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When a piano student is not working up to potential, the meeting and e-mail that are needed…

I was reminded by a reader of my post titled, “When love for the piano dies..” and in that particular writing I focused on situations where certain pressures brought by parents and/or the piano teacher can trigger practicing avoidance, leading to the obvious, piano lesson termination. In these scenarios, mom or dad may live through the successes of their children, and make the process of learning another test driven arena. The child, in particular, just starting a musical adventure, will worry about “wrong notes” that have acquired a negative association, causing her to tighten up to avoid them, when in reality, it’s the opposite– a relaxed flow of energy is needed to play the correct ones on the page. Musical study, otherwise, becomes just another tense universe to prove a child’s worth that leads to a downward spiral, with lots of learning resistance and an eventual sensory turn-off.

This original discussion, however, did not focus upon the student who might not be working at his full potential even within a friendly, nurturing environment, with parents as part of a wholesome support network.

By way of example, in the past year, I’ve had two students in the 9 to 10-year old range who came to lessons without having prepared their assignments during the week, and this was becoming a redundant problem. Each had a bounty of musical talent that wasn’t being realized. The parents were affirmative about lessons, and wanted their children to make progress and enjoy the musical adventure. They were not “stage” parents or particularly judgmental.

It wasn’t a question of repertoire choices because each was excited by pieces drawn from Burgmuller, a wonderful Romantic era composer of colorful character pieces, and William Gillock, who had made quite a name for himself as the modern day master of melody and captivating harmony. His pieces are a wonderful panorama of cultures with something for everyone. I particularly love “Flamenco” which one of my Hispanic students doted upon, though she could have moved forward in her practicing at a better pace. (and I’m not one for hastening the learning process, which flows in increments, but students can sometimes think the piece will be practiced for them exclusively at lessons, and the in-between follow through is not necessary or required)

Let me hone in on the last part of the preceding sentence, because I’m sure many of my colleagues can relate to this particular circumstance.

By way of graphic example, I once wrote the following note to a parent AFTER we had gone over the same points at the lesson with the child present. (the name of the student has been changed for privacy reasons)

“As we discussed at Susan’s piano lesson, a few requirements and suggestions are offered to help your daughter realize her full potential so she can better enjoy the creative process of learning piano.

“Susan is very musically gifted. But as we both know, unless a student practices conscientiously and thoughtfully each day, progress is not made, and interest wanes.

“The first thing is to enlist energy and commitment to playing with an engaging tone which we work on each week in detail. If I filmed each lesson, we would get a glimpse of what we are doing. And in the past I have done this as a reminder and reinforcement of the baby steps needed to nurture along a piece to a level of playing satisfaction. When a student works steadily and carefully, she can ultimately savor the fruits of her labor. That’s our common goal in this collaborative teacher/student learning environment.

“And I’ve made sure to select a lovely piece of music that’s a treat–a nice departure from what’s going on in the method book. Repertoire of this caliber presents unique challenges that are well within your daughter’s reach if she would set aside time each day to explore this newest selection that is just four lines, but packed with beautiful melody and sonority. Susan loved it from the start and now needs to give the piece the caring attention it deserves so it can blossom and grow.

“There’s a rhythm to lessons and we want to establish this soon enough. It requires a slow framing tempo, a “feel” for legato that we work on at each lesson, the patience to find notes on the staff and setting a good fingering.

“We make sure to go over each and every step in the process with our metaphorical magnifying glass so each detail is expanded. Susan seems to engage well at the lesson with this framing, so it should be impetus to send her home to emulate what we have done at her lesson.

“If you could remind her of daily practicing with this mindset, I think we can regain the tempo of learning that will keep her interested in playing piano and looking forward to each new landmark she will reach as she explores the repertoire.

“Susan is very bright and once she sets her mind to a task, she develops a nice connection to it.

“In fact at our last lesson we spent the whole 45 minutes parceling out four lines. But this is the launch for her to continue the fine-tuned practicing at home, with attentive ears, relaxed arms, wrists, and a regular flow of energy. Maybe I’m being redundant so please excuse the re-emphasis.

“Just to remind: the nails are too long to allow the round, relaxed hand position that affords contact with the fleshy part of the fingers. So if Susan could make sure to have them trimmed it would allow the practicing to be more satisfying. She could then more easily find the center of her sound, with a nice settled in point of gravity that promotes the singing tone.

“Because Susan loves her ballet classes, I try to relate the piano to dancing that evokes flowing arms and grace of movement. We try to apply the dance metaphor to piano and your daughter relates well to it.

“For the time being, I am going to assign ONE piece until we get back into rhythm and that will be the Gillock selection along with her five-finger warm-up in E Major and minor (Legato to staccato)

“Note-reading skills should also improve with the daily, parceled approach to practicing that I’m recommending. It will take patience and attentive listening.

“Just 30 minutes a day will suffice as long as quality time is invested. Consistency, by the way is all important. Skipping days, and not practicing sets progress back.

“If you have any questions, feel free to call.”


I’m sure the contents of this note is familiar to many piano teachers, and perhaps it needs to be a reminder of our lesson paradigm even with its variations in studios across the country.

I would love to hear from parents and teachers about their own experience with energizing practicing when the doldrums set in.

Recital scheduling is a motivator, and always helps, particularly having “themes” that embrace various periods of music. But in between these events, we still need to encourage a satisfying practicing equilibrium that moves a student along.

To be sure, the over-scheduling of pupils in after school activities is an impediment we have no control over. That matter would require still another e-mail that might sound a bit too controlling and invasive.

Nevertheless, within the bounds of our teaching universe, we do the best we can to help our students realize their full potential.


Skimming the Surface or Getting Deeply Involved


Frustrated piano teacher-Frustrated student-what to do next?


Out of a Rut with Spot Practicing


In a Piano Teacher’s Arsenal: The Magic Bullet Piece


Piano Lessons, Long Nails, Peer Pressure

From Pop to Bach, a 9-yr old makes it over easy


Individualizing Piano Study: How to Avoid Method Book Dependency

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Piano Instruction: Out of a Rut with Spot Practicing

I’ve discovered a way to advance a piece that’s found itself in the doldrums –held back by the same snags that most students dread and want to avoid. The remedy boils down to spot practicing with a generous serving of patience.

We all remember our teacher’s mantra to separate the hands and play very slowly as the best route to making pianistic progress. For some reason we thought the approach was too pedantic and bogged us down from learning quickly and moving on to the next flavor of the week piece. If our teacher indulged our quick gratification interests, we probably suffered in the long term, not advancing through our assigned selections. They reached a complacent plateau and we moved on.

Many plateau-plagued students return to the piano years later, feeling that something was missing all along. And like a bolt out of the blue, it hits home that they might be ready for a pianistic renaissance that includes slowing down the cosmos, and getting more deeply involved with each composition studied.

One of my adult students who’d taken piano as a child, returned to lessons with a determination to stay with a piece as long as it took to feel like he’d mastered it to his full potential. And if the realization of this goal involved staying with the same selection for months at a time, he was game for it. In fact, he’s been working on the last (Presto) movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for over six months now, picking out the most challenging sections that get him into knots, and patiently unraveling them. He’s making progress. (Later today, I’ll post a video, highlighting phrases we’ve worked on together, and how particular strategies of separating the hands, blocking out chords and using rhythms have helped these along)

I apply this same attitude and approach to my own practicing as I keep revisiting pieces with particular technical challenges. I spot practice where needed and make sure I stay upbeat and positive in these efforts. It’s easy to get discouraged when an isolated phrase or a few measures don’t reach a particular goal on a set deadline, but a “deadline” should be completely banned from the whole undertaking. It’s not a companion to the learning process and will more often than not, stifle it. As the great Artur Rubinstein said to a student in one of his masterclasses, “every piece ripens in its own time.”

(I’ll return with excerpts from the Beethoven Sonata in C# minor, last PRESTO movement with its interminable challenges) In the coming weeks, I’ll also pick pieces at Beginner and Intermediate Levels that have areas of difficulty requiring isolated practice.

For the moment, here are my spot practicing suggestions for pieces needing resuscitation:

1) Isolate the most difficult measures before playing through the whole work. (postpone gratification)

2) Take some long deep breaths and slow yourself down. (Turn off the cell phone and metronome)

3) Practice your selected measures in back tempo with separate hands at an “MF” (medium loud dynamic-getting connected into the keys) I usually recommend starting with the Left Hand since it’s the most under-practiced hand known to mankind. Think of the bass line as equally important as the treble. Flesh it out, and sing it back as if you were in a choir in the bass section. Shape your phrase or phrases with an awareness of the harmonic underpinnings. These will suggest notes that are leaned on and then “resolved.”

4) If you’ve tabbed a section filled with rapid 16th or 32 notes in the treble, play them in the slowest tempo you can imagine, making sure to use a practical fingering. Shape your phrase(s) and play expressively. Think of a thread of melody permeating the many notes played. If there are continuous snags, apply rhythms to your practicing such as the dotted-eighth/sixteenth figure: long-short, long-short, long, etc. My teacher often had me reverse the rhythm as an alternate routine.

5) The last stage of spot practicing is playing hands together VERY SLOWLY, again resisting the temptation to go back to the beginning, playing the entire piece in a haphazard tempo without a second thought.

As for observing dynamics, I consider this part of the refinement process. If you choose to play your difficult passages “pianissimo,” you’re likely to be on the periphery, not being fully connected as you would otherwise be in the remediation process. This is not to say that a student who plays very soft cannot be connected. The best silky soft playing is indeed a connection from the heart and requires a physical depth in the keys that should be explored.

Above all, savor your practice time and make the journey meaningful and personally rewarding.

Before long, you will have integrated the formerly difficult passages into the whole, taking your piece to a new level of enjoyment.