adult beginner piano students, adult instruction

Piano Student: “I don’t know what I want to hear?”

A commonly registered concern among my brood of adult students circumscribes an uncertainty about phrasing and overall musical expression. Many don’t trust their native musical instincts as they might apply to practicing fledgling pieces that are in early stage development. Yet a good sample of these self-doubters often have a natural inclination to shape lines as an outgrowth of choir experiences, or from vocal interactions with family members during growing up years.

In my particular childhood household, the exposure to poetically exemplary musicians came through a perpetual turntable of 78s that spun around, circulating concertos, operas and choirs through the tiny air space of a one-room flat in the Northeast Bronx. A life draped in recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, Leonid Kogan, Michael Rabin, a Russian Orthodox vocal ensemble, and Jan Peerce, among others, was a constant source of inspiration without educational pretension. Beautifully expressed music was organic to the home environment.

My parents (with no formal musical training) also plucked folkloric vinyl disks from sidewalk sales. I heard the South African duo, Marais and Miranda sing emotionally moving songs with tantalizing lyrics about childhood activities, while Burl Ives and Peter Seeger/The Weavers added to a repertoire of soulful melodies with captivating verses. The street singer, Edith Piaf sobbed through La Vie En Rose with impeccable phrasing and a tremulous vibrato. These artists left deeply embedded emotional impressions upon me from my earliest years.

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If I tapped into my studio of piano students, I know they could retrieve similar memories of songs, instrumental performances of one kind or another that had a pervasive influence on them, inspiring an echo effect, or a contagious affection for tunes in various genres: pop, classical, semi-classical, folk, rock, jazz, etc.

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Drawing upon these early exposures as they apply to the study of piano surely cannot be underestimated.

Yet, there’s always more to consider when examining the ingredients of developing a piece of piano music to a player’s full creative potential.

I realized such complexity in this process when one of my earliest piano teachers failed to mentor me about “how to learn,” despite my abundance of native musical instincts.

While I knew “what I wanted to hear,” I had insufficient knowledge/skills to develop a piece of music from a seedling stage to full blown ripening. At one particular piano lesson, high up in an apartment building on W. 103 and Broadway, my teacher had me copy pages of her fingerings for the Chopin Scherzo in Bb minor in the narrow vestibule of her musty kitchen, while a very advanced student was playing effortlessly though the Chopin Etudes. The disparity in her knowledge as compared to mine was too great to imagine.

And that’s when I broke down and cried at my last lesson, as if I was ready to give up unless rescued by an able mentor who would understand my need to be guided sensitively and with great care to a semblance of graduated independence–to a level where what I wanted to hear could be realized.

This very model of imparting basic musical skills and direction to my own pupils was channeled through life saver, Lillian Freundlich who was the singing tone messiah. She sang over my playing, conducted me with her hands, always responding viscerally to the music. She took me to performances of Richter and Gilels at Carnegie Hall, following the urtext editions, pointing out poetically rendered passages.

What I had innately within me, she was able to draw out and grow to new levels of creative awareness and expression–always in baby steps. It was back to fundamentals to my relief. Her resonating words, “I will teach you how to learn,” was exactly what I needed in my time of despair and frustration.

If I fast forward the clock to the present, I respond to queries that are familiar: “I don’t know what I want to hear.”

It’s then, that I urge my pupils to sing with me, and develop an allied sensitivity to tone production. To create a beautiful sound, one must imagine it at first and then learn to produce fluid physical motions that breathe life into music. (supple wrists, relaxed arms, rotations–these skills must be rehearsed and refined–along with an awareness of the BREATH) Then there’s context given to phrases that involve a harmonic orientation; an attachment of practical and musical fingerings; how to communicate a mood-set; how structural knowledge aids interpretation–voicing, balance, historical period. The list goes on with deep layers of immersion that a teacher should nurture along, acquiring additional insights and epiphanies.

As an example of such a satisfying exploration that incorporated many enumerated ingredients of musical expression, today’s lesson (Debussy Reverie) reassured me that my student felt a bit more confident about what she wanted to hear: Her playing became more expressive during the time we spent together.

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Teens, popular music then and now, Taylor Swift, throw in Five for Fighting “100 Years”

Today was by no means a first for me, a long-haired musician raised on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms teaching a teen some pop tunes by John Ondrasik and Taylor Swift while I sailed through the universe of “Liz on Top of the World” with another student. Videotaping portions of piano lessons was the natural result of these explorations. If nothing else, it had historical value.

I’d been born into the cosmos of popular music, a member of the Rock n’ Roll generation and my big brother Russ, four years older, plugged me into Alan Freed at the Paradise, Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, and the Everly Brothers, among others. The music of this era could be movingly Romantic, especially the ballads. Presley singing, “Love Me Tender,” a tear jerker, and the Penguins crooning “Earth Angel,” a lilting, bittersweet melody, filled with heartfelt emotion.

Melody permeated the most rhythmically driven songs, like “Rock Around the Clock!” And “Little Darlin,'” another ear grabber, drew me instantly into its harmonically engaging universe beside its catchy banjo strumming beat.

Many of these “pop” favorites intermingled with the great Classical works of the piano literature, making me quite a well-rounded listener. It was well before my musical preferences were set in stone. Throw in Peter Seeger, Marais and Miranda, Edie Piaf (“The Street Singer”), Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and all the marvelous musical theater selections from Brigadoon, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, and I was in seventh heaven!

In the late 50’s, Van Cliburn was riding the crest of his victory in Moscow, performing his winning selection, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in Bb minor, a victory that inspired a ticker tape parade down Wall Street. I was in the throes of a full-fledged crush on him. Meanwhile, my teenage peers were exchanging “Kookie, Lend me Your Comb” pics, casting me out of their inner circle. They wanted their real friends to conform, sharing the initiation rite of fainting in the presence of heart-throb, Fabian. Or later, it was the Beatles.

I loved the Beatles, but not in the same way my peers did. “Yesterday” was for me a melancholy, heart stopper. “Hey Jude,” rocked in the Gospel style. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” had the surreal, contemporary sound with amazing, lush, sometimes dissonant sonority. I knew nothing of the LSD connection, and it didn’t matter because my love for the music prevailed. In truth, I tuned out the words of a song in my personal listening experience, but I was amazed me by how my brother and his friends memorized all the lyrics of a particular favorite, regarding words at the focus of their appreciation. I wanted to feel the melodic and harmonic contour to the exclusion of all else.

My brother had also been exploring Classical, Romantic and Expressionist music during his intense Rock ‘n Roll phase. For hours he would blast LPs of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Rimsky Korsakov’s the “Easter Overture,” Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played on our modest phonograph. These works were his obsessions alongside Alan Freed’s rambling radio commentary.

So it was not surprising that I would emerge from my childhood and adolescence with a propensity to love a diverse menu of music that included popular, ballad, folk, symphonic, and anything that communicated a memorable melody and compelling harmonic mosaic.

Flash forward: Today, Allyse, a 16 year old high school junior at Clovis North, practiced “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always” in a slow and steady tempo at my home studio.

She had brought both these favorite pieces to me a few months ago, desperately wanting to learn them. Her older brother, Alex, likewise dropped off “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice which I had to finger and practice in short order.

Both of these endearing piano students were members of the NOW generation, separated from me by decades. Yet despite our age difference, we were on the same page, practicing music that had meaning and evoked emotion. That’s what brought us together.

Roll the video!