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The piano learning process at all levels of study

In spite of my having studied piano for decades, each learning experience is filled with challenges that I must approach with a glut of patience. A new composition has its own form, architecture, harmonic rhythm, fingering that requires a big reserve of self-acceptance in a deadline-free frame.

To the contrary, many of my students, who are 95% adults, have a built-in timetable plaguing them from day one. “How long will it take me to learn this piece?” They demand certainty about reaching a tangible goal on a fixed schedule. The End result is what most matters.

Since we live in an information age, strategies of mastery are in vogue along with a mandatory guarantee of knowledge acquisition in so many weeks. “Quick,” “easy-fix” consumption are the Millennium’s catchwords. CD sets are compiled and promoted to learn piano “in a flash.”

***

I have a pupil, who epitomizes the insecure student, searching for a micro-wave cooking equivalent for learning piano.

She’s an accomplished writer and retired lawyer. On more than one occasion she’s confessed to doing “everything well” except for piano. “I just don’t understand why my wrist can’t roll forward, why I stumble, stutter at the piano.”

If she stepped back and thought about how many years she’s been writing and practicing law as compared to playing the piano, she’d acquire instant insight about her personal quandary.

Irina Gorin, inspired piano teacher and author of Tales of A Musical Journey has often said, “We’re not born playing the piano…. we have to learn to physically relate to the instrument.”

That’s why she starts her kids young, using silly putty to dip tiny hands into. They experience “touch” as deep, densely probing, and sinewy, to produce the singing tone, not a poked out, pencil point sequence of notes. Dipping into jello is Gorin’s metaphor, nicely channeled into the keys:

The time old analogy of crawling before walking applies, yet so many adult students, will obsess about how long they have been working on a piece without the advances they expected of themselves.

Yet, if I think about the students who have made the most gains this year, it’s been those who accepted the baby-step paradigm without precondition. They learned to love the journey with its precious awakenings along the way.

Examples:

A pupil is shown working on a section of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” absorbing a sound image before translating it into physical expression at the piano. She practiced separate hands, behind tempo. Call it mindful practicing; attentive listening. They belong together.

***

An adult student embarked upon the Chopin Waltz no. 19 in A minor.

Sight-reading was not a parcel of our work.

It was delving into the fundamental bass, measure by measure in slow tempo.

What was the relationship of one note to the next as each was played? Lean on some, relax others.

“Feel,” “hear” and know at the same time.

Then practice the melody at snail’s pace, but with a singing tone–no delay in contouring. The shapes must seep in from conscious to unconscious.

The student explored wrist motions to curve and shape lines. These poured out of her scale work.

Where an arpeggiated figure appeared, all her caring and conscientious practicing of buoyant broken chords, bristled with relevance.

In graduated steps, the after beat sonorities were separated, and played with a “spongy” feel. We thought of a “lighter” third beat. Not a parade of downbeats.

In time the layering process followed as melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords came together.

As I look back on this step-wise progression and its implications for the musical development of the Waltz, I can say with confidence that the student eventually played it with a wonderful sense of personal mastery and joy bundled together.

Patience and self-acceptance at every stage of the learning process was our paradigm.

If considered a mantra, it becomes a reminder of what teachers and students need to embrace.

LINKS:

How Long Should a Student Stay with a Piece?

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/how-long-should-a-piano-student-stay-with-a-piece/

Quality Spot Practicing by an adult student, “Fur Elise.”

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/quality-spot-practicing-by-an-adult-student-beethovens-fur-elise-video/

The Value of Slow Practicing

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/piano-learning-and-technique-the-value-of-practicing-in-slow-motion-or-behind-tempo/

Out of a Rut with Quality Spot Practicing
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/piano-instruction-out-of-a-rut-with-spot-practicing/

RECOMMENDED READING


Just Being at the Piano
by Mildred Portney Chase

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Piano Lesson: An adult student continues her Beethoven “Fur Elise” learning process (Video)

These are excerpts from today’s lesson where we covered:

1. Broken chord blocking; refreshing inversions of the Tonic as applied to practicing Fur Elise.

2. Voice balancing: fleshing out the treble (soprano) melody, on page 2 (F Major section) Using supple wrist and hand rotation; relaxation of arms.

3. C section–with repeated bass notes, alternating fingers, against, thread of melody woven through chords in the treble.

Paint brush stroke motion for Left Hand repeated note patterns.

Prior adult student lesson-in-progress links to Fur Elise by Beethoven

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/when-the-piano-teacher-is-absent-between-lessons-a-you-tube-video-can-fill-in-the-gap-fur-elise-and-chord-voicing/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/piano-instruction-fur-elise-by-beethoven-video/

OTHER Instruction:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/piano-instruction-fur-elise-by-beethoven-video/

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Piano Technique: Rina turns 5 and plays two-note Legato slurs (slow motion, soundless replays)

The Good News: Rina just celebrated her big FIFTH birthday, and bestowed a lovely portrait of herself draped in a smile over her precious piano. Thank You for the beautifully framed photo!

***

OTHER:

Today, technology failed me once again, but this time I outsmarted the devilish, on/off again iMac movie program.

So what if Yeti Mic decided to go silent for this footage. I could still use the video frames to demonstrate the forward roll, two-note slur of C to D, played in every octave from middle C up and back. (using fingers 1 to 2, beginning with the Right Hand)

Rina and her parents could watch, gaining a physical understanding of what was taught at today’s lesson.

I thought about Anne Sullivan and the challenges she braved teaching Hellen Keller.

By comparison, mentoring in silence, (on replay) would be a breeze.

To begin the editing process, I HIGHLIGHTED frames where I demonstrated the legato slurs, and then tapped SLOW MOTION 50%. A slower rendering would send Rina’s folks and other viewers scampering off for a McDonald’s Big Breakfast.

I then retained a slow motion replay for frames where I guided Rina’s hands and fingers over the keys. (These examples would help mom practice with her daughter during the week)

The first video, however, in real time, added a few additional teaching maneuvers (still giving viewers the silent treatment)

I encouraged Rina to first relax her arms by imagining they were hanging over a clothesline. This mental image seemed to help her let go of elbows, wrists…and any related tension.

You can clearly observe the positive results in this first video.

I also reinforced the rhythmic value of each note, by pointing to a WHITE CARDBOARD CIRCLE on the piano rack. (C and D were each designated as “LONG SOUNDS,” or notes that were to be held for TWO COUNTS each–otherwise known as Half Notes)

The second upload, incorporated the slow motion effect, and eliminated some of the footage from the first video.

As for playing through the slurs in consecutive octaves across the keyboard, Rina tended to anticipate the forward motion on the second note D, impeding a smooth roll where the wrist naturally springs forward–but NOT with a jerk.

To remedy this problem, I will enlist other forms of mental imagery to slow down her entry into D-perhaps invoking the JELLO keyboard model, or molasses, honey, etc.

The lesson continued with Left Hand two-note slur sequences, fingers 1 to 2, C to B, down from middle C and back up. (not featured in the footage)

Earlier in today’s instruction we had practiced rainbow motions for each note of the music alphabet, played in octave spans– alternating fingers of each hand.

Repertoire:

Rina played “Frere Jacques” in C Major/minor–two hands (LH intoning WHOLE NOTES with melody in RH) and displayed good physical coordination.

She effectively produced three echoes in this piece, increasing her dynamic range.

“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” followed, played Right Hand alone in Major, and then minor.

Separately, Rina practiced WHOLE notes on C in the LH, counting through them with me.

During the week mom will play the melody as Rina practices her Whole notes. (WHOLE NOTE HOLD DOWN… or 1-2-3-4)

Then the two partners will reverse parts. (I’m not recommending hands together TWINKLE practice as yet)

***

Rina is moving along at a nice pace, making excellent progress. Her attention span is remarkably improved since she first began piano lessons at age 4. I’m using many ideas that Irina Gorin embraces in her excellent instruction, Tales of a Musical Journey.

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When the piano teacher is absent between lessons, a You Tube video can fill in the gap (Fur Elise and chord voicing)

Lately, students have benefited from receiving supplemental video instruction during the interval between their weekly lessons.

By videotaping parts of their sessions and uploading to You Tube, they can often make their daily practice time more efficient.

Today, for example, I tilted my iMac so it focused on my piano, which is the Steinway upright located beside the grand where an adult student sat.

During the week my pupil will have an up close examination of voicing chords in the C section of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

In the first segment, we worked on the physical means to flesh out a resonating melody through various sonorities. (measures 62-65) Beautiful phrasing and observance of dynamics were integrated into our focused musical exploration.

Part 2, covered measures 66-73. (Right Hand)

This pupil has been studying with me for five years and during that time has made considerable progress. You Tubing as an adjunct to piano instruction has been especially helpful.

Part 1

Part 2