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Piano Technique: Student/teacher echo exchanges stabilize rhythm and refine articulation

Of my favorite teaching strategies is bouncing warm-ups back and forth with students. We echo short phrases in legato and staccato as a form of rhythmic rehab. The recordings of these interactions become valuable practicing aids between lessons.

Yesterday, an adult pupil and I had fun sharing E Minor/Major penta-scales and five-finger position thirds from Burnam’s Dozen a Day, Book 1.

dozenadaybk1

Rhythmic cohesion and crisp staccato releases were playing goals, reinforced by persistent practice and suggested ways to refine.

Both teacher and student gain immensely from these weekly exchanges.

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The Formative Years of Piano Study and the basic building-blocks of learning (Videos)

Just as a child needs a wholesome diet from birth through adolescence to insure healthy growth and development, a beginning piano student requires the equivalent in musical nourishment.

Cocoa Puff pieces that squeeze out whole grain servings of the classics will not in the long term cut the cake. (And I don’t rule out compositions by William Gillock that include, “Argentina,” “Stars for a Summer Night,” “Little Flower Girl of Paris,”) as well as Samuel Maykapar’s “In the Garden,” a particular favorite.

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Starting a piano student at age 6 or 7, requires a thoughtful menu of goals. As I define them, they would include teaching a physical relationship to the instrument and how to produce a singing tone.

Under the heading of tone production, the following should be nurtured from day one:

1) A whole arm, relaxed infusion of energy

2) A supple, “spongy” wrist

3) Arc-like, “rainbow” movements in octave spreads, one note sampled at a time, enlisting each finger (right hand, then left hand)

If these sound like they’re lifted from Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey, then you’re correct.

Ideally, musical symbols and notation should flow into a course of study, though some teachers may postpone these based on age considerations.

Proponents of the Suzuki method set aside note reading for years at a time, copying the model of language assimilation–where a child doesn’t read or write for the first few years of life but instead, is taught by imitation through parental interactions.

Gorin spends a good amount of time dwelling on the physical dimension of playing, using prerecorded music of high caliber as children tap individual notes to Russian themes from the classical literature as well as folk music sources.

I tend to favor a mixture of more than one teaching philosophy, though I can’t embrace Suzuki’s ultra-long tabling of music reading.

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If I enlist a more traditional method book approach, I will modify it to suit the needs of individual students. In the same vein, if I draw upon Irina Gorin’s material, I might tailor it to include earlier exposure to notational symbols–one example is where I insert a flat to flesh out the minor mode, sooner than expected.

But above and beyond contrasts in teaching styles and choice of materials that might be of Major or minor proportion (pun intended) I insist on giving my students a serving of good music at the very beginning of piano study.

Sometimes, a parent will try to upset the apple cart, and egg me on to substitute the pop stuff for classical. In this lobbying effort, a pitch for pop might please the dad or mom, but it runs counter to what’s in the best interests of the child.

In such a case scenario I provide a simple reply:

The basic building-blocks come first with no room for the musical equivalent of a junk food filled menu.

Under the heading of a nourishing learning program comes intertwined technique advancement.

About 6 to 9 months into piano study (and it varies from child to child), I introduce penta-scales or five-finger positions, borrowed from Edna-mae Burnam’s Dozen a Day. (These precede full blown 4-octave scale and arpeggio romps around the Circle of Fifths)

The student will play Major and companion (parallel minor) ascending and descending, step-wise progressions in “Walking and Running” sequence and he’ll engage his whole arm and supple wrist in the process. Arc-like motions are likewise encouraged to realize faster note values.

In the video examples below, I first demonstrate the technical routine myself, followed by a second bit of footage that showcases an 8-year old student warming up in the same way.

In the repertoire arena, one of my Bay area beginners in his second year of study, is working on “Melody” by Beyer; “Ponies” by Low, and a third selection, “Circle Dance,” that has imitative counterpoint. All compositions are contained in Faber’s Developing Artist Original Keyboard Classics. (preparatory piano literature)

Contents: Allegretto (Köhler) • Ancient Dance (Praetorious) • Circle Dance (Beyer) • Country Ride (Köhler) • Echoes (Köhler) • Five-Note Sonatina (Bolck) • The Hero’s March (Vogel) • In an Old Castle (Beyer) • Little March (Turk) • Melody (Beyer) • Ponies (Low) • Sonatina (Wilton).

In between lessons, this student practices “Melody” together with my prerecorded secondo TEACHER part (uploaded to You Tube) giving it a grander, ensemble proportion. (His folks have recently made the connection between a companion CD and the Teacher accompaniments)

Faber’s choice of pieces in this particular collection is admirable though I always hunt down supplements from other sources. These might include the Toronto Conservatory Celebration series, or individual albums of Kabalevsky’s music such as the Op. 39 Children’s Pieces. “Joke,” “Melody,” and “Funny Event,” for example, are first and second-year appropriate repertoire choices that have musical substance while advancing technique.

For the most part, I tend to steer clear of musical cliches, harmonic formulas, and insipid arrangements.

In summary, the formative years of piano study require substantial musical nourishment. Imbuing the singing tone, teaching the physical means to achieve it, and selecting quality pieces for students, are ingredients that support a solid musical foundation.

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An extra treat: Ilyana, 8, practices “Argentina” by Gillock, a favorite composer.

Add “Flamenco,” a show-stopper:

RELATED LINK:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/taking-piano-lessons-skimming-the-surface-or-getting-deeply-involved/

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A “Glee”-fully Skyping Piano Teacher Sitcom

I couldn’t resist writing a story board for a hypothetical Cable network sitcom about a webcam-enslaved piano teacher.

Take One:

7:45 a.m.
An adult student Skypes in from the Bay area. The camera angle is off. I can see teenage son’s untidy room. He’s under the covers, snoring. Turn down the Yeti mic volume.

***
Start lesson with Dozen a Day, “Walking and Running,” with sub-divided quarter notes, then 8ths, 16ths and 32nds.

Oops, mom’s quarters are off— they’re way too fast. She’s skittering into a final cadence. WATCH OUT!

Saved by the bell!

Her Cell blares the Titanic theme. She picks up:

A pile of people are heading over for a yoga mat meditation class and someone’s lost. Pause, for directions.

What’s happened to the piano warm-up?

Take 2:

REPEAT: Please slow down those quarter notes!

Whoa!

The smoke alarm? (Ouch! My ears are ringing) The house is about to burn down and those 16ths notes are heading for hell!

Cell phone again!!! This time the lost Yoga club member forgot her mat.

Husband calls down from second floor. He’s turned off the smoke alarm and tossed the burnt toast, but the car battery needs jump-starting.

“Where’s the cable?”

Bleary-eyed, teenage son, clad in underwear, walks past the piano, blocking out mom. He wants his allowance right now!

“Where’s the blasted car keys?”

Husband can’t wait a minute longer for the jump-start cable.

The screen suddenly dims…

I can’t locate my piano student in a vast, orphaned keyboard landscape.

Now the whole room is shaking! Take cover! It’s the DREADED BAY AREA TEMBLOR!

Wait! I just realized, I’m on the safe side of the screen in sleepy, fault-free Fresno!

Take 3:

Has the piano lesson officially ended?

Did my student survive?

I’ll find out soon enough if she reschedules.

Oops, I just checked my watch. It’s late. I gotta go to Australia, land of crocs, for my next Skype.

No time to waste if I wanna make a living at this!

Camera fade out….