August 12th, 2012 :: Recipes for Technique
Remember ear tunes? Those fun folk tunes students listen to, pick out the melodies by ear and then harmonize with their basic I, IV and V chords? You know, like “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” or “Old Joe Clarke,” or the infamous “Hokey Pokey”?
This is exactly the attitude some of my students cop with me any time I mention ear tunes. Like: What is an ear tune? Or: What ear tune? Or my all time favorite: I would have done it, but my mom sold our CD player at the garage sale.
Garage sale season or not, it is like pulling teeth around here. Must be the heat.
That isn’t to say all the kids are resistant to ear tunes. Some would happily pick out their entire assignments by ear if it would save them from having to sight-read. Or play scales. Or practice their Bach prelude with the metronome. Everyone has something they don’t like to do.
But we were talking about ear tunes. (This distracted digression is exactly what the kids hope for when I discover what they haven’t done that week.) The fun doesn’t stop after the ear tune melody can be played and harmonized in the friendly key of C. No, sirree. In fact, the fun (or the torture, depending on your attitude) has just begun.
Of course, it helps if the students have done their “chart.”
The “chart” is simple. It takes, even the most reluctant student admits, about 30 seconds.
This is the chart:
Time signature: (EX: 3/4. OR: 4/4)
Melody range: (For instance: Sol to Sol. OR: Do to La. OR: Sol to Do. Whatever.)
First note: (Choices: Do. Mi. OR: Sol. “C” is not an answer.)
Once the chart is done, the world and its possibilities open.
The next step in the ear tune progression is to determine whether or not the key of C is the best key for the average person singing along to “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” or “Yankee Doodle.” Often, we discover, the good old key of C is not our best bet.
We start with the assumption that the most comfortable singer range is the octave between C and C. If the range of our ear tune is Sol to Sol, we quickly discover that we have a problem. Turns out there’s a reason we need to learn to play the key of F well.
Once we find our way to the key of F, or whatever key best suits our ditty of the day, the assignment possibilities explode:
*We can transpose to not only a singer-friendly key, but other ones as well.
*We can write out the solfege syllables of the tune and the melodic rhythm (if you listen hard, you can hear the kids whine about that one!)
*We can reharmonize with more interesting chords (I introduce non-diatonic chords options here, substituting the predictable C major triad with colorful harmonies like A-flat major or F minor. Kids who might have been bored senseless up until this point, suddenly wake up and take notice.)
*We can construct a two-hand accompaniment sans melody (Ah! A purpose for that chord assignment of roots in LH, chords in RH. Funky rhythms like tango or bossa nova are encouraged if I can sing against them.)
*We can write variations on the old standard, employing not only non-traditional harmonies, but also turning a major tune into a minor one, changing the rhythm, embellishing the tune. Options are limitless. Kids who might have no interest whatsoever in the old composition bowl, often get very into writing variations. I suspect the form of theme and variations provides just enough structure to be comforting, whereas more traditional open-ended composition assignments can seem overwhelming and intimidating to some.
After all this, we are ready, as I often tell students, for any group of preschoolers that come our way. I say this with great enthusiasm. I swear the kids just look at me like I am nuts. One day, I will present them with a group of 4 year-olds and see what happens.
July 29th, 2012 :: Recipes for Technique
It’s been a while.
I started to write another blog post about ear tunes and wacky harmonization options before realizing that, once again, I was jumping over myself. It’s all about the sequencing, I have to remind myself a thousand times again. Successful teaching is all about good sequencing.
And so: back to chords for a moment.
When last we looked at chords, we were following the 3 basic steps of set-up, blocked chords, and accompaniment patterns, presumably in the left hand, and merrily transposing the fun to every major and minor key. All good. But don’t stop there.
Once the same sequence has been established for the right hand, then the world is your oyster. Time to add LH roots and multiply the possibilities.
New chord assignments can look like this:
Roots in LH, chords in RH.
Or to clarify:
RH: I IV I V V7 I
LH: Do Fa Do Sol Sol Do
(I like that octave drop: Sol-Sol-Do. Mimics so many Baroque and Classical cadences.)
And since sequence is god around here the steps look like this:
- Set-up RH
- LH roots: Do-Fa-Do-Sol-Sol(8va lower)-Do
- RH/LH blocked together with pedal
- Patterns: Broken, Waltz, Tango, Bossa Nova, whatever
Of course, this can (and should!) be done in any key. Of course, this can be done in with major and minor harmonies. Of course, the rhythmic accompaniment possibilities are endless. As are the teaching and creative implementations. The world, indeed, is your oyster.
February 5th, 2012 :: Recipes for Technique
Enough about cookies and chocolate, world travels and parties, holidays and feasts. It’s time to talk once again about chords.
It takes time to establish good chord fundamentals. First, there are the months and months of playing 5 Finger Positions. Then we add bridges and set-ups that extend to “La” and “Ti”. Finally, we build the basic I-IV-I-V-V7-I progression, first in blocked chords then later in accompaniment patterns such as Alberti Bass, broken chord, waltz, tango, and so on.
This takes not just weeks, but sometimes years.
I have found there is more motivation for this work if there is evidence of direct application as soon as possible. We all need proof that the practicing we are doing is useful and based in reality, not in some la-la land made up by the more esoteric among us. At least, this seemed to be true for me.
In the beginning, my students make practical use of these chords when working with their Suzuki songs. They play these tunes with both blocked chords and other patterns as applicable, transposing merrily into fun keys like G-flat and B major. It works, as my friend Marge would say, “like a charm.”
But then the day arrives when the kids have completed all the tunes in the first Suzuki book.
Which brings me to the idea of ear tunes. In my studio, “ear tunes” are simple folk tunes that can be harmonized with primary (I,IV or V) chords. Kids pick out the melody by ear in the key of C and then we add harmony: first with blocked chords and then later with more interesting accompaniment patterns. To simplify the process (and to avoid me having to rack my rather empty brain during a student’s lesson for an accessible ear tune), I have recorded several CDs of folk tunes that we frequently refer to. Students can listen to these ditties at home, thereby silencing the argument that they have “no idea” what Old Joe Clark might sound like. This process familiarizes the kids not only these basic American folk tunes, which is a good thing, but also prevents the discussion about what version of On Top of Old Smokey we might be using that day. We are using my version. Period. (I don’t care if they have another equally legitimate version. That’s not the point. The point is that they learn to copy something exactly. Once they prove that they can do that, they are welcome to play any version they want. I can be strangely rigid about these things.)
If you need a romping rendition of Sweet Betsy from Pike, you now know who to call.
Speaking of Sweet Betsy and that ornery Old Joe Clark...
Tunes that can be harmonized with just I and V chords:
Did You Ever See a Lassie?Down in the Valley
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
A Tistket, A Tasket
Hush Little Baby
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Ode to Joy
Skip to My Lou
Sweetly Sings the Donkey
Wheels on the Bus
The Farmer in the Dell
Old Joe Clark
Tunes that can be harmonized with I, IV and V chords:
Home on the Range
On Top of Old Smokey
It’s a Small World
Pop! Goes the Weasel
She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain
December 11th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
It’s been awhile since we thought about chords.Last time I mentioned chords, I suggested that once the traditional I-IV-I-V-V7-I progression was learned, then students could begin to play it with all kinds of accompaniment patterns. But as the year winds down and the last lessons of the semester are before us, I am reminded once again that chord progressions are a great place to learn syncopated pedaling. I have been thinking about this lately, because so many of my little ones are playing simple Christmas arrangements with basic chords. While they have had limited pedaling experience in their normal piano life, a little pedal goes a long way with Silent Night. Just ask them. Even ask the beginning adult student last week who squealed---squealed, I tell you---”You mean I get to use the pedal?!” All this delight over the possibilities of the pedal has led me to introduce pedaling to our chord progressions. “Hands. Foot. Hands. Foot,” we chant as we play chord progressions. My kids are happy to tackle this technique, loving anything that involves the pedal. They love it even more when I then tell them that they can add the pedal to their Christmas carols. Even when it isn’t written in the score. We are breaking the rules right and left around here, rebels that we are. Suddenly, in spite of this season of busyness, the motivation to keep faithful to our piano practicing is stronger than ever.
November 6th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
In spite of what you might be thinking, I haven’t turn my back on the building blocks of good piano technique: the chords, scales and 5 Finger Positions that make up -- if not our lives -- at least our music.
In fact, quite the contrary. Just yesterday Ryan and I were working on note flashcards. We were sitting on the floor, part of my firm conviction that a good piano lesson does not mean sitting on the bench the entire time. Ryan is seven, and smart as a whip. In reply to anything I suggest, he gives me an enthusiastic two-thumbs up. Ryan has had no more than three months of piano lessons and already he's in the running for the top 10 favorite students of all time.
It's hard to resist this:
At some point during almost every lesson, one of the cats will wander through the room. Ryan will stop whatever he is doing, look at the cat and say with conviction, “That cat is adorable,” and the go back to whatever he was doing. I say that kid is adorable.But there we were working on flashcards. He has a handful of cards that he is learning, and every week the pile grows larger. Generally, we do flashcards at the piano: I put a card on the music rack, the student plays the note on the piano (with the correct hand in the correct octave, of course). We time this activity, aiming to get through the stack in under a minute. When the student can do 30 cards in a minute, they graduate from flashcards. Forever. Forever? they often ask me, not believing that this somewhat tiresome chore will be removed from their practicing for good. Forever, I assure them. Forever.Ryan is not at forever yet. He is still new at this, and, as I said before, has enthusiasm in spades. Yesterday we were practicing flashcards away from the piano, with him naming notes instead of playing them. Sometimes this is difficult for young students. It can be even more difficult than playing the notes on the piano unless I remember to rehearse this frequently. “Here’s what we will do,” I told Ryan. “If you get the card right, you get the card. If it is wrong, I get the card. Whoever has the most cards can choose the next thing to do in the lesson.” Saying this, I am absolutely sure he will win, but now he thinks we are playing a game, which is highly enticing. Trust me, I never stop thinking about motivation and how to manipulate it. Sure enough, Ryan falls for it.“I know what I’m going to pick if I win,” he said. “I am going to pick 5 Finger-Positions because I love 5 Finger Positions.” (There are not strong enough italics to emphasize how excited he was about this idea.)Although most of my students are advanced enough that the world of scales, chord progressions and arpeggios is our technical work, I still teach 5 Finger-Positions. I have 101 pedagogical reasons for doing so, and I won’t rehearse the list again. However, add this reason:Kids love them.
79. Do re mi
re mi fa
mi fa sol
sol fa mi
fa mi re
mi re do
June 26th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
By now you may be thinking that I will go to any lengths to avoid teaching scales. You might be forgiven for thinking this, as you have endured at least two years of blog posts describing pre-scale exercises. Heaven help us all.
I actually like teaching scales, I’m just against the notion of doing so before students are good and ready. I often have beginning transfer students who are stumbling through level one or two in a method book, but by golly, they have been taught to play white key scales. Hands together. Good grief.
I always wonder what the hurry towards playing scales is. After all, I----still!!---practice scales, which means that if students begin scales too soon, they are stuck with them forever. It is hard to backtrack and pick up basics that might need attention after students have begun scales. Trust me, I’ve tried, but no one likes the feeling that they are moving backward, and even a small child senses that something is wrong if they are introduced to 5-Finger Positions AFTER playing (however badly) scales. Taking a year or two in the beginning to ensure that students are comfortable with all major and minor 5-Finger Positions and simple chord progressions and the combination of the two seems to me a smart idea. There is plenty of time later for scales of all shapes and colors.
If you postpone scales a bit, they become a celebration of sorts. Indeed the day will come when I have exhausted my pre-scale exercises and it is time to face the music. After working through thumb crossings, spider fingers and mastering our sharp and flat codes (“That ‘Monkey Slobber’ thing”) we begin scales. Slowly.
Much to my students’ chagrin, I have as many strategies for practicing scales as I do 5-Finger Positions. No one can complain of boredom around here. We begin with the white key set that shares the same fingering: C Major, G Major, D Major, A Major and E Major. I teach one octave hands alone, students go home thinking that this advancement to scales is tangible proof that they have joined the big leagues. Which, I assure them, they have.
We start with no specific instructions other than to play hands alone up and down: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do Ti La Sol Fa Mi Re Do. Students are generally so excited about this whole thing that I don’t have to tell them how many times to practice each scale, because I’m pretty convinced they play them ad nauseam at home. This enthusiasm will not last, but I enjoy it while I’ve got it.
“Can I do both hands?” the kids inevitably beg me. “Nope,” I tell them, knowing that this is the oldest reverse psychology trick in the book. I actually would like them to refrain from both hands for some weeks, but the kids never do. Those damn hands together one octave scales are way too tempting.
They are like candy, only good for you.
May 8th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
My students are busy getting ready for festivals. One of the most rigorous events around here requires technique work as well as three contrasting pieces. Exactly what that technique work might consist of is up to the teacher, but students must be prepared to play some sort of technical exercise in the key of each of their three pieces.
I think this is great, because it allows me to use a third party to enforce careful technique practice. (“I know this is hard, but the judge is going to ask for it and it is part of your score, so you need to be ready....”) Anything sentence that begins with “The judge” gets their attention, and I milk it for all its worth.
For my students, their prepared technique consists of 5 Finger Positions or Scales, chord progressions with set-ups, and Arpeggios---either traditional arpeggios or what I call “Cartwheels” or “Cross-over Arpeggios.”
Piano “Cartwheels” work like this:
Playing either broken chords or blocked chords, students play Do-Mi-Sol patterns alternating the LH and then the RH, topping off the whole sequence with a cross-over LH “Do” and then coming back down to the original position. I teach these in simple two-octave patterns with the added cherry of the top Do---LH, RH, top Do---or in four octave patterns--LH, RH, LH, RH and then top Do and reverse. We do blocked chords and broken, major and minor. For the most part, students like these exercises---they love any drill that allows them dramatically lurch up and down the keyboard.
Cross-over Arpeggios or Cartwheels have been around forever in my studio. But one day, Sam came in with a composition entitled “Monkeys” that used a variation on these exercises. Always looking for new patterns to use for technique work, I asked him I could steal his idea. He, of course, was thrilled (They always are, loving the concept that their inventions might be worthy to be used with other students.). We have named these patterns “Sam’s Monkeys.”
77. LH: broken Do Mi Sol then RH: blocked Do Mi Sol
78. RH broken: Sol Mi Do then LH blocked: Do Mi Sol
These, of course, can be done in either major or minor keys, and are a great preparation step for the trickier traditional Cartwheels or Cross-over Arpeggios.
February 13th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves. It’s far too tempting to jump joyfully into the new and forget what we already know. What with all these novel pre-scale exercises and chord progressions, it’s altogether too easy to ignore those old familiar 5-Finger Positions completely. About the time students think they have escaped the pentachord world entirely, I start circling back, spiraling over old territory.
Of course, it’s good to have a new twist.
Think of these as 5-Finger Positions with a twist of lime. Or lemon. And just to hide the fact that these really are just those same old positions, now we call them “Set-ups.” It’s amazing how easily students fall for this whole re-naming scheme.
But it isn’t all old stuff with new names, for we are moving into a more thorough knowledge and understanding of major positions and keys, which, coupled with our flat and sharp codes and good solid pre-scale and chord exercises, is all part of the grand plan. The new “Set-ups” do indeed set us up nicely for adding to our original basic I-V-I chord progressions, which gives us a whole new palette of interesting colors and harmonies to play with. At the same time, I can make darn sure students haven’t forgotten their positions, which was my aim in the first place.
Set-ups work like this:
I usually start with the LH, as my students begin their chord work here. The LH plays a simple--Do Re-Mi-Fa-Sol pattern, and then the thumb moves up a whole step to play the La. Then we circle around to catch the half-step underneath Do with the 5th finger and play the Ti. The 5th finger then jumps back to end on Do. And so we get the full 7 notes of the major scale, albeit not exactly in scale-like formation. Nevertheless there is a rather satisfying completion to the whole exercise. Students get introduced to La and Ti, something that the more curious ones have been wondering about for awhile. They still have to play those 5-Finger Positions, which makes me happy, and now we have notes and labels to use when expanding our chord progression. It’s all good.
And so, suddenly our options for chords explode. My early chord assignments usually look something like this:
2. Blocked chords: I-V-I
3. Play chords in.....( Alberti Bass, Broken, Waltz)
Students draw a key from my bowl of poker chips, which are each labeled with a different note. (Some of the kids are convinced I am out to get them, and have removed the “C” chip and added five B-flats, but that is simply not true. There is one C, and one B-flat. Of course, there is also an A-sharp, which does double the chances of getting the “devil position” as they like to call it. I didn’t say the chips were key signatures, just note names.)
The chips they draw are the keys for the week. After a week or two of getting familiar with the whole Set-up thing, I add the V7 chord, making the progression: I-V-V7-I, and then after a few weeks add in the IV chord so we end up with: I-IV-I-V-V7-I--starting with the I-chord in root position and the others in the obvious inversions familiar to every pianist alive and breathing. (Starting this chord progression on the first or second inversion of the I-chord is subject for another day. A day WAY in the future.)
And then the fun begins. The third step to the exercise is to play the chords in patterns---Alberti Bass, Broken, or Waltz. Much, MUCH later we explore tangos, bossa novas and other catchy dance rhythms. (Last fall, one of my little students competing in a piano competition chose to spend his allotted warm-up minutes playing a 2-hand chord progression in various keys--roots in the LH, chords in the RH--using a Bossa Nova rhythm. You should have seen the judges’ heads jerk up in response to hearing this unconventional chord sequence. It was worth the price of admission right there. That the kid then won his level was icing on the cake.) Students often have the same accompaniment pattern for weeks, even months, until it becomes second nature to them. I want these accompaniment patterns to be learned so thoroughly that they never have to think about them again, making our lives much easier when we find them in our sonatinas and early classical ditties.
January 23rd, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
There is nothing like a long, long holiday to clean out your ears and open your eyes. (...now the ears of my ears awake, now the eyes of my eyes are opened...goes a favorite e.e.cummings poem.) Due to the gods of scheduling, this winter holiday was my longest teaching break ever. Even when the three and a half weeks still stretched deliciously before me, I knew it would go by in a flash. And it did.
But even so, it was long enough for me to feel refreshed and ready to return to my daily slate of students. Although I thought little about teaching over the holiday, still my mind must have been working sub-consciously. Because in returning I found myself listening closer, thinking more creatively, and generally teaching better.
My kids were equally refreshed, well-practiced and prepared after nearly a month off, (“You do realize, don’t you,” my husband asks me, “that your students are kinda nerdy. Who practices over winter break?” My students do, thank you very much. This is is why we get along so well, and why my husband isn’t a pianist. His practice habits always did leave a lot to be desired.) The kids were eager to show me what they had learned and beyond ready to put away those Christmas tunes and arrangements, holiday scales and sight-reading until next year. They will be just as excited to see these things appear next November, but limiting our Christmas merrymaking to a few weeks does add to the anticipation. Which only serves to remind me why it isn’t a good idea to leave one’s Christmas tree up until Valentine’s Day, no matter how lovely it might be.
Clearly, the break was good for us all. But there is something about a new year that makes me recommitted to reinforcing the basics, the foundations of good music-making and technique. After a little time off, I can return to nagging about posture and hand posture instead of wearily looking the other way. I am happy to dial things back to the basic level of melody and accompaniment, and of rhythm, movement and musical gesture, instead of getting so caught up in seeing the forest that I overlook the individual trees. This reorganization of priorities is a welcomed shift for it reminds me not to bypass the simple foundational things in my quest for the grand lofty idea.
Take yesterday, for example. I was teaching an adult student, Susan, who is a mid-to-upper intermediate player. After many different teachers and inconsistent lessons for many decades, there are lots of technical holes to fill in Susan’s skill set. Yesterday we were talking about scales, something she had done in the past and knew how to play on an intuitive level, but had very little grasp of on an intellectual level. As is my habit at the moment, I started at the beginning: scaling things back, working slowly, and teaching pre-scale exercises. For once, I resisted the temptation to let her jump in and race through multiple octave scales, something she otherwise might happily have done. Instead of playing actual “real live” scales (as my little kids call them), we did thumb-crossing exercises.
I learned these from Jane Allen, who was well respected for her ability to teach fast fluid technique. Her students had chops, or so the story went. I got my undergraduate degree with Ms. Allen, suffering through every scale exercise known to humanity under her stern and unforgiving gaze. Although by the time I began studying with her I had been playing scales effortlessly for years, in our first lesson together she started me on the old thumb-crossing exercises.
They work like this:
Working hands separately (always a good idea when isolating a technical skill), place your thumb on D. Crossing over your thumb using fingers 1 and 2, play D-E-D-C (1-2-1-2) repeating the pattern four times. Then substituting finger 3 for the second finger, repeat the pattern on the same notes 1-3-1-3, then substitute finger 4 and play 1-4-1-4, and then finger 5: 1-5-1-5, staying on the same pattern of D-E-D-C throughout the exercise. Repeat using other hand. As a variation, do entire exercise using same finger sets with thumb on D, but using C-sharp and E-flat instead of C and E. White/black note-crossings crop up all the time in music, so this combination should be addressed too, but this is actually easier in some respects, because the finger crossing over the thumb doesn’t have as far to go.
With beginning students who have lived in the stable 5-finger position world their entire piano careers, this thumb crossing exercise can be tricky to negotiate at first, especially when using fingers 4 and 5. (Admittedly, finger 5 is just wacky, as crossing 5 over the thumb is never necessary in scales, but I teach it anyway. It doesn’t hurt anyone to fumble through this, and it certainly reinforces the general concept of the exercise to do it with every finger.) Although Susan is an experienced player, yesterday I discovered that this exercise was as challenging for her as it might be for less advanced pianists. Turns out she doesn’t have such fluid thumb crossing technique even after years of playing scales. Which only goes to prove that Jane Allen knew what she was doing after all, teaching this exercise to every student regardless of their previous scale experience. That Ms. Allen was a smart cookie.
October 17th, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
I am teaching key signatures. About the time students begin working with chords, I start heading us in the direction of scales. Soon the technique path will split in two. Instead of everything circling around the old 5-Finger Positions, students will have scales AND chords. "I have to do both?" one kid said to me in disgust just this week. "Yep," I responded. "Welcome to the big leagues."
But before scales comes learning key signatures. After many years, I have this sequence down to a science. It begins with students writing their own mnemonic devices for remembering the sharps and flats. I am a big fan of mnemonic devices. The only way I learned to spell Massachusetts in 4th grade was to create this clever device: Matt Adams Sucked Suckers At Church Helping Uncle Sam Eat Tootsie Tots Sunday. (My Matt finds this quirk of mine to be one of my most charming characteristics, but he does frequently ask me what "tootsie tots" might be. And who, he must wonder, is Matt Adams?) As a kid learning the sharps, I was taught the politically incorrect Fat Country Girls Dance At Every Ball, which did it's job, but did from time to time make me ask why, with all that dancing, were the country girls still fat?
My students write their own mnemonic devices, avoiding the fat country girls entirely. We call them "codes", thereby giving the whole learning process a certain air of mystery. Their codes are either random or brilliant depending on the child:
Five Chickens Get Deli After Every Ballet
Freddy Can Get Donuts After Every Birthday
Big Elephants Attack Dumb Guys Called Fred
Big Elephants Are Digging Ground Carefully, Fortunately
(Have to love that added-on adverb on the end of that last one. This child's mother is a poet, you can tell.)
My all time favorite sharp code came from Jonie: Friendly Country Gorillas Drool At Every Banana. I like this one so much in fact, that it is my default sharp code when I am teaching older or adult students. One day, I was working with a teenager. I asked Samantha, "how many sharps are there in the key of E?" She looked at me impatiently and said, "It's that monkey slobber thing, isn't it?"
Along with learning key signatures comes spider fingers, a scale preparatory exercise I learned from Jean Stackhouse. This is designed to get kids more comfortable with thumb and finger crossings. It goes like this:
Beginning on middle D, RH will "walk up" the piano to the very highest key (Kids love this. How often do they get to play the very top key?), and then coming back down return to the starting middle D. LH does the same walking down the piano to the very lowest key and back to starting note. The intention is that the sequence is played very legato because, as I remind students, spiders don't jump, they crawl.
Spider finger combinations:
I don't worry a lot about rather the notes are played rhythmically or even, the idea is that students work through the challenge of figuring out how to do these finger crossings. That may mean some halted and staggering spiders to be sure, especially with the last two finger combinations, but that's OK. There will be time for perfecting even scales when we get to the actual real things.
September 19th, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
Just ask my husband, I have been a bit distracted this summer.
What with the broken leg and all, it has been difficult to concentrate. But now, I'm fully back, all cylinders are functioning normally, spinning frantically at their regular hysterical pace.
Which means, I can now finally get back to chords.
My students LOVE playing chords. They consider this skill to be a badge of honor that somehow demonstrates that they are, in fact, real pianists. Real pianists, after all, play chords. They even say the word "chords" with awe in their voices.
Or at least my youngest students do. My mid-high kids are so over chords, just ask them. In fact, they are so over everything. They are too cool for school. This group of students is huge this year, and they may be my undoing yet if I don't keep reminding myself that they can't help it. They are too old for games and silliness, and too young for their own awkwardly growing shapes and selves. There is nothing harder than being a 6th grader. I have to keep telling myself this when I watch a former adorable child quickly turn into a difficult unruly monster right before my very eyes.
But I was talking about chords, not mid-high students, as fascinating a subject as that might very well be. It is so easy to get distracted these days.
After the first variations working with easy bridges, I work to construct the three-note chord, initially using only the I-chord
. Young students will sometimes find it easier to play a broken chord than a blocked one, so we learn that a major chord is built by playing Do-Mi-Sol. Students love this next variation because it makes their sound big and expansive. If students can reach the pedal, this is a good time to introduce pedaling because the pedal changes don’t happen quickly. Simply clear the pedal with every chord change. I first teach this variation with broken chord patterns and then with blocked chords, listening for the three notes to sound simultaneously.
68. Do Mi Sol
Alternate broken pattern LH, RH, LH, RH crossing over hands for a total of four octaves, and then reverse:
starting with RH come down (Sol-Mi-Do), ending at starting position.
69. Same as above only playing blocked chords instead of broken.
Returning to the previous I-V-I progression, we can now add the full I-chords into the progression, leaving the V-bridges for now. After students are comfortable with this step, I add the entire V-chord. This chord is played in 1st inversion of course, but students don't need to be bothered with this detail. Although I do name chords---I-chord or V-chord--at this point, this isn't as much theory work as simply labeling. (In fact, one tiny student called the I-chord a "star" and the V-chord a "moon" for some time before learning the correct names. This didn't bother me one bit as long as she could correctly identify them. She could, perfectly, whereas I often forgot which one was which under this labeling system!!) When adding the middle note of the V-chord, we discover that the third finger moves down a whole step, and remind ourselves that the fifth finger moves down a half-step. (Stick with LH at first. This is logical because chords are most often in the LH for young beginners.) This identification of whole and half steps is, in fact, good old theory, which gets us points. (My students and I love points, although the mid-high kids are on to me. "What do the points get us anyway?" one smart kid asked me just yesterday. "Nothing," I said.)
After working with the I-V-I chord progression in all major keys (don't confuse things by throwing minor into the mix too soon), we can start being creative with our patterns. The next variations can be played using bridges of the I and V chords, or the chords themselves. Watch students carefully for tension when playing chord patterns. I emphasize not only hand position, but also careful listening when doing chord exercises. Listen for all notes of the chords (often times one or more notes do not sound clearly at the beginning), and that the notes sound exactly together so that we do not have uninvited rolled chords.
70. RH plays: Do ---Sol---Do, while LH plays: I---V---I
71. RH plays: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do, while LH plays: I---V---I,
changing chords on the Do--Sol--Do notes of the RH
August 1st, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
After dozens and dozens of 5-Finger Positions, it is time to move on. Teachers often ask me how long I teach 5-Finger Positions, but there is no real answer. Some days it seems like forever, and I think a student will never graduate to chords and scales. Other students rip through these quickly, and after a few months are ready for more challenging technique work. It just depends on the student, the age, the rate of progress. Certainly, my average younger student often lives in the 5-Finger world for a year or more, making the arrival of scales and chords something to celebrate.
Although these posts
have provided ideas for various patterns and ways of approaching 5-Finger Positions, this is hardly an exhaustive list. When I need more patterns, I dig through various technique books sitting on my shelf, or other creative resources for beginners. I especially like little pentachord songs with good lyrics that can be transposed into a 5-Finger pattern, giving our solfege a much needed break for a week or two. Even then, however, I often write out the patterns using both solfege and the lyrics, keeping with the concept that the students never actually see a printed score for their technique work.
Eventually, however there comes a day when I introduce chords. I always start with "bridges" of the basic I and V chords----Do/Sol for the I chord, and Ti/Sol for the V chord. We talk about whole steps and half steps, and quickly discover that although the beloved C position is all white notes for the bridges, the equally loved G position needs that tricky F-sharp for the V bridge. I tell students the right hand can take the week off, and we concentrate on bridges for the left hand the first week. Little ones are particularly excited about the idea that the right hand gets a "vacation" from positions. If the foundation of all major 5-Finger Positions is well established, kids do fine learning bridges in all keys that first week. This, in fact, is often so easy that I am tempted to go ahead and teach the whole I and V chord, but I have learned to curb that urge. Better that students---whatever age or level---have complete success in a new concept rather than compromising our learning with too many new things. Think like a video game, I remind myself. Kids like video games because they provide the perfect combination of challenge, novelty and opportunity for success at every level. If I can coax progress along at just the right pace, real live chords in a week or two are a simple matter.
67. LH Bridges: I-V-I (Do/Sol---Ti/Sol---Do/Sol)
Bridges are a great time to really focus on space under the hand. After all, kids understand that bridges need to be tall and strong. A collapsed bridge is no good.
June 27th, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
I believe that the development of critical listening and body awareness skills are as crucial for good technique as fast fingers are. Since musicians of all ages and abilities can only play what they hear, I wonder if the greatest technical skill we teach isn’t critical listening skills. We constantly must ask our students questions to help them focus their listening: What do you hear? Are the notes sounding exactly together? Are the hands producing the same kinds of sounds and articulations? Is one hand louder or softer than the other? And then we must ask the follow-up questions: How can we adjust that? Change the sound? Sharpen the articulations? Correct the balance? A great deal has been written about how to play the piano, outlining details regarding the instrument’s mechanisms and the physiology of the movements required to produce good sound and technique. But even with my advanced training and understanding, my eyes often glaze over at such discussions. In my mind the important questions are: What do you hear? Do you like it? How can you fix it?
While scholarly discourses have their place, the truth is every body is different and the physical gestures that may be comfortable for one player may not work for another. Glenn Gould’s low-slung posture would kill my back, but I envy the sound he produced. In my own teaching, I encourage students to listen to their bodies, to observe tension and stress, and to make adjustments accordingly. When it comes to hand position, I look to help construct a hand position that is strong and firm and makes sense to each individual’s physiology, rather than prescribing my movements and gestures for every student. I watch for wrists that are neither too high nor too low, and fingers that do not collapse at the joints. I teach students to find space under their hands: “Can you fill up a hot-air balloon under your hand?” I heard one smart teacher ask her students. I challenge students to sense where they are in space: to sit ever taller and wider and check to see where they are holding their feet.
Of course, this approach demands a great deal from a teacher. I can’t listen hard enough or carefully enough—both to my own playing and to the playing of my students. If I am to guide them to sharper listening skills, then I have to hear everything myself. Additionally, I can’t expose myself to enough body awareness and movement techniques. These days my yoga practice regularly reminds me how my body moves, and what bad habits I carry with me. Every class, my yoga teacher reminds me to really straighten my arms, lengthen my back, and to keep following my breath. It doesn't seem to matter how long I practice yoga, or how many classes I have attended over the years, I still need these reminders. My students are no different. Our lazy American culture doesn't affirm good posture or much body awareness. We all need gentle (and perhaps not so gentle) reminders to pay attention.
I don’t have the definitive answers for precisely how each technique should be accomplished at the piano, but when reading (often conflicting!) discourses on physical movements, over and over again I find myself thinking, Why, that isn’t my experience at all. So instead of imposing a uniform set of physical gestures on all my students, I encourage students of all ages to discover their own experiences and their own set of physical sensations at the keyboard. Ultimately, I think piano technique is not a standardized or unified set of movements at the keyboard, but rather that the combination of good critical listening skills and attention to the body informs our technique.
Much to my surprise and delight, requiring more from students’ listening skills and making them own and develop their physical gestures creates wonderfully diverse and individual playing. In the end, I do not want to foster generically good piano technique, but to draw out each student’s personality and character. Little seven year-old Lucy should sound exactly like Lucy, while 47 year-old Camille should sound, not like every other adult beginner, but specifically like herself.
Technique practice can provide the space to ask critical questions of listening and body awareness. What kind of sound are we making? What kind of sound do we want? Are the hands curved? Do the finger joints collapse? Where is your head in relationship to your neck? Is it tilted to one side or bent over forward? Are we holding tension in our legs? If we don’t like what we hear, how can we adjust?
Earlier we introduced the idea of playing the intervals of a third in a variation, but playing the intervals together requires more careful listening and attention. The next variations are much easier if students play the thirds staccato, listening that the two notes sound exactly together. As Chopin's etude in thirds reminds us, the fine motor skills necessary to play third patterns legato are much more advanced, and done without great care could contribute to hand and wrist problems. I assume that legato thirds are primarily suitable for more mature or developed hands and minds, and even then I teach them cautiously. Watch for those shoulders that can creep up to our ears without our awareness in these two variations. By now students should be able to move freely between major and minor keys, so take your pick.
This is simply thirds marching up the pattern and back down. Slow is good.
66. Do/Mi--Re/Fa--Mi/Sol (Repeat)
I like repeating each half of the pattern, as indicated.
This forces one to get out of the keys a bit to reset the next pattern, which helps release built-up tension and works against getting "stuck" or tight.
April 18th, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
I have long maintained that technique work does not merely foster physical coordination; it also encourages mental gymnastics. The more challenging the exercise, the more it seems to stretch brain muscles into new places and shapes. This mental engagement and challenge will certainly improve our playing, for it builds new connections among different parts of our brains. I tell my students over and over again that our job when practicing is to take the things we think we know so well—those 5-Finger Positions, chord progressions, and scales—and turn them upside down, inside out, shake them vigorously and rattle their cages. Only then can we claim to really know them.
All following variations require students to split their focus and do something different with each hand, a skill that is absolutely crucial to layering sounds, articulations, and voices, not to mention just playing the piano in general. I have found that the first pair of brainteasers comes together more quickly if we make lists of words and phrases to describe each hand. One hand is heavy like an elephant, the other light as a feather. One hand stomps loudly, the other tip-toes softly, and so on. Here is a place where language informs technique. These exercises do not just scramble the brain; we can employ them to think artistically as well.
I often have to assign the next examples repeatedly over a period of time before students can voice their hands differently. I have learned the hard way that these examples can't be assigned in the same week. It helps to start with "ghosting": asking one hand to mime silently on the keys, while the other hand plays forte, but even so, most students need to concentrate on ghosting a single hand before trying to switch to the other. And typically, if your students are anything like mine, they will whine about this one, "Miss Amy! This is soooooo hard!" Assume that these exercises are going inspire great drama and wailing and gnashing of teeth. But after they have mastered the ghosting with one hand while playing forte with the other, then try assigning piano against the forte. But beware: this is also rarely mastered the first time around and will inspire more whining. This skill of controlling a different dynamic in each hand has to be circled back to again and again as students progress.
59. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play LH forte, RH ghost
60. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play RH forte, LH ghost
61. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play RH piano, LH forte
62. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play LH piano, RH forte
The next two variations really test how well students know the patterns in each position. I find it helps to identify “markers.” For example, in the first exercise, which sets up the positions a fifth apart, the thumbs both play the same note, regardless of how far apart the hands are spaced. As students move up by half-step through the keys, I urge them to move first the left hand and then match the right hand thumb to the left hand thumb. Likewise, in the second example, the fifth fingers match and can be used as a marker through the progression of the keys. If students need more challenge, you can assign various articulations and dynamics to each hand. Of course, all of these can be done in either major or minor positions.
63. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
RH begins in G major; LH begins in C major
64. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
RH begins in F major; LH begins in C major
January 17th, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
There is a joke about a man who goes into a tailor and tries on a suit. It is lovely suit, but it doesn't fit exactly right. The man points out to the tailor that the pant legs are too long, to which the tailor responds, "But it will be fine, as long as you hold your knees like this," and demonstrates an awkward position of the thighs. Then the man suggests that the right shoulder doesn't hang in the correct place, but the tailor interrupts saying that it will be perfect if the man would just shrug his shoulder up to his ear. "See! Now it works!" the tailor exclaims. Finally, the man nervously hints that perhaps the left sleeve is too short only to be told that it would be ideal as long as the man pulls the sleeve down with his hand. Intimidated, the man buys the suit and leaves the shop, trying to maintain the funny affected posture necessary for the suit to fit well. Two women pass him on the sidewalk and one says, "Look at that poor crippled man." The other woman responds, "Yes, but what a beautiful suit!"
I fear that most books written about piano technique have this effect on me. By the time I have obeyed all the suggestions about my posture, where my elbows should hang in relationship to my shoulders, and what level my wrists should be, I end up feeling much like the man in the suit. The suit may look perfect, but I feel crippled and affected. There's a dissertation waiting to be written about the inherent problems with trying to write a one-size-fits-all approach to the keyboard, but I'm not taking on that sacred cow today. But this kind of thinking is a narrow view of what encompasses piano technique, for it can and should be more than just the mechanics of our work. Besides, as evidence of the amount of sheer verbiage out there on the subject, no two people can agree upon that anyway. A more holistic definition of good technique would be one that includes a pianist's authority over the geography of the keyboard itself and knowledge of every major and minor position. With specific work, one can "know" what B-flat major or F-sharp minor feels like, and become friendly with the hand shapes for every possible key signature and chord. Of course, this is exactly the purpose of all those piano proficiency and functional harmony classes required by most music majors. Ironically, the worst students in these classes are often the pianists, so ill-equipped as they often are to think about technique is such a basic and organic way.
In the end, this is why I bother with these posts , and why I have spent so much time developing a repertoire of patterns, because I am convinced that the more resources we have for creative ways to do this, the more easily we can concentrate on being physically relaxed during the warming-up process. Which, if you think about it, is the point of all those technique treaties in the first place. And while there are dozens of good, solid books of exercises out there waiting to be bought at our local music stores, I have come to believe that the kind of technique work that involves learning geography and hand shape is most effectively done using rote positions. While you and I may know that the written exercises we find in technique books are based on major and minor keys, somehow the black notes on the page distract most students from that basic truth. Furthermore, from a purely ergonomic point of view, there is no denying that a certain level of tension and strain creeps in any time our eyes, neck and head are reaching up towards the notes on the music rack. However we come down on the technique argument, I think we can all agree that this is the ill-fitting suit we are looking to avoid at all costs. There is something profound about teaching students that you don't have to always open up a music book in order to do good work at the piano, especially in the face of a musical tradition that has become almost completely dependent upon the written score. I want to encourage students to own their knowledge of the piano keyboard as much as possible, and that music isn't just something written on a page, but something we can design and create based on the patterns, shapes and sounds that we discover and learn.
Here are a few more patterns to get your brain and fingers moving on one of these chilly winter mornings. I first learned a version of these finger-independence exercises from Jane Allen, and since then have run across endless variations on that theme along the way. I always teach these exercises in this order---holding first Do, and then Sol and proceeding from there. It is easier to hold down one end of the hand and anchor, than to hold down an interior finger and jump around the held note. I suggest doing these hands alone so one hand can't "cover" for the other, perhaps weaker, hand.
53. Hold Do and play forte and staccato:
Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
54. Hold Sol and play forte and staccato:
Do Re Mi Fa Mi Re Do
55. Hold Re and play forte and staccato:
Do Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Do
56. Hold Mi and play forte and staccato:
Do Re Fa Sol Fa Re Do
57. Hold Fa and play forte and staccato:
Do Re Mi Sol Mi Re Do
58. Hold Do and Sol and play forte and staccato:
Re Mi Fa Mi Re
November 29th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I am tired of 5-Finger Positions. I am also tired of doing supported half-moon pose using the wall and downward-facing dog while hanging in ropes. I want acrobatics and fancy techniques, both in my teaching and in my yoga practice. I want to be doing headstands, not working on my alignment in more basic poses. It's easy to grow impatient with teaching major and minor 5-Finger Positions when it seems more fun to work on challenging Czerny Etudes and harmonic minor scales in 3rd and 6ths.
Although everything in our society of immediate gratification rebels against this, it's risky to move too fast and be sloppy at the expense of good, thorough work. The secure knowledge of being able to play in all keys easily with a variety of patterns and techniques is too valuable and important to be hurried. It's altogether too attractive to jump into scales, but I've learned that rushing into poses on the yoga mat only gets me into trouble. I'm not sure that it isn't the same on the piano bench.
There's a trend in the food world called the Slow Food Movement. Proponents of this movement advocate dining with intention, embracing locally grown foods, and participating in a more ritualized and leisurely way of cooking and eating than our fast-food nation usually enjoys. This philosophy has led to offshoots in all kinds of areas. I love this idea, however contrary it is to my human nature to slow down. I suspect it would do me some good to adopt a "Slow Piano" attitude, especially when I am tempted to teach harder music or trickier techniques than any of us are ready for, just keep up with some faceless ideal of what "serious" piano teaching looks like.
If anything, a close look at our profession suggests quite the opposite of any Slow Movement. Even a cursory glance at most competitions reveals that younger and younger students are taking on harder and harder repertoire. While I move quite fast by nature, I have never been able to buy into the idea that an 8-year-old should be playing Liebestraume or tackling Bach Preludes and Fugues. "What's the hurry?" I often mutter to myself when faced with daunting repertoire lists. There is no guarantee that moving quickly into difficult music at a young age will lead to a career in music. In fact, too often the opposite occurs: after years of the pressures of competitions students burn out, and quit music lessons during high school. What's even more disturbing is the evidence that in spite of learning challenging, impressive repertoire, these same student lack basic musical skills, and have little ability to learn music independently. Are we training monkeys or are we nurturing lifelong musicians?
Of course, this endless striving and competing isn't limited to the piano world. Pre-schoolers are taught Mandarin to quiet parents anxieties that their children won't be able to keep up in today's global world. Red-shirting to improve the odds in sports has become fairly common among parents of kindergartners. For all the ways that the United States lags behind in education, there is an atmosphere of fearful reaching all around us.
There is plenty of time to teach Liszt, I remind myself when working with a talented child. As pianists, we have such a wealth of repertoire at all levels, we don't have to be in a hurry to take on the most difficult masterpieces of our instrument. Looking around at my professional colleagues, most of them claim not to have been particularly precocious at their instruments as children. They weren't necessarily on the competition circuit at a young age, and many talk of childhoods juggling many equally compelling activities and passions. This is good to remember, that in a time when we didn't need Slow Movements to force us to stop and be present in the moment, plenty of talented musicians emerged to become esteemed teachers and inspiring performers.
My yoga teacher reminds me that there are always multiple benefits for any single pose ranging from strength to flexibility, balance to focus. You don't have to master every aspect of a pose in order to receive the benefits, he tells me. Sometimes an abbreviated version of a difficult pose that requires me to be attentive and balance is enough. Is, in fact, more than enough. It's the same in the piano pedagogy world. Students don't have to be ripping through multiple octave scales to be challenged technically. Indeed, often reaching over our heads only means that we are sacrificing other equally important aspects to our work to get there. A good thorough knowledge of 5-Finger Positions is never wasted time, because there are so many ways to challenge and strengthen our technique even within this simple framework. Just yesterday, I was working with a younger sibling of a current student, and teaching her a simple 3-note rote song on black keys. I was accompanying this ditty with a I-V jaunty accompaniment in F-sharp major, when it occurred to me that older brother Joey sitting on the couch could do this just as easily. And it was true. After brief instructions from me ("F-sharp major, roots in the LH, chords in the RH, alternate I-V chords like this.....") the two kids (both under the age of 10) were off and running, much to the delight of the parents watching. It's thanks to hundreds of 5-Finger Positions that Joey was able to do this with his younger sister, not even blinking at the challenge of playing in F-sharp. What's the big deal about 6-sharps if you've been playing them forever in your technique work, and your hands understand the pattern intimately?
Boredom, however, is never the goal, and the minute my mind begins to wander in yoga class I know I am missing the point. The more skilled students become at pentachords, the more challenging the exercise should be on any given week. The next two are significantly more difficult, but fun. I call these exercises 2 to 1. (While not wanting to get ahead of ourselves here, 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 are great exercises for multiple octave scales as well.) In #51 RH is playing eighth notes, the LH quarter notes. Although it is difficult to write out the spacing of notes here, hands will start and end together, with the RH playing twice as many notes as the LH. (Actually I lie, I can get the spacing perfectly on my screen, but somehow it loses placeholders in the dozens of translations it goes through to get to the web page.) Sometimes I coach this to young students by chanting "ice-cream ice cream" with hands playing together on every repetition of "ice". Obviously, the reverse (#52) works just as well, but it is the rare beginner who can tackle both the same week. These patterns work nicely in both major or minor keys. With a little imagination, you could almost hear these as early Czerny Etude.
51. RH: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
LH: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
52. RH Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
LH: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
September 20th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I am suspicious of people who don’t
write in their books.
Mine are marked like a map into my
soul. I write my name and date in books when I buy them, often scribbling the
location and bookstore. With a
glance, I can tell that I bought this one at Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury
Street in Boston or that one in New Orleans during a trip made on my 26th
birthday. I often date when I read
them, and jot in the margins as I go.
Countless times I have been able to follow the journey of my own growth by simply reading my remarks along the edges of the pages. Sometimes, years later, the same
passages are meaningless to me, or I realize I missed the point entirely the
first time around.
It is with this same degree of
enthusiasm that I read published journals and devour artists' sketchbooks. By doing so, I am convinced I will gain fresh insight into living, or a new understanding of the creative
mind. Often, I am shocked to
realize that these brilliant people were merely human beings who struggled with
the same insecurities and fears that I fight on a daily basis. Writers don’t always write well in
their private lives. Highly
creative beings are frequently terribly uninspired on a daily basis. Somehow such knowledge gives me
So, it with equal suspicion that I
don’t trust musicians who don’t mark their music. Mine is a mess of colors and scribbles and remarks: Slow
down! Listen for every
sixteenth-note. Quiet!! Sometimes
I mark dynamics in colors or record metronome tempi like swimmers might record
race times. In my filled-to-a-brim
life, I don’t have time to make a mistake more than once. It doesn’t matter what it is—an
accidental, a rhythm, a missed rest—the pencil comes out. I am equally aggressive with the colored pencils when teaching, my students’ music becoming a rainbow of colors and corrections. “What color should I use
today?” I frequently ask
students. Such markings allow me
to see at a glance what is a repeated mistake, and with every color that is added
students know they can’t hide their lack of careful practicing. At the same time, the absence of color
across the page is its own sign of progress.
“Look Miss Amy!” little
Joey announced to me, “there are less colors on this page.” He is proud of his careful work; I am too.
In spite of all this happy scribbling,
I resisted keeping a practice journal for years, certain that I remembered just
fine what need to be done from day to day. But as I gathered and adopted more and more different
practice techniques, I found that the inefficiency of forgetting the details of
my practicing made me impatient.
Not only was I losing ideas that came to me during particular practice
sessions, I wasn’t hanging onto small triumphs or discoveries that I stumbled
upon. Overnight I would forget what metronome marking I had managed to achieve
in my current Czerny Etude, or when the last time was that I had reviewed my memory
of a certain piece. So, rather reluctantly at first, I began keeping practice
notes for myself in a blank notebook.
The results were immediately
obvious. Now when I had a flash of
insight about what a piece needed, but no more time, I could simply write a
note to myself and try it the next day.
When after practicing a certain way one day, I realized that the music
really needed this next, I wrote it
down, freeing my conscious mind to bounce around in other ways. There are no rules about what goes in
my practice journal: I make notes about great recordings or books I want to find. I scribble down quotes I want to remember. I draw maps
and graphs when I am memorizing. I use it to brainstorm words and concepts when trying to
break through to the essence of some piece of music. I suppose such a habit of keeping a practice journal serves
the same function journaling serves in other areas of our lives: it forces us to think through and make
sense of our actions.
Whatever the reason, I’m hooked.
I don’t have the time or patience to return to my random pre-journaling
But here is a perfect example where
lessons learned in one area of my life don’t quickly transfer to other areas, because even after swearing allegiance to my practice journal, I didn’t start keeping teaching notes for a long time.
Now I do, religiously. It’s
hardly a model of meticulous record-keeping; my good organizational skills are hidden
behind a rather haphazard approach.
But my 12x9 inch blank sketchbook is a wealth of information---each
teaching week gets its own page and over the course of my lesson days I scribble down random information in wild colors: Sophie---begin minor
chords. Lucy—ask about student
recital. George---duet with Jason?
I also record reminders to myself:
check on Fantaisie-Impromptu
edition. Order rote pieces. Play through Arabesque. My mind is a sieve.
Without these promptings I’m likely to waste precious moments staring
blankly into space. But a quick
glance at my teaching journal gives me direction in the odd extra minute. I rarely have large swatches of
time to devote to anything, but I can move mountains in the random empty
moment here and there.
It is from years of teaching
journals that I have collected dozens of technique ideas,
and my own notebooks give me quick ideas when I’m not feeling inspired, which, I
should admit, is more days than not.
The next couple of variations are an advanced version of the one I
suggested way back in an earlier technique post. My students and I call these 5-Finger Positions “Doubles and
47. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do--RH (Singles and Legato)
Do Do Re Re Mi Mi Fa Fa Sol Sol Fa Fa Mi Mi Re Re Do Do---LH (Doubles and Staccato)
played at the same time---RH will be quarter notes, LH eighth notes.
48. Reverse---LH Singles and Legato, RH Doubles and Staccato
The next two are harder than the above for some reason I have never completely been able to figure out. Obviously, all these work the technique of one hand playing legato while the other hand is staccato, but the next two seem to get right to the point. I suggest doing #47 and #48 first before tackling the following. It's also a good idea not to assign both---#47 and 48 or #49 and 50--on the same week. Often with young beginners they can handle one way---RH singles, LH Doubles for example--but the other way isn't simply the reverse, but rather a whole new coordination to conquer. Take it slow.
49. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
RH legato, LH staccato
50. Reverse---RH staccato, LH legato
August 16th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I think there will be just one technique exercise to chew on today. You see, I'm just back from Italy and, what with all the food, wine, cappuccinos and art, I haven't been thinking seriously about anything very technical. (Except perhaps how to duplicate these pasta recipes at home.) Yesterday, buying lunch meat at our deli counter back home in Albuquerque, Matt said "Grazie" at the end of the transaction, his brain still on all things Italian. This is especially humorous if you understand that neither one of us actually speaks the language, as demonstrated by numerous stymied attempts at even the most basic communication (buying shoes in Rome and leather bags in Florence being just two important examples). But as evidenced from all this, there is little attention at the moment for mundane things like how to sequence good piano technique for beginning fingers.
And so, while I am tempted to chat about Rome, the Adriatic coast, our hotel on the beach, or the open leather market in Florence, (my new nomination for the happiest place on Earth) instead I will leave you with this little exercise. I must confess that I stole it straight from the Edna-Mae Burnam's A Dozen a Day books, but truth is, I don't think Ms. Burnam can really claim this one either. Everyone and their mother has played some version of this exercise over the years, making it as classic as, well, Michelangelo's David.
46. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
Play first in quarter notes, repeat in eighth notes, and then in sixteenths,
thereby doubling the speed with every repetition.
Either major or minor positions will do quite nicely.
Doubling note values with every repetition isn't hard, but it might be challenging to determine, from the quarter-note speed, what a reasonable sixteenth-note tempo might be. This is a great exercise to use rhythmic language with: I instruct students to say "watermelon" with every ascending quarter-note and "ice cream" with the descending quarter notes, thereby setting up a good tempo from the beginning. (If you can't say it, you probably can't play it, I often remind students.)
Speaking of watermelon, Italians do take their melons seriously. This being the season, they were on every menu, slices were sold from stands on the street corners, and there were advertisements on billboards around the country. As far as ice cream goes, I am officially in gelato withdrawal, having had it at least once a day for the last three weeks. By the way, I've decided that "gelato" is my new best word for the syncopated rhythm that is a hard match in the English language: short-long-short (could be eighth-quarter-eighth or sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth as two possibilities). Or "granita" would work as well---both having an accent on the second syllable. Using these words as much as possible, just might---might---help me get over the life-changing lemon granita and blueberry gelato we found last week in Florence near the Duomo. If you're in the neighborhood, find it. You'll thank me.
July 19th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
It is officially too hot to do anything.
It's during times like this that I most need a plan, because if I don't have one ready, nothing gets done. I need a to-do list made and waiting, because in my numbed, over-heated state, all I can do is blindly follow orders. Unfortunately, this means that I have to put aside time to sit down and carve out plans, make lists, set schedules and agendas, or else I will most likely succumb to the lure of sparkling lemonade and a chair in the garden during any empty minutes.
Times like this are precisely why I need technique exercises to turn to. My notebook of scribbled technique exercises -- Five-Finger Positions, scale patterns, chord progressions, and so on -- may very well be one of my most valued possessions, perhaps the first thing I'd grab in a fire (after my husband and two cats, of course). The dog-eared pages have saved many a day lately, when without such resources I might very well throw in the towel completely. Here's a few more to get us through the next heat wave.....
42. Do Re
43. Do Re
I love to teach both of these using two-note slurs if students are ready, guiding students into "leaning" into the first of the two notes and releasing "back" off the second. ("Lean-back, Lean-back....") But if a student isn't ready for such subtleties of touch, #42 can be one legato phrase going up and another going down, or the whole thing could be staccato. Because of the repeated note, number 43 is written in such a way that any legato is going to require the notes to be grouped in twos. This doesn't mean you have to teach the two-note slur gesture, but it is great exercise for this skill because with little guidance it almost teaches itself.
The next two are simpler patterns, but demand musical finesse and control of touch. Five-Finger Positions are a great way to practice our control, especially on patterns that by this point we know inside and out.
44. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
Crescendo going up; Decrescendo coming down
45. Same Pattern
Decrescendo going up; Crescendo coming down
When all else fails, suggest the student compose their own patterns for a couple of weeks. Insist that they write them in their assignment notebooks in solfege and practice them in all positions. This lets you off the hook temporarily, allows you to sneak some creativity into their assignments, and gives them a chance to take some ownership of their practicing and technique work. Besides, you never know when they might stumble upon brilliant patterns that you haven't thought of, and you can steal them for future use!
June 13th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
It occurs to me, not for the first time, that there are way too many numbers in this business.
I mean really, there are fingering numbers, counting numbers, and scale degree numbers, just to name a few. No wonder this whole business of learning to play the piano is bewildering to a 6 year-old student.
There are no substitution for learning fingering numbers, but almost every other use of numbers can be avoided at the beginning.
This is easier than it sounds, actually. Rhythm can almost completely be taught without the traditional number counting, using, instead, the wide-spread "Ta" for quarter notes, "ti-ti" for eighth-notes, chanting "half-note" for (duh) half-notes, and "hold-for-three" and "hold-for-four-beats" for dotted halves and whole notes. Or one can use the colorful rhythms of our own English language, substituting "ice cream" for eighth notes, "watermelon" for sixteenths and so on.
As far as scale degrees go, when teaching things like 5-Finger Positions and merrily composing new patterns every week, using solfege instead of numbered scale degrees is the easiest way to go. I'd love to claim that it was part of my calculated avoidance of too many numbers that led me to this system, but I can't take credit for such genius. Instead, I can blame a crazy parent.
This one came into my life years ago when I was teaching in Boston. Dominique was French, and knew nothing about music except that it should involve an active use of "Do-Re-Mi". After the first several lessons with her young daughters, she came to me and accused me of not teaching correctly because her girls were learning note names like "A-B-C" instead of "Do-Re-Mi." I was completely puzzled until I realized that she knew just enough to be dangerous, and that she was referencing her very limited knowledge of the French method of using solfege to name notes. "OK," I thought to myself, "I can fool her. I will simply start writing out her daughters' 5-Finger assignments in solfege and she will be satisfied." That's what I did, and Dominique was perfectly happy from that point on. But my little trick taught me something too, because I quickly discovered that solfege was a much easier way to write out 5-Finger patterns than my previous use of scale degrees. Furthermore, it was easier to sing the patterns and even to transpose them. Kids never questioned the solfege language, and later it worked equally well when learning whole scales. I should write and thank Dominique; although at the time I considered her to be quite the pain in la derriere, she unwittingly helped me discover a whole better way of teaching.
Here are a few new patterns to try. These test a student's knowledge of the positions "upside down," which can be harder than it seems like it should be; they force students to learn the pattern of notes backwards, and starting somewhere other than "Do." I have discovered through much trial and error that number 38 is a good first step into the real live "upside down" patterns.
38. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do--forte and legato
Sol Fa Mi Re Do--piano and staccato
39. Reverse dynamics and articulations and play above pattern
40. Upside down:
Sol Fa Mi Re Do Re Mi Fa Sol--Do
(Use various dynamics and articulations)
41. Repeat numbers 38-40 using minor positions
April 26th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I am convinced that playing staccato makes pianists nervous.
Unlike other instrumentalists, when pianists play staccato they lose contact with their instrument completely. Think about this. No wonder it makes us uncomfortable and anxious.
I am not sure that the antidote to this nervousness is to just play staccato so often that we get used to the idea. That might work to a certain degree, yes, but does feel a bit like a band-aid solution, for while it might get us friendly with playing staccato passages, it doesn't do much for the issue of becoming confident with leaving what I like to call the "air-space" of the piano. We might feel OK about the distance of one or two inches that most staccato playing requires, but to develop ease with the bigger drops and lifts out of the immediate air-space that lovely physical playing requires, well, that's another issue entirely.
I guess I've seen too many "helicopter" players. Pianists that, no matter what they were playing, hovered over the keys, barely ever losing contact with the surface. This is a perfect example where the physical action informs the mind, because such hovering not only looks, but actually is, rather nervous and insecure, and sends a corresponding anxious signal to our brains. (Quite on the opposite end of the spectrum is those extremely flamboyant pianists whose gestures are so big as to seem ridiculous. I was recently at a concert of such a pianist, whose playing I quite admire, but I couldn't really buy into the need to throw his hands OVER his head three times in the first five minutes. This was more than dramatic, it was unsightly.)
So today's 5-Finger Positions address the skills of lifting and dropping into the keyboard, and creating physical gestures that bubble up out of both musical phrases and natural, organic technique. I keep these positions simple, since the goal is the gesture, not the pattern. Obviously, these can be done in both major and minor positions, but the focus is on the shape and movement between octaves, not really the notes themselves.
34. Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Play hands alone the pattern one time in three ascending octaves.
Watch for beautiful "arc" between each octave which occurs from the lift out of the first pattern and the drop in to the second and so on.
35. Do Mi Sol
(Same instructions as above)
36. Sol Fa Mi Re Do
37. Sol Mi Do
Young students like these an awful lot, and they lead to all sorts of ease moving around the keyboard. This also sets us up nicely for those kind of rote pieces that have lots of moves up and down the piano. I have been told more than once that I play the piano like a dancer, that whatever my playing may lack in certain areas, it is beautiful to watch. It is true that I have sometimes cared more about how playing looks and feels than how it sounds, which may be screwed up on lots of levels, but working with these positions allows me to teach "dance" moves on the keyboard, making me at the very least, a content teacher.
March 29th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I go through
cycles in my 5-Finger Position assignments. Recently its been
all about rhythms,
but lately I have flirting with minor-key positions. My students
are introduced to minor positions early on, when we first explore D
position on all white notes. "Does this sound different
than C position?" I ask. Inevitably they describe
minor positions by calling them "scary" or "sad" which, while being of rather limited imagination, does reinforce why we so often associate suspenseful or tearjerker
movies with music in a minor key. While beginning students are
first learning the notes of positions, I let them play both the major
and minor forms of D and A, and this usually firmly establishes their
life-long fascination with all things minor. After several weeks of playing both versions of D and A, I begin
writing in their assignments, "Only happy positions,"
accompanied by the requisite smiley face. This often
provokes groans, especially from my younger male students, who would
happily play minor positions all day if I let them. "OK."
I bargain, "You can play the minor positions for extra credit,"
thereby assuring we all win: I get them firmly secure in
their grasp of major positions AND usually get extra practice of the
minor positions as a bonus. They get to happily explore minor
positions, feeling like they have gotten away with something illicit.
And by taking minor positions away from their regular
assignments for awhile, I can usually guarantee their enthusiasm when
we return to focusing on minor keys some time later.
I think it is
important not to confuse the issue by switching suddenly from major
to minor keys too early in the process. Most kids need a lot
---and I mean A LOT--of time playing all the black and white
major keys before they have developed the technical security and
confidence to swing easily back and forth between major and minor.
Because of that introduction to D and A minor way back
in the beginning , students greet
these two like old friends, but often the next step gets dicey unless
I am careful. "What did you do to make it minor?" I
ask. "Finger three moves down to a white note," they respond. The
problem is that while that answer is correct for D and A minor, it
won't get them very far, and shifting to C position quickly
illustrates that misunderstanding. Students have to discover
that finger three moves down a half-step, or one note. This
starts to work better, but F always throws them for a loop, because F
requires that we really understand that finger 3 and ONLY finger 3
moves. (If I had a dollar for every impatient student who tried
to make natural the B-flat of F position thinking they were playing
the minor, I could stop teaching and could retire to Hawaii.) D-flat
position also throws up some challenges to the concept of the
half-step moving down, because students don't naturally see that one
quickly. G-flat is another one that is visually puzzling at
first---all those black notes confuse students. All this is to
say that, while teaching minor positions is an important part of working
with 5-Finger Positions, they aren't as obvious to kids as they might
seem to be, which is why it is important to wait until major keys can be
done forward, backward, upside, in the dark, and with one's eyes
closed before we even try to go there.
Years of trial and error have made me
particular not only about how I introduce minors, but also about how I
sequence the patterns for practicing. (Good teaching is 99%
sequencing, I am convinced.) The following patterns are ordered
as I assign them. Notice how many patterns swing back and forth
between major and minor positions before I assign patterns using only
minor positions. This is to ensure that students really do know
how they got from major to minor and haven't just learned minor keys
as a whole new set of positions. I want to make sure they see
the connection between the two, and not that minors are an unrelated
new world. To this end, I also have students spell, spell, and spell again individual positions, starting first with the major ones and
asking EVERY time: "And how do we change it to minor?"
"OK then, spell the minor position." If I have
been lazy about the spelling work up until this point, I make up for
31. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi (Minor)
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi
Re Do (Major)
32. Do Re Mi Re
Do Re Mi Re (Minor)
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi
Re Do (Major)
as one long pattern with no breaks in the legato or
33. Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi
Re Do (Major)
point I go back to old solfege patterns and familiar rhythmic
patterns and concentrate solely on playing minors. See
for Technique for ideas.
Of course, creativity with articulations and
dynamics is always encouraged.
February 22nd, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
Years ago when I was living in Boston,
I audited a piano pedagogy course at New England Conservatory, taught by Jean
Stackhouse. It was there that I was first introduced to the enlightening idea that rhythms could be verbalized some other way
than simply the traditional "One Two-and
Jean introduced me to the idea that
we could use a non-traditional rhythmic verbalization to "count"
rhythms, making use of the natural rhythmic nature of our language.
Later my experience in Dalcroze Eurhythmics only strengthened
the idea that there was a more organic way to feel rhythms than the
dry, unrhythmic counting of my childhood. Using our rhythmic
English language to teach students to feel rhythms is not, as I
previously supposed, cheating.
So over the years I have developed
lists of words I frequently turn use to verbalize rhythms. Jean
has so many phrases and words for various rhythmic patterns that I
suspect she must make lists of them at night when she can't sleep. I
often have kids in performance classes come up with words that work
for various note-values in hopes that over time they will develop a
rhythmic language of their own. Of course, the flip side is
that while my students are fantastic at seeing rhythmic patterns as
opposed to individual note-values unconnected with one another, they
often are a bit suspect when counting in traditional ways, which
makes them appear awkward when talking about rhythms in band or
orchestra. I try to remedy this by switching back and forth
between the traditional and the non-traditional when dealing with
rhythms, in hopes that, like children who grow up bi-lingual, they will
develop ease in both languages.
Here are some rhythmic words and
phrases to get you started in making your own lists. I cannot
claim most of these; they are ideas picked up in various Dalcroze and
pedagogy workshops, or stolen from students along the way. It
is time, however, they became part of the public domain.
Many times when teaching rhythmic 5-Finger Positions I will use rhythmic language and "Ta/ti-ti"
language interchangeably. In fact, I may very well write out
both in students' assignment
notebooks. Looking back at the previous five rhythmic examples,
in rhythmic language they would look like:
26. Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta
Ice cream Cone, Ice
cream cone, Ice Cream Cone
27. Ta Ta Ti-Ti
Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta
Yum Yum Ice Cream
Cone Yum Ice Cream Cone
28. Ta Ti-Ti Ta
Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta
Yum Ice Cream Cone
Yum Yum Ice Cream Cone
29. Ta Ti-Ti
Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta
Yum Ice Cream Ice
Cream Cone Ice Cream Cone
30. Ti-Ti Ti-Ti
Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta
Cream Ice Cream Cone Ice Cream Cone Yum
(Note how often I use the
same words over and over again. This is mostly because I don't
want to confuse the issue and using the same words repeatedly
ingrains the patterns. Or you can just assume that I really
like ice cream.)
I don't limit my
verbalization to younger children; using it with teenagers and adults
often unravels rhythmic tangles immediately. My older students
tease me saying that all I do is talk about food, which isn't far
from the truth. Lessons make them hungry, they tell me. There are worse things.
January 24th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
We've been playing with rhythms lately in the studio. Beginning last month, when all my scale-playing students played descending scales to the rhythm of Joy to the World, I've been on a rhythm kick. I love using 5-Finger Positions to teach rhythms; it is not uncommon for my students first to play eighth-notes or dotted quarters here before they stumble upon them in their music. But lately I've been spending a lot of lesson time with these rhythmic patterns. First, I write them out in their notebooks, then I clap and chant the rhythm using generic "Ta" or "ti-ti" kind of language. The student imitates my example and then we improvise movement to the rhythm pattern using claps, snaps, foot stomps, patting our heads, and so on, each taking turns to make up a sequence. Following Richard Chronister's example that students should first improvise on new rhythmic patterns to help learn them, I then take the pattern to the piano and improvise something using the rhythm. The student does the same, and we take turns back and forth for a few minutes. Finally, after all these steps, we look at playing our 5-Finger Positions, which seem easy after all this preparatory work. While this takes up a great deal of lesson time, the benefits are huge. The students get some creative improvisation work both in the movement sequences and on the piano; the rhythmic patterns get internalized and becomes organic and natural; I have a chance to teach new rhythms and note values in a non-threatening way. Even after only a few weeks, my 5-Finger kids seem to look forward to this work in their lessons.
So here's a few basic rhythmic patterns that work in 5-Finger Positions. (I keep a list of possible rhythms handy that I can refer to in low inspiration moments, like the last lesson on a rainy Thursday afternoon.) When doing these, the basic note pattern is always:
Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do--only the rhythm changes. Teachers who like balanced meters may be dismayed to discover that these are assymetrical meters at best. I don't worry about that a lot, instead focusing on the pattern itself as a unit, not rather or not it fits into a 3/4 or 4/4 measure. Students can play these in major or minor keys, using different dynamics. I generally teach these as legato patterns, but different articulations could be used as well. I write these out in the student's notebooks using quarter notes and eighth notes and may write "Ta" or "Ti-Ti" under the notes values if needed for clarification. For lack of better options here, I am notating the patterns below in "Ta" and "Ti-Ti" language.
26. Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta
27. Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta
28. Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta
29. Ta Ti-Ti Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta
30. Ti-Ti Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta
December 5th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
Several weeks ago (or was it longer?
I am completely losing track of time around here), I
wrote about a new 5-Finger Position idea that was inspired
both by an Alfred little ditty and the rain that we had been
receiving in the desert. It hasn't rained since, which
probably has to do with the fact that we had part of the roof
repaired---nothing like a nice roofing bill to ensure that it will
never rain again. There has, however, been plenty--and I mean
plenty---of raindrop-inspired 5-Finger Positions around here.
I only have a few students playing 5-Finger Positions these days, most of my students having moved on to
scales and arpeggios and such things. (And yes, I have as many
ways for playing scales as I do for pentachords, much to my
students' dismay.) But the ones that are in the 5-Finger
Position world are struggling mightily with these damn raindrops.
It's an interesting thing to watch and think about pedagogically,
for some of the kids who are having the most trouble are the ones who
have successfully been playing these patterns for a while now.
But what I notice is that the act of alternating hands makes all the gaps in their skills show up. Just this morning little Annie
was demonstrating her positions in her lessons. When she
started playing I was writing in her assignment notebook and not
watching her, and they sounded fine---notes jauntily sharp and
staccato, all the notes of every major key correct. But
when I looked up and watched her, she was sliding her fingers all
around the keys, not adhereing to the correct fingers on each note,
but instead skipping over weak fingers and using 2 and 3 of each hand
whenever possible. Now, Annie knows better than this, but
clearly the challenge of managing this pattern was enough to make all of her good habits go out the window. (Ah! I can sympathize with
this in a million areas of my life--the idea that under stress
we fall apart and all our good behaviors disappear.)
And so, we continue to tackle our
raindrops, being vigilant about not letting the notes slide into one
another, not letting our fingers slip out of position, and making
sure the staccatos are nice and pointed. Although it is
hardly worth saying, the original Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do pattern
would not be the only option. We are also doing some "doubles"
where each hand plays the same note twice: LH Do-Do, RH
Do-Do, LH Re-Re....etc. (and, of course, the reverse
with the right hand leading). After mastering the singles and
the doubles, lots of other patterns in both major and minor keys could be used (see Recipes for Technique for more ideas).
It is the driest part of the year
around here, humidity levels dipping into the single digits. The
pitch on all of the pianos in this state is falling as I write this. We
could easily not see rain again for months. But, roof intact, we are playing up a storm around here.
November 1st, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
Uncharacteristically for fall in the
desert, it has rained lately. Quite torrentially, actually.
Although I like cozy rainy day more
than about anyone, this weather pattern hasn't been particularly welcomed as
we now have a leak in the bedroom. More like
multiple leaks in one sad corner, causing the ceiling to begin to
peel away alarmingly. We need to get that fixed, and would have
on Tuesday if it hadn't rained again.
If I can just ignore the whole
leaking roof business, I could fall head over heels with this season.
Certainly, there has been nothing not to love about the
weather lately. The days are delightfully warm and sunny, when
it's not raining at least, and the nights are deliciously cool,
requiring us to dig out that comforter and the cozy pajamas.
"A two-cat night," as my husband says.
I have been making soup and green
chile sauce around the clock. Green chile is harvested and
roasted in the fall, sending wonderful smells wafting throughout the
city. The first year we were brave enough to buy our own green
chile (as opposed to just going to Frontier and eating it there), we
hesitantly bought a half-bushel thinking there was no way we could
eat it all. It was gone by February, and this was before I had
learned to make my own green chile sauce. The next year we
worked up to a bushel; now we calmly order two bushels (thanks to
Lora and her empty freezer around the corner, which gives us more
storage options), and know that it will be gone by mid-winter.
But with the abundance of fresh green
chile at the moment, and the fact that every time I turn around
someone is thrusting tomatoes upon me, I am making green chile sauce
practically every other day. This requires a good hour of
peeling, chopping, and assembling, which explains why I don't know
the Bach sonata I am playing with a flutist in two weeks as well as I
Besides the autumn
rituals around green chile, last weekend I bought pumpkins for my
courtyard. One of the benefits to being childless, yet working
with children, is that I feel authorized to adapt any child-like
custom to my own adult desires. Hence the need for pumpkins,
and lots of them, scattered on walls and tables, and propped against
doors and pots. But here's the best part: I don't have
to actually carve them, as I have no demanding children requiring
this. I don't much like carving pumpkins; it's messy and
no good at it. I'd be
better off spending time on that Bach sonata.
This year must have been a
particularly good year for pumpkins because my piece de resistance is
a 44-pound pumpkin sitting cheerfully by my sun-room door. "Miss
Amy!" Madeleine squealed when she came into her lesson
this week, "Is that pumpkin yours?"
But all these
seasonal rituals have me thinking: just this week a student was
playing a little piece in his sight-reading book. One of those older
Alfred books has a piece called "Raindrops." It is a
jaunty, staccato number, just as you might assume, which for this little guy proved not to be that easy. It requires
hands to alternate, playing the same notes one after another like
little raindrops. This was a trick, because no matter how
hard he tried, he couldn't get that left hand to lead. Which,
of course, got me thinking about our next 5-Finger
24. LH leads;
all notes staccato:
Do (Do) Re (Re) Mi
(Mi) Fa (Fa) Sol (Sol) Fa (Fa) Mi (Mi) Re (Re) Do (Do)
25. Same; RH
I do hope that teaching
this 5-Finger Position this week won't produce the adverse affect of
causing more rain, or at least not until that roof gets patched.
However, another seasonal rite waits for me this weekend: buying
and planting pansies to line the flower bed along the driveway.
I'll be happy to water them by hand and save the raindrops for the
August 30th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
For many students, learning an
instrument requires skills, behaviors, and thought processes like no other
activity. It requires intense listening, something not usually required
in our noise-polluted world. It requires great concentration, a skill not
often tested in a society of 22-second commercials and 30-minute sitcoms.
It requires a great amount of discipline and engagement from the very first
lesson, which can be very challenging in a world where we prize convenience,
speed, and the technology that makes our lives easier. In an
internet-fueled society, where everything is available at the touch of a
button, we do not value highly skills that take months to acquire, or music
that may take us a lifetime to learn.
Because of this, it is crucial that we
teachers work to engage our students’ minds and concentrations as deeply as
possible. We must demonstrate through our own actions and behaviors, that
the skill of playing the piano demands not only the students’ complete
attention, but ours as well. We must show that, even though we may
be teaching the 45th lesson of the week, we aren’t phoning it in. For two
years, young Auden wailed at me every Friday night at 5:30 when he arrived at
his piano lesson, “But Miss Amy, I am sooooo tired.” At that point I had
already taught 40 lessons that week. “What number lesson are you?”
I would ask him. “Number 41,” he would reply, “just like the Mozart
symphonies.” “Exactly, kid. I am tired, too. We can do this
I tell parents that the most important skill
needed to be a pianist is not talent, but the ability to practice
constructively and faithfully day after day. It is this skill that we
must teach and teach and teach again. After a lifetime of practicing, I
know that practicing can be tedious and boring, or it can be engaging and
fun. If we can teach engaged practicing even with the very youngest
child, from the very first lesson, then we can set students on a lifetime of
active practicing and music making.
There are a million ways this can be done.
But technique work, which has often been considered to be brainless exercises
and necessary but boring drudgery, can be a perfect place to teach active
learning and thinking. Instead of assigning or practicing the same old thing
week after week, we constantly should be changing things in some small or great
fashion. Students may be working with five-finger positions for six
months, but they should never play them the same way two weeks in a
row. Even in the beginning stages, when students are struggling to
learn the positions, the assignments can be altered. They can be
played piano one week, forte the next.
Still better, students can alternate playing every other position forte then piano to
really shake things up and get their minds and ears working.
My challenge to myself in my own practicing and
my teaching is never to do the same thing two days or two lessons in a
row. I try to practice differently every day, and no matter how badly the
student may be playing, I never assign the same thing to be practiced the same
mindless way. “Do this again,” isn’t in my repertoire of teaching
phrases. Instead, I might assign five-finger patterns to be hands alone
with left hand legato and forte and right hand piano and staccato,
even if they have been playing them successfully hands together. Or I
might rewrite the solfege pattern, but leave the musical concept of crescendos
and decrescendos in place. My hope is that giving such deliberate
technique assignments from week to week might produce deliberate and equally
thought-provoking practicing of repertoire.
All of the previous variations I have offered in Recipes for Technique were written to be
played in parallel motion. The next ones introduce contrary motion in two
ways. Contrary direction is often easier and more natural for students to
play physically; however, negotiating the note patterns of all twelve positions
makes contrary direction more challenging for the brain. Because of this, I always assign students to start by playing Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do in parallel motion to "set-up" their hands. Add different
dynamics and articulations as you desire.
22. Play starting on thumbs in BH: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1
23. Play starting on finger 5 in BH: 5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5
July 21st, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
I was talking to a friend who is also a piano teacher. We were
talking about the need to have students spell five-finger positions,
scales and chords, and how amazing it is that this is often an
unexpected challenge. "Of course," I said at one
point, "in the very beginning I wouldn't have them spell
anything, because they don't really know the correct spelling for
many positions since they only know flat names, no sharps."
Anne was shocked, "What do you mean they don't know sharps? What
about D major position?"
OK. I must confess
that in the beginning weeks of piano lessons I only teach the white
note names and even then use my made-up piano town:
a piano town. There are big houses with three windows and dog
houses. The big houses have
a front door and a back door. Who do you think
lives in the dog house?
You got it. But this is a very strange town
because the dog house
is guarded by a cat and
giggling at this point.
And guess who lives in the big
house? Miss Amy
who always comes in the back door, and her cat
always sits in the front window.
is silly, yes, but it works. The kids know each note
specifically, instead of counting up from middle C. (If I could
have a dollar for every time I have seen a transfer student in their
second or third level method book, who, when asked what a specific
note is on the piano counts up from middle C, I could stop
But there is no room in the piano town brain of a
beginning student for sharps and flats, so I don't confuse the
issue. When a student learns D major position, it is just "D
position with a black note in the middle." The black note
doesn't have a name, and little kids are fine with that. (Of
course, older students can handle all the naming immediately, as can
a student of any age curious enough to ask, "So what do you call
the black notes?" But if they don't ask, I don't tell.)
When it is time to learn the black positions, we call them flats:
D-flat, A-flat, etc. and don't bother with sharps just yet.
After all, there is so much to learn in the first few months that I
feel successful if students are nailing other more basic info:
right and left hands, finger numbers, white key names, quarter and
half-notes, treble and bass clefs.
So the dark secret is out.
In spite of my work in teaching students to spell positions (and then
later scales and chords), we don't do this in the beginning.
Besides, students will be happy to make up their own names. Just
last week when I asked Luke to play his assigned pattern in B-flat,
he looks at me and says, "B-flat is the devil position."
I laughed. I don't love B-flat either.
or not, here are a few more early patterns to explore:
I like mixing and
matching legato and staccato articulations throughout
all of these patterns to shake things up a bit. Various
rhythms work here (or no rhythms at all--I know some of you cringe
at that, but sometimes our practicing can be without rhythm and be
very effective at securing technical problems. Sometimes
B-flat position needs some work negotiating the black and white
geography of notes before we add the challenge of a jaunty
rhythm to the equation. Just as Luke.). I have suggested
a rhythm for number 21 that I like--think of all the syllables as
being eighth notes, with the rests being the fourth eighth of each
grouping. This does create an asymetrical meter, but that's
OK, and gives it a nice kick.
June 20th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
Fa Mi Re
Mi Re Do
This pattern has been in hundreds of technique books in some form or fashion, but it is also the one
that Dylan "made up" last week and brought in to his
lesson. His version has a jaunty rhythm of quarter notes (Do-Sol) then triplets (Fa Mi Re...). He was quite proud of his creation, having
only taken lessons for a few months, and even more proud when I asked to
"borrow it," for which he gladly gave his permission.
this is where the whole thing gets sticky, for while it is true that
I don't use a traditional technique book or method, it is also the
case that I can't claim to have really made up any of these
patterns. They have existed forever in technique books and in repertoire, and are so much a part of our technique vocabulary
that I can come up with any number of these without blinking. If you experiment with five-finger positions for just a
few weeks with students, using them systematically and intentionally
as part of their warm-up exercises, then you'll see what I mean; literally dozens of ideas will pour out of your hands. It is
this deliberate use of five-finger positions with beginning students
as part of every practice session, and as part of every lesson, that
makes the difference. It would be easy to assume that you could rely on the default knowledge
students gain of five-finger positions by working through the many popular method books that use these, but that isn't enough. Most books stay in only a few positions for book after book. Students learn C position, but B-flat? No way.
I feel like I have mastered the art of teaching and reinforcing these positions in a
million different ways, I can be faulted for assuming that students
then know them away from the piano. They don't,
necessarily, which puzzles me every time I am faced with little Sally
who can't spell a position without first going to the piano and
nervously fingering it. Nor could she "color" the position
on a favorite worksheet I use, which asks students to indicate on
a drawing of a piano keyboard, what a F major or C# minor five-finger
position would be. This throws them completely for a loss more often than not, which does remind me that playing something is one form
of knowing it, but not the only one for sure.
Of course, if I think
this through, this is no different then the student who can play a
piece by memory in a tactile sense, but whose brain knows no real
information about the piece in a concrete way: doesn't know the
starting pitches, doesn't know the structure, what key it might be
in, can't play the piece starting in different sections or with hands
alone. I know that this step of memory work has to be
intentionally and concretely addressed: so does understanding
five-finger positions aside from playing them.
today I leave you with Dylan's pattern and the thought that
after all this emphasis on the benefits in terms of coordination and
muscle training and musicality, there might just be some need to work
these patterns away from the piano as well. Spell them.
Ask questions about the number of black and white notes or which
positions are most similar or most opposite. Sneak some theory
work into the technique knowledge (my favorite way to address
theory!). Find out what your students might actually know or
not know about the positions they are mastering and playing
every day. The answers may surprise you.
April 27th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
I have been tackling salad dressings
lately, long on that hypothetical to-do list. I eat a lot of
salad--green leafy things worm their way onto my plate nearly
every day. In fact, last week I chipped off my front tooth on a
fork while eating a salad. This was the third time I have done
this, as I explained to the dentist when I went to have my tooth
repaired once again. "Lettuce can be the hardest thing to eat,"
she sympathized kindly. For a while around here, we had a
default vinaigrette we made, which I loved but grew tired of. In
recent months, I have been lazy and have enjoyed the ease and
convenience of dumping copious amounts of store-bought dressing on my
salads, but I wonder about this habit when reading the long list of
unpronounceable ingredients in many of them. This can't be
particularly healthy, and may even be undermining any positive
benefits salads would otherwise be giving me. So last week I
decided to try making my own salad dressings on a daily basis.
approach this as I attack most things: I learn the general
concepts behind the task and then I improvise from there. This
approach makes my husband and best friend shudder, both of whom have
never seen a recipe they didn't love and follow precisely.
Substitute? Never. I have never not substituted, leading to all kinds of disasters in the kitchen. Salad
dressings, I read, are easy. They are just oil and vinegar, and
then whatever else you want. I love everything about this,
yesterday experimenting madly with a salad dressing of orange juice,
lemon juice, crushed red peppers, thyme and olive oil.
is exactly how I view teaching in general and piano technique
teaching in particular. Give me the general concept and let me
fly. I suppose it is this nonchalance about any strict
pedagogical theory that makes me puzzled when I learn other teachers
don't function like this, instead adhering strictly to a prescribed
set of method books: lesson, performance, theory, technique.
Teaching strictly out of method books may be the equivalent of succumbing to the convenience of store-bought salad dressing--it is
easy, requires no thinking, and doesn't demand anything of me.
In the end, not so good for any of us. I am perplexed by the
idea that there is anything radical about creating and
improvising technique exercises every week. "Use those resources
to get some general ideas and then run with them!" I want to scream to
reluctant teachers. To me the end goal is obvious: we
want students who are at ease playing in any key on the piano, we
want students with a wide range of sounds and touches, we want
students playing with such comfort and familiarity that they don't
have to think about notes, but can concentrate on tone and character,
nuance and artistry. To this end, there are a million and one
Of course, I will undoubtedly resort to
store-bought salad dressings in moments of panic and extreme
busyness, just as I regularly browse technique books for ideas I can
use and improvise upon. It doesn't have to be all or nothing,
but can be a lovely combination of a little of this, a bit of
Here are a few more early five-finger positions to play
11. Do Mi Do Mi
Re Fa Re Fa
Sol Mi Sol
Sol Mi Sol Mi
Fa Re Fa Re
Do Mi Do
12. Do Re Mi Fa Sol--legato
Fa Me Re Do--staccato
13. Do Re Mi Fa
Sol Fa Mi Re Do--legato
Do Re Mi Fa Sol--forte
Sol Fa Mi Re Do--piano
Do Re Mi Fa Sol--piano
Sol Fa Mi Re Do--forte
Obviously, numbers 12-15 are not
challenging patterns, and therefore allow you to concentrate on
articulations and dynamics if you haven't already done so.
Often times I will do a few weeks of easy patterns and focus on
different sounds and touches and then go on to some more challenging
coordination patterns and ignore complicated dynamics and
articulations again for a while. The key here is to shake it
up. I NEVER assign the same pattern two weeks in a row, even
if the student hasn't mastered it. (Unless, of course, the student
simply didn't practice; that's another story entirely.)
Instead, I change something about it: make it forte,
piano, staccato, legato, hands alone, or hands together.
By always changing these exercises, students become more flexible,
and less bored and hopefully more engaged. It makes me stay on
my toes as well, because I constantly have to ask myself "OK, what
next?" -- thereby making me a more creative and versatile teacher.
We all get better.
March 11th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
I think most beginning method books wait too long before having students play with hands together. The delay is caused by the added complication of note-reading, but students can conquer this coordination milestone sooner by working on playing hands together in five-finger positions. By the time students have learned all the white key five-finger positions—C and G, D and A, and the more challenging ones of E, B and F--I think they should be playing hands together in parallel direction. Adult students or students with previous piano experience can do this immediately, while with some young children who have extremely underdeveloped hands it may take weeks or even months to perfect this skill. “But it is so hard!” a young student whines at me, trying to play C-position Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do hands together. “Yes, but you don’t want to be one of those one-handed pianists, do you?” I gently prod him.
As soon as students can play all the white-key major positions with hands together, I teach the five black-key positions. Some teachers never do this, adhering to the traditional rule of no thumbs on black keys, but in my work I have needed to use my thumb on plenty of black keys. Other teachers like to teach only the positions that students are currently facing in their music, which directly correlates the keys of the technique assignments with the keys of their literature. There is some sense to this certainly, as it relates technique to the music at hand. However, too often beginning literature only requires C and G major for months. I think if students wait too long before playing black notes and black positions they become intimidated by the prospect. Besides, I love the transposing possibilities that are immediately available if students can play any position. Students who play all twelve positions don’t know to be scared of G-flat or B major; they do not need to know that G-flat major has six flats in order to play a piece in a five-finger position. Above all, I get a secret thrill from the look of terror that comes over their parents’ faces when I say, “Hey! How about playing this piece in D-flat?”
Since beginning students may not possess yet the terminology of sharps and flats, I call all the black positions “flats”: D-flat, A-flat, E-flat, etc. Even the littlest student can understand this basic naming, if we do not confuse the issue. My decision to call the black keys “flats” versus naming them by “sharps” is somewhat arbitrary, based mostly on the fact that the positions (except for G-flat/F-sharp which can go either way) are more easily spelled as flats. Often we throw too much vocabulary at students, thereby confusing issues that really can be very simple. There is plenty of time later to introduce sharps and the difference between the two. The important thing at this point is to get the student playing all twelve major positions as soon as possible.
I encourage students to identify the notes of the black-key positions by using their ears as a guide, just as we did with the white-key positions. Students quickly discover many devices for remembering the patterns of white and black keys, “Look! E-flat has two white notes. It is the opposite of E position.” Or “D-flat and A-flat are ‘Oreo’ positions: black cookie, white filling, black cookie.” For many months, seven year-old Jack told me, “Amy, B-flat position tilts this way,” tilting his hand to the right, “and B position tilts this way.” tilting his hand to the left. “It’s a seesaw!” This is what I most desire, for students to find their own way through all these keys and relationships.
Weekly, I vary the patterns in the simplest of ways, still writing every assignment in students’ notebooks in solfege. First, I write out the solfege and sing the pattern, only demonstrating by playing it on the piano as a last resort. This isn’t rote-teaching, but ear-training, for with time students learn to translate the singing of the solfege patterns onto the keyboard and often will sing the patterns as they play them.
The following are more easy patterns to use as you are continuing to teach through the twelve positions. As soon as possible, I require students to be playing the positions by moving chromatically through the keys. Remember that this is not a prescribed course for teaching technique. No student of mine has ever done all these variations; instead I pick and choose based on students’ needs. Some adult or older students, after learning the twelve positions, only need to do the most challenging of the five-finger patterns, and then they move on to scales, chord progressions, and arpeggios. Young children often need months and months of staying in the five-finger world to develop muscles and coordination and all kinds of musical skills before we approach more difficult technique.
6. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Sol Fa Mi
Sol Fa Mi
Sol Fa Mi Re Do...
7. Do Re Mi Re Do
Do Re Mi Re Do
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do...
8. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Sol Do...
9. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Mi Do...
10. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Mi Sol Mi Do
The last variation begins to outline a chord. Students don’t necessarily need to know this to play the pattern. You can discuss how Do-Mi-Sol builds a chord, or just talk about steps and skips to teach. In all of these, layer away dynamics and articulations as appropriate and helpful. With students who have some piano experience, this makes sense to do early on--as the challenge of the five-finger positions alone may not be enough to keep them engaged. With young beginning students, often just making those tiny fingers move in these prescribed patterns is enough for awhile. You can always return to these same patterns later and assign more layers: one hand staccato, the other legato, both hands legato, then both hands staccato, and so on. Again, the possibilities are endless.
February 17th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
My husband, who is a choral conductor, often comments, “Your
students could warm up a choir!” as he overhears them
practice their five-finger positions, moving effortlessly from key to
key. I first became aware of how valuable five-finger positions
were when I was a graduate teaching assistant teaching piano
proficiency classes. In these classes we worked
extensively in major and minor pentascales. These positions
quickly built tactile familiarity of the keyboard and enhanced the
ability of the student to transfer exercises and music to multiple
keys—important concepts for students who need some basic piano
skills. But I began to wonder, if we wanted these skills for
music majors, why we didn’t teach the same skills to all
quickly I adopted the habit of teaching all the major and minor
five-finger positions to all my students, regardless of age.
Today I use them with the younger beginning students; the older
beginning students; the students who have been taking piano lessons
but have weak fingers; and the students for whom piano is a second
instrument. I begin teaching five-finger positions
the very first lessons and use them to teach musical ideas of
dynamics, articulations, and tone, as well as adapting them to
challenge the students’ coordination and control. With
beginning students, we learn the positions as we are learning to name
the notes on the piano, starting first with C and G major positions
hands alone. We then move onto D and A patterns, discovering
that when playing D and A positions on all white notes they sound
“different.” Even if this is only the second
week of lessons, I use this opportunity to introduce the difference
between major and minor positions, by allowing students to identify
by ear whether I am playing a major or minor position. We throw
around words to describe the different sounds, deciding that major
sounds happy and bright, sunny and cheerful, while minor sounds
dark and sad, scary and grey. Young children hold up signs in
response to the sounds: “Major!” They will
shout. “It sounds happy.” “Minor,”
they will respond, “ it sounds dark.” After
all this ear work, the students then experiment by changing notes
from the all-white key D and A patterns until they can find the major
positions. “Hey! D has a black key mountain in the
middle!” one student announced to me, “and A is a
Especially in the beginning,
when note-reading is still a skill to be developed, practicing
technique without the added difficulty of reading music
to focus on the single task of making their fingers work at command.
Because I start five-finger positions before students are reading
music, I write the assignments in their notebooks in solfege, using
movable “do.” No student has ever come to me with a
background in solfege, but that's the magic behind that language--it
is intuitive and the less I give it a long-winded explanation, the
better. Using movable “do” makes the process of
transposing the exercise to other keys a non-issue; they simply reset
their hands and then play the pattern. With very young
children, I have also experimented with different kinds of non-staved
primitive notation, often allowing students to help write out their
patterns in their assignment notebooks in their own symbol
Many of you are nodding your heads
in agreement that it seems like a good idea to teach five-finger
positions to all students, following my logic after seeing the light
while teaching piano proficiency students. You might be even
thinking to yourself that, of course, you use five-finger positions
all the time, after all, most beginning music is written in
pentascales. However, this default usage is different than
systematically and purposefully teaching them to students almost as
an end unto themselves. You'll see what I mean in no time at
Once taught, the variations are endless. Now
I can hear the murmuring begin. (Yep, I can sense that you are
balking already. "You mean I have to then do something with them
besides just teach the notes?" That's the point.)
Not only are the options endless, but rather fun to play around with,
experimenting from week to week. Even as students are learning
them, you can make the assignments different and entertaining every
lesson. I'm afraid too often this is where we show how
uncomfortable we might be with anything not taken straight from a
published source. The point of technique is that it ought to be
generated out of a student's need, and should be developed both
independently from and organic to their other skills. Hence the
reason it is so downright lovely to teach technique not from a book,
but from your imagination and creativity and common sense.
the beginning, I coach students to listen carefully to their sound
and to form good hand positions by watching for space under their
hands ("hot-air balloons" my pedagogy teacher and mentor
Jean Stackhouse would say), firm joints in their fingers, avoiding
tension in their arms and shoulders, and making sure they are sitting
as tall as possible on the bench. The following are my earliest
five-finger positions assignments. Use them with whatever keys
students have learned, either hands together or hands alone.
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Do Do...
2. Do Do Re Re Mi
Mi Fa Fa Sol Sol Fa Fa Mi Mi Re Re Do Do...
Do Re Do Re
Mi Fa Mi Fa
Sol Fa Sol Fa
Re Mi Re
4. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do...
5. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re
Because we should be learning more than just
patterns of notes of the 5-finger positions, whether it be major or
minor, all of these can be given further musical instructions:
play forte, play piano, play staccato, play
legato. However, and this is a big "however,"
I am a proponent of students really getting the physicality of
playing in their bodies before we layer musical complications.
This means I encourage students to play with big, strong fingers,
long before I talk about subtleties of soft playing. I hear too
many students with weak fingers and pathetic sounds when I judge
competitions, which makes me think more athletic playing would be
good for all of us. There is a difference, of course, between
playing strongly and fully and playing stridently and harshly, and that is a line worth
drawing in the sand from the very first lesson.
So layer away
as it might be appropriate, adding different dynamics and
articulations. Beware though, that it might be worth
encouraging big sounds at the beginning as students are learning to
navigate the patterns and discovering what their fingers can do.
January 19th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
My husband and I cook very differently. He likes to plan a meal, shop for the ingredients, and follow recipes precisely from beginning to end. I, on the other hand, want to have basic cooking techniques, grocery shop once a week, and improvise on a daily basis, reading cookbooks for general ideas, not specific recipes. While my husband’s favorite cookbook might well be Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, my favorite cookbook is Pam Anderson’s How to Cook Without a Book. Anderson’s philosophy is that dinnertime is no time to reinvent the wheel. Furthermore, no one should have to scream in desperation, “We are going out for dinner!” on a random Tuesday night. Instead, with a few simple techniques, the dinner possibilities should be endless. According to Anderson, we all should be programmed with basic skills about how to stock our pantries and refrigerators and then, on any given night, we ought to be able to whip up dinner from their contents.
At least as much as in the kitchen, I need a variety of techniques as a pianist and teacher. If I grocery shop well and fill my pantry and refrigerator with basic ingredients, I can prepare meals all week long. I maintain the same in piano lingo: with the most fundamental ingredients--five-finger positions, chords, scales, and arpeggios--the variations I can create to expand my students’ minds and improve their skills are limitless. Just like in the best cooking, creativity and good technique can and should be intertwined.
Admittedly, I am somewhat of a minimalist. If I could figure out how to get by in the kitchen with one great knife and an iron skillet, I would. In spite of the shelves of piano technique and method books at the music store, I am always searching for ways to construct a thorough musical and technical vocabulary for students without having them buy the equivalent of their weight in music books. I am forever on the lookout for basic exercises that challenge our minds and focus our listening skills without having to redesign my teaching at every lesson. I want strategies that improve physical technique, coordination, accuracy at the keyboard, and also strengthen musical skills, widen our range of dynamics and articulations, and enrich our playing. On top of all that, I want to do this with as little fuss as possible. Maybe I am just too rebellious to adhere to a program that would teach piano technique in a prescribed number of steps. Or perhaps it’s simply that I haven’t seen two students whose hands responded or developed in exactly the same way. But over the years, I have been most successful teaching technique by working from a repertoire of major and minor five-finger positions, chord progressions, scales, and arpeggios, and adapting the exercises to suit each student's needs in any given week. Besides, ultimately I think these are things that every good pianist should be able to do easily and at command. We shouldn't wait for arpeggios to show up in a sonata before learning to do them fluently. It seems like a waste if beginners playing pieces in 5-finger positions don't recognize what they are doing, or can't transpose the music easily to another key. Familiarity with chords in all keys serves us well when we encounter them in our music, whether it be the first time or the fiftieth. These are basics of piano technique for a reason--they are the foundation of everything we do.
And so, somewhere along the way, my studio and my life became littered with scraps of paper as I began keeping track of what worked and what didn’t. While teaching, I made lists of skills every student needed and of all the variations that I discovered: Use broken chord patterns to practice hand crossings. Use five-finger positions to teach dynamics and phrasing. How can I use scales to teach balance between the hands? While attending workshops and classes, I took notes of ideas, strategies, and new techniques: Teach finger independence exercises by using major positions. What about “Heart and Soul” to learn the vi chord? Teach students to listen to chord voicings while playing chord progression exercises. Over the years, enough other teachers have begun asking me for concrete suggestions to approaching technique in this holistic manner that I began being more systematic about both my methods and my note-keeping.
While I am not likely any time soon to stop writing about my cats or my garden or the funny things my students said to me yesterday, I will from time to time use this forum to give you ideas about how to approach technique creatively with piano students of all stages and ages. You will be able to find a file of these kinds of posts by clicking on Recipes for Technique in the category list. While these ideas are far from comprehensive, they are a jumping off point. Hopefully, you will read an idea and say to yourself, “Oh, yeah, I like that, but I think it would suit Olivia or Mattie or Peter better if we did it this way.” Thereby making it not my invention, but yours, just as you might add walnuts to your pumpkin bread or dried cranberries to your granola recipe.
If I had my way, all of education, musical or otherwise, would be modeled after the “How to Cook” method, giving us fundamental skills and tools and then the freedom and encouragement to add mushrooms and roasted red peppers to our marinara sauce or crescendos in the right hand and decrescendos in the left hand of major scales in contrary motion.
Now that’s cooking!
To whet your appetite, here’s one to get you started:
This is a good technique exercise for students who know even a few major or minor 5-finger positions, as it works on coordination between the hands and develops sensitivity to articulations.
Play hands together in major or minor 5-finger positions: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
1. Both hands legato
2. Both hands staccato
3. RH staccato; LH legato
4. RH legato; LH staccato
(As I will explain later in detail, I teach beginning technique by using rote patterns and solfege instead of written manuscript, in order to make the transposing simpler. I do not teach these patterns based on time signatures or measures, so if you are counting beats, you may be frustrated to discover that these patterns do not always fit into an easy 4/4 or 3/4 measure. Although some variations will be specifically about rhythm, many are not and do not need to be played metronomically to be effective. Instead, you can stop and pause as necessary on awkward places in the patterns, making cranky spots in various keys more friendly, and hopefully over time making them both more comfortable and more organic.)
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org