such a well-balanced physical/musical synthesis produced a “ping,” not a “poke.” (It took time, but before long there were no more pencil-point attacks on keys that had previously accentuated the “percussive” profile of the pianoforte)

As a concurrent violin student, I could make the tie-in to long drawn bows on open strings that formed an early understanding of the instrument’s capacity to “sing” before fingerboard exploration. Tone variance related to the bow arm and transfer weight pressure that was introduced to beginners taking lessons. (though, in truth, bow technique and approaches to teaching, have always been as varied as piano mentoring styles) But the idea of a violin exuding a pulsating emotional vibrato with a player having direct bow contact with the string was easier to embrace than that which related to pressing piano keys that in turn activated hammers–enlarging the distance from a player to the strings.

Self-learners of the piano experience such a wide-eyed appreciation of how to bridge that distance in their more structured studies with a teacher who cultivates the singing tone and how to produce it.

I usually start with the very long tones that my most enlightened piano teacher exposed me to at age 13. (I had just entered the New York City High School of Performing Arts at the time, and had auditioned with the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, Op. 13) Were it not for my simultaneous audition on the violin, I probably would not have gained admission. Without a tonal foundation as yet laid down, I was swimming in waters too deep to navigate. (But I was open to a new approach without resistance)

Students coming to the piano from their self-imposed cubicles or from a previous teacher, must be willing to let go of what seemingly has not worked for them. (And there are a myriad of experiences that do not fall into neat categories)

Getting back to the basics of the long tones, developing sensitivity to the drop in, without punching, poking, or squeezing, but pinging into a tone center, allows a central focus on the tone/touch cosmos. (It invites attenive listening without cognitive distraction)

While five-finger positions are often drilled to the ground in popular method books without the necessary prologue of the singing tone dimensions of playing, I still explore them not as reading exercises, but for the “feel” of weight transfer to destination notes and their resolution. I like the idea of varied geographies without having thumb shifts at first. (though some of the pentachords, can introduce one thumb pass going up, and another down with an altered fingering, when a student is ready)

Here’s a sample of raw footage that I sent to a transfer student in the five-finger cosmos: (the editing tool was not working so I was unable to trim the beginning and end)

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Delays into resolution notes attach epiphanies. A delay can be so subtle as to create the feeling of “melting” a final note–not entering it too fast, even if a metronome would confirm its mathematically valid arrival. Some pianists refer to the “illusions” of piano playing, and often make reference to how the relationship of notes to each other can create magic in the hands of the illusionist.

In truth, the study of piano has many intangibles and abstractions that are difficult to write about but can be demonstrated by the artful player and teacher.

Naturally, selecting repertoire is pivotal to drawing in long tones, various five-finger romps and much more in baby step progression. I favor Tansman’s early studies and those of Kabalevsky, and there are some pertinent Schumann two-voice pieces from his Album for the Young, Op. 68, all being selections that are not too cluttered with notes, and have the breathing space to explore tone/touch/attentive listening learning dimensions. (The BREATH, of course, is intrinsically woven into a beautiful tone, and contoured phrasing) Breathing is an important facet of playing that should be explored in the course of piano lessons.

One disclaimer: There are autodidacts who discover that a new approach to learning, quite different from their own, is too much to bear. I had one student who made considerable progress in a formal lesson framing, but admitted he was basically happier learning on his own. I appreciated his honesty and was glad that we had some well spent time together.

The musical journey is paved with joys and challenges, some setbacks, and then advances that make it a worthwhile adventure if we are willing to embark upon it, no matter how new it is.

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