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Trading places with our piano students

As teachers, the empathy we have for a pupil’s budding learning process with its slips and slides, is at the foundation of good mentoring. By remembering what it’s like to be in the student’s position, sitting at the piano under a professional gaze, we can increase our pedagogical effectiveness.

If we revisit our own early student experiences in the riveting capsule of a mentor’s examination, we can extract what worked to improve our playing or what sadly drove a passage further into the ground.

Yesterday, I met Online with a student who prepared her scales beautifully but had a glitch in the Harmonic form (A-sharp minor/Bb minor) It occurred when I’d asked her to replay the peak 16th note rendering to remedy a perceived overcrowding or acceleration in the initial outpouring. In her repetition effort she tightened up and lost more notes than previously, saying “I guess I’m just good for the first effort.”

In truth, she tried a bit too hard the second time, tightening up in her earnest determination to improve the peak speed staccato. It was an approach that had the opposite effect than intended, funneling tension through the arms and wrists that impeded a naturally paced flow of notes.

At this juncture, I found it helpful to personally identify with the same propensity to recycle glitches and how I found a way to unravel them: This was about taking pause, restoring natural respiration, and freeing arms and wrists through mental imagery.

Ultimately, my experience resonated with the student who benefitted by a changed consciousness. (a NONjudgmental approach) In a resumed effort, she acquired presence of mind, regained equilibrium, and created an interval of calmness and contemplation before she rippled through her third repetition.

The scale portion of this student’s lesson continued with the Melodic minor which was on a more even keel. A sensible, relaxed application of spot practicing removed a minor snag in the last two octaves.

This particular pupil, based in Scotland, has made big strides over the past two years in the technical/musical cosmos. Her peak tempo 32nds through scales are quite pleasing as she contours them in a breezy flow. (So nicely revealed in the first video segment.)

In the second portion of the footage embedded below, I worked with another student on body movement in contrary motion scales and arpeggios. In the arpeggio segment, where the student had practiced a different fingering for E Major in 10ths, I didn’t dismiss her choice but rather took the position that we should try both fingerings to see if one or the other could be reliable in triple speed tempo.

An objective examination of fingering allowed for student input, narrowing the distance between mentor and pupil. It precluded an authoritarian model of teaching–where one individual becomes the singular font of knowledge without challenge.

By such an example, we can examine, modify and refine our attitude toward a student so that it maximizes his/her musical growth and development. Periodic self-reviews bundled in empathy will definitely improve our own playing and teaching as well.


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Scales and Arpeggios with videotaped replay

I often think of piano technique as in the same league as sports. Why not? I practically grew up in the bleachers at Ebbets Field watching the Brooklyn Bums battle their adversaries. And not to forget that I was a tomboy who copied everything my big brother did. I even tried to break the Little League sex barrier but valiantly failed. The American Legion registrar said, “No” to any girl turning up for tryouts regardless of ability.

Baseball was for me a choreography, especially on the field as players fluidly danced through nearly impossible plays, sending base runners unwillingly back to the dugout. A line drive was gloved by a super coordinated shortstop who hurled a ball nearly off balance to the first baseman. He gracefully arched his whole body to retrieve an out of range bullet.

Tennis was no less impressive. Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, Aussie masters of classic strokes, brought ballet into full bloom on the court. At an exhibition match in Madison Square Garden, they breezed effortlessly through baseline clinchers, overhead smashes, and impossible backhands. Reaching impossible heights, the two champions darted after balls sailing over their heads with the lithe motions of jaguars.

My sports fixation, which played out on baseball fields and tennis courts, never left me, even as I grew up and shifted my interest to music. In fact, my students realized very quickly that not a lesson would go by without my introducing a sports analogy.

Mark, an adult student, who towered above me at six feet five inches, was on the pro tennis circuit before he had settled down to a law career at the US Attorney’s Office. Normally, we’d spend the first twenty minutes of our session working on scales and arpeggios, covering the span of the entire keyboard, likening it to tennis turf—grass, of course.

We focused on deep breathing, relaxation techniques including mental imagery, surrendering to the moment, letting muscles loose, dropping shoulders, and letting the hands shape themselves into naturally contoured curves. Our goal was to be in the zone, sealed off from the stress and strain of busy, bustling work environments. We were immersed in the here and now accepting ourselves without the burden of judgment.

Inevitably, some of my tennis and baseball metaphors would crop up when least expected.

Wolfgang, a 12 year old student, who was an ace pitcher for his middle school baseball team, fully understood the follow through motion a pitcher needed. It was also part and parcel of the technique that applied directly to the piano. When I demonstrated a wind up to the pitch, he raised his eyebrows. What was the piano teacher attempting to do? Invade the baseball diamond?

Wolfgang knew that without a flexible wrist, the pitcher would be dead on the mound. For a pianist, a stiff wrist spelled a harsh key attack, and a good chance of injury.

The best application of these sports inspired physical principles, was in the arena of scales and arpeggios. Rather than consider them pedantic exercises, I viewed these preliminaries as a way to get “connected” to the instrument. The concept brought a constellation of ideas like dead weight gravity, feeling centered, having hanging arms like a marionette.

“Puppet strings” had always been the best auto suggestion for my students. It caused them to relax, sending tension and worries to the recycle bin.

In the video attached to this writing, I’d demonstrated my personal approach to practicing scales and arpeggios, hoping that the image of a piano teacher’s fingers dancing across the keys would inspire some form of modeling .

If nothing else, the videotaped replay of the arpeggios in slow motion without audio would offer music teachers an additional instructional tool. They might also consider revisiting the piece, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” as the springboard for a trip to the park. Since we had the SF Giants Triple A farm team here in Fresno, (The “Grizzlies”) it was a no brainer to reserve a seat and grab a hot dog once the new season began.

Piano Technique related videos: My Tutorials