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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

arioso 7, Bach Invention no.1 in C Major BWV 772, Bach Inventions, Berceuse by Chopin, El Cerrito, El Cerrito piano studio, Evgeny Kissin, Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Liszt "La Campanella", piano, piano addict, Piano World, piano world-wide, playing piano, separate hand piano practicing, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, whole body listening, whole body music listening, word press, word press.com, wordpress, you tube video, yout tube, youtube.com

Piano Practicing: The hands alone/hands together debate (Videos)

A lively Linked-in discussion is percolating about ways to practice piano and develop technique. Ardent defenders of a Hands Together approach insist that hands alone playing fits only elementary level students. (Deprecation is noted)

The Hands Together contingent misses the mark.

A solid supporter of ground-up/layered learning, I can draw on my interview with George Li, an accomplished pianist, to corroborate my opinion.

A Snatch

Shirley Kirsten: As of 2012, in the present, what is your daily practicing routine? And can you fill us in on your approach to learning music?

How, for instance, do you warm-up at each session? (scales, arpeggios, 3rds, 10ths, 6ths?) Are there other routines that you might share?

George:” When I practice, I usually go by 1-hour periods. I practice 3-4 hours a day on school days, and 7-8 hours on weekends and holidays. When I work through pieces, I practice slowly in order to thoroughly understand the harmonic phrases and musical details with separate hands as needed.

“I also use dotted rhythms, practice phrase by phrase, and work out different voices separately.”

***
OK so George’s qualifier of “separate hands as needed” indicates that he doesn’t always practice a whole piece hands alone. But further into the interview, he explains how analysis of harmonic progressions factor into his practicing, meaning that his process is conscientiously broken down into various components and dimensions that feed his learning.

What else is new? I would have easily predicted his replies based on the caliber of his artistry.

***

Recently, I received correspondence from two adult piano students expressing interest in how virtuoso pianists such as Lang Lang, Murray Perahia, Evgeny Kissin, and others, practiced pieces in an initial learning phase.

In this regard, I wish I had easy access to a segment on Perahia’s creative process that was aired on German TV. He was separately practicing the Left Hand ostinato (redundant bass pattern) from Chopin’s Berceuse to flesh out its phrasing and shape.

As a substitute for the original footage, I’ve included his performance as a point of reference.

And here’s a snippet of Kissin practicing the Right Hand alone of Liszt’s “La Campanella” prior to a concert.

***
Exploring voices in Baroque music through separate hand practicing.

The Bach Two-Part Inventions: (or three-part Sinfonias) require separate hands playing and exploration.

Such voice parceling is indispensable to understanding the “counterpoint” of the composition, with its weaving, imitating and overlapping parts.

The video amplifies:

In a word, separate-hand practicing should not be diminished in importance, or relegated to beginners. It’s a living, breathing process that fuels the ultimate development of a piece to a high standard of performance at all levels of study.