Pedaling and its refinement were under consideration following an adult student’s initial reading of the Chopin Waltz. This piano lesson was transmitted by Skype to Sydney, Australia.
At the cue of a SKYPE musical trademark ring, I tapped the green-colored phone icon and brought an eight-year old, her dad, and a grand piano into view.
A second virtual lesson beamed between California and Oregon officially began!
Featured composition: Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, no. 17, Op. Posthumous.
This time I aimed my camcorder at the iMac screen and kept it there throughout the lesson.
In a pleasant state of satisfaction with this mode of transmission, I continued to believe that improvements in a student’s playing could be made over SKYPE. As proof, right before my eyes I watched an 8-year old phrase more beautifully with a desired singing tone as compared to her first playing that was transmitted by private video.
In the pre-Skype phase of our teacher-student relationship, dad set up a two-way video sharing channel and this provided an opportunity to have the raw playing sample before any teaching occurred and to zero in on what needed improvement.
This preliminary video exchange process was a vital supplement to the real-time Skyped lessons when they were scheduled because it allowed the student to revisit my remedial videos as many times as needed, and likewise, I could follow her progress between Skypes as she incorporated my suggestions into her playing. Dad uploaded additional practice sessions that I could comment on.
Each Skyped piano lesson that followed video sharing provided reinforcement of points already made.
Here is a sample of today’s virtual lesson in progress:
Chopin Waltz in A minor No. 17, Op. Posthumous, with Aiden Cat sitting beside me on the piano bench:
Studying piano, playing through the great piano literature, requires revisiting, re-doing and refining our work. This undertaking should not carry a value judgment that what preceded was poor or inadequate. Those adjectives do not belong to the process of learning. After all, we do not fault babies for crawling before walking because we realize it’s the natural flow of growth and development.
For me, revitalizing a piece with a fresh and enlightened perspective is what draws me back to the piano each and every day.
On this note, I sat down at my Steinway this morning and decided to re-record Robert Schumann’s first Scene from Childhood, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples.” Promising myself to step back and listen attentively as well as objectively to each playback, I would discern as best I could what needed improvement.
After spending about 45 minutes playing so many consecutive 2:05 timed segments, (approx.) I realized that I was throwing a subtle accent on each quarter note following the dotted-eighth 16th figure that permeates this composition, and it was distorting the melodic line. The accent was not necessarily obtrusive but I quickly realized that I needed to shape down the quarter note to obtain what sounded better. To de-emphasize that bothersome note I used a subtle wrist dip, so I would enter the key more slowly, and that’s where the physical side of playing intertwined with the sound image. (what I had underscored in my blog on Weight Control and Voicing.)
The review process also involved self-analysis, muscle memory, and decisions about voicing.
The other plaguing part of the tableau, was a crescendo at part B that sounded premature and not swelled in the way I wanted. I heard a poke on the G in the treble clef that made me cringe.
But having at least defined what I thought needed revision, I proceeded to re-record and play back.
In truth, I was cutting myself some slack because of my piano’s regulation issues. The perception that some notes were not having good let-offs made me continuously compensate to an unreasonable degree in terms of weight application into these more unresponsive keys. The piano’s irregularities in the touch/feel universe required a personal psyching out process that posed challenges.
Finally, despite an individual piano’s quirks, re-playing and revising the interpretation of a piece as many times as needed, is part of the learning curve. Realizing its value and keeping a positive, self-nurturing attitude allows fresh ideas to filter in, enlarging one’s musical perspective.
As a teacher, I’ve often pondered this question, concluding that there are varying answers which depend on the advancement and motivation of individual students. Certainly no fixed formula addresses the length of time a pupil needs to fully realize his potential when practicing a given composition.
By way of example, I have an adult student, who pursued piano as a child into her teenage years, and had a long hiatus from lessons until mid-life when she resumed studies. I had observed that she was very motivated to learn the Classical repertoire because she had grown up with a strong cultural exposure to music of this genre, and she was willing to develop a strong foundation based on a regimen of scales, arpeggios, and ground up learning of minuets, to sonatinas, to fully developed sonatas. The commitment was strong, and the time allotted for practicing was substantial and consistent.
But these particular circumstances would not be common to every pupil taking lessons.
In this woman’s situation, within three years she had the potential to play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and the Chopin Waltz in A minor, though she realized that she would probably be practicing these pieces in layers from the ground up for a significant time if she desired to reach a level of proficiency that she desired.
That meant being attentive to fingering, phrasing, separate hand practice, dynamics, harmonic analysis, etc. without feeling that she would have to reach certain milestones at a fixed deadline. There were no value judgments attached to learning curves.
Where a student commits to this paradigm of study, the journey is the reward instead of a formulated end game. Whether a student needs six to eight months to develop the skills to play an advanced work, is not the issue, unless he makes it so.
In most cases, a teacher and student can come to a consensus about what variation in repertoire is best recommended to hold the pupil’s interest and keep him enthusiastic about learning.
The Chopin Waltz had been the centerpiece of the adult student’s practicing until it reached a plateau, and was then joined by Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” which benefited from the time, and depth of study applied to the Chopin. The second piece also added a variety of musical styles that enriched and advanced the student’s knowledge of the piano on technical and musical levels. Each piece had its own learning landscape and complemented the other.
In a collaborative student/teacher environment, the “feel” for the right time to move from one piece to another presents naturally without stress or strain. Sometimes adding a composition (popular or otherwise) invigorates the student and gives him an enlarged perspective about his whole learning experience.
Where younger students, with less time to practice, grow tired of even short pieces far too early during their exposure to them, a discussion of goals with parents and pupils is probably needed.
Due to the impatience of youth, many youngsters would like a more espresso passage through many pieces, skimming the surface, and moving on to the next. Sadly, this type of learning can breed discouragement quicker than it takes to discard one piece and replace it with another. Before long, the student has lost interest in taking lessons entirely.
Even if a pupil insists that a particular piece will energize him, at least at the outset, if practicing habits and commitment to working out a piece in a step-wise way are unappealing, then whatever flavor of the week composition is assigned, it will not stand the test of time to develop to a level of proficiency where the student feels happy about the outcome.
Back to the same question about staying with one piece or another, and for how long?
For me as a teacher, I believe that when the student has done his best within his potential and skill level to take the necessary steps that will allow a piece to ripen–to be played smoothly, with an attached level of confidence that gives him satisfaction –then it can be rested, and revisited at a later time.
And this brings up decisions that are made by teachers where it concerns choice of repertoire, and whether a particular piece can be so far from technical reach that it will be a guaranteed journey of frustration.
For many students a combination of pieces that are challenging enough to be practicing motivators, alongside those that can be mastered more readily and used perhaps as sight-reading adventures to develop those particular skills, might offer a balanced musical diet.
Striking this desired balance, presenting the student with compositions that stimulate growth and require a consistent, long-term relationship, beside diversified repertoire that may be more readily assimilated, should keep the student moving along while simultaneously exploring musical depths.
In short, there are no easy answers associated with the amount of time a student spends with a particular piece. The best approach, in my opinion, is mixing things up, and having an open dialog with the student and parents about progress, goals and what’s realistic given the pupil’s schedule. Collaboration, above all, heads off any authoritarian time lines that stratify learning and send students out the door before they have stayed around long enough to appreciate the joy of music-making.
A piece that’s popular among piano students and often steers them back on course, is Burgmuller’s “Ballade.” In previous blogs, I highlighted “The Chase,” “Harmony of the Angels,” and “Tarentelle,” from this Op. 100 Collection of 25 Progressive Pieces.
Burgmuller’s tableau in C minor, (“Ballade”) seems to capture the spirit of Halloween in its opening that’s marked misterioso though the title might suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, when I play this composition, I think of scary images in the first two phrases of part A, before full blown Romantic era lyricism is on display in the Interlude, Part B, in mood changing C MAJOR.
Finally the spooks return in a repeat of Part A (back to “minor”) followed by an added miniature ending (Codetta)
Ballade presents many technical and musical challenges:
1) In Part A and its return, the left hand needs to be fleshed out above the redundant chords played by the Right Hand. Balance of voices is essential.
2) The middle section, Part B, brings a shift in character and voicing as the left hand chords provide a harmonic underpinning for a lovely, lyrical melody needing nuance and shaping.
3) With the return of Part A, a culminating “Codetta” requires the player to go with the flow no matter how unpredictable. The ins and outs of this mini-ending can be a pianist’s nightmare if not carefully paced.
Over a period of three weeks, seven year old Fritz, who’d been taking piano lessons for about 7 months, composed a piece that he titled, “Finding Gold.”
The student has been using Faber Primer Piano Adventures, with my inserted modifications. He warmed up this past Monday with Lesson Book p. 24, C-D-E-F-G March transposed to A Major followed by A minor, in Parallel and then Contrary Motion. The consciousness of “minor” occurred way back at the very beginning of study when he played “Balloons” (floating notes) with a the black key Eb inserted. Ever since he has been playing Major and minor when any opportunity presents. (He is reading music proficiently for his level of study, and has reached p. 59 in the Lesson Book)
Fritz is a very imaginative child who was enthusiastic about creating his own music.
On 3/21 I asked him to compose a four-measure treble melody in C Position, in 4/4 time using any combination of quarter notes, half notes, dotted quarter notes, and whole notes.
He was then asked to play the second phrase in the PARALLEL minor.
(He is familiar with this vocabulary as it has been used redundantly when he plays his Primer pieces in Major followed by minor)
His melody was completed on 3/21 at his lesson, and I helped with notation.
As part of Fritz’s assignment for the following week, I asked him to compose a bass line, placing his hand in C position. He could use single notes, chords, ties, whatever he chose. (He was aware of the parallel minor in the second phrase)
3/28: Fritz played his piece with an added bass line, which I helped him notate on manuscript paper. He surprised me by ending his second phrase with a C MAJOR chord. For the following week I asked him to title his piece, add dynamics, words, and an illustration.
4/4/11: Fritz brought his composition with dynamics and words inserted.
He had also included an illustration. His words matched the emotional content of the music. The second phrase in minor had a sad lyric, but the final measure with the C Major Chord reflected the celebration of FINDING GOLD.
I made the connection to the great composers, such as Handel who carefully realized the text in his Messiah!
I like walking in the woods, It feels nice to me (first phrase)
Sometimes I feel lost and scared, but I find GOLD! (second phrase)
Fritz recorded his piece for You Tube on 4/4/11
Composing activities can be integrated into lessons periodically, and over the long term a student can produce a bound collection of pieces with accompanying illustrations if desired.
It’s not only a creative exploration but it advances knowledge of notation, form, and harmony. (A theory lesson is built into the activity)
Location: El Cerrito, California
Beethoven’s C# minor Sonata, Op. 27, No. 2, the “Moonlight”)