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 isnít 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 instrumentís 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 Gouldís 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 individualís 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: ďCan you fill up a hot-air balloon under your hand?Ē 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 canít listen hard enough or carefully enoughóboth 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 canít 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 donít 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 isnít 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 studentsí 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 studentís 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 donít 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.
June 20th, 2010 :: Reading Days
You can hardly go wrong if you pay exquisite attention to creation. You can hardly go wrong
if you pay exquisite attention to your neighbor near and far. You can hardly go wrong if you
will trust that what is happening to you every day carries within it the seeds of wisdom that
you are in desperate need of. You can hardly go wrong if you learn to bless the most ordinary
things that appear before you every day. You can hardly go wrong if you travel ready to be
surprised by God, whether it's across the world or just to your backyard.
-- Barbara Brown Taylor, on the practice of faith
June 13th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
Last fall, prior to a local competition, Dennis Alexander came to my studio to coach some of my students. "What does this mean," he asked the first kid, pointing to a tempo marking in the score. "I don't know," shrugged the student. "Do you know what Scherzando means?" Dennis asked another student, who simply shook his head in response. "What does Allegretto mean?" He prompted yet another student, who then looked over at me in confusion.
By now I wanted to crawl under my chair, because it appears that my students know nothing, and possibly don't have a teacher at all. In fact, in the course of the several hours Dennis spent in my studio, exactly 100% of my students failed to answer his questions regarding musical markings or tempo indications in their scores. I haven't yet taken statistics, but I do know that this is an alarming percentage. I'd like to defend my teaching by saying the problem was that on this particular day they were using my clean score versus their scribbled up one. Of course, the markings would have been written in their own music. But this is only partly true. Dennis might have had more luck if he would have asked the questions a different way: What is the tempo of this piece--slow, medium or fast? Or: What is the character of this music? My students generally do know what they're doing, but they don't always know how they know it.
This painful awakening made me put cheerful red music dictionary in a prominent place on the shelf next to my piano, and to start requiring that each student look up all unfamiliar musical terms and write them in their scores. This is a good thing, and makes us more accountable for our work, a reminder we all need from time to time. But the whole incident got me thinking; because taking the time to do this in every lesson takes time away from something else. Which is why, I suppose, I got into the habit of not being more thorough in the first place.
On the heels of Dennis' visit, I found this note in a young student's practice notebook:
If there is a *, I totally memorized it. If there is a x, I did some.
"What's this, I did some?" I questioned young Kathryn. She shrugged. (I am beginning to notice a lot of shrugging in my studio.) "I couldn't do it all. I did some."
Later, thinking this over, I had to admit that I have gone into a lot of situations with "some" being my level of preparation. I haven't totally prepared. I have played important recitals with gifted colleagues in which I have not looked up every musical indication in my score. I have some general idea about what to do, but I haven't totally done my homework. This is nothing to be proud of, this habit of doing "some." A cursory look at my life as a whole reveals plenty of areas where that is exactly what I have done. I have done some. I have done some good writing, some hard weeding, some focused practicing, some deep yoga, some thoughtful teaching. But what about the rest? What would it actually look like to "totally" do something?
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that it is a myth to imagine that we can totally do anything. We will never "totally" understand the hearts and minds of our students. We will never "totally" learn all the piano repertoire. We will never "totally" be the pianist, or teacher, or human being that we are striving to become. Looking at it this way, changes the equation a bit. And this, in a coded childish way, may have been what Kathryn was trying to say: I only truly honestly know x. Of course, the goal of "totally" is a good one, and one that we should strive for in our performance preparations and in our lives in general, but most of life is about the "some" of what we have done.
Next time Dennis comes to my studio, my students should be well prepared to answer his questions. (Although it would help if he would give them to us in advance. In writing, please.) But to imagine that there aren't always going to be holes somewhere is to only deceive ourselves. However, maybe now our preparation of "some" will be more honest than our claim of "totally" ever was.
June 6th, 2010 :: Writing Days
My latest column in American Music Teacher
has just hit the mailboxes, and I have been humbled by the outpouring of response. Readers have written to share their own frustrations and disillusionment with the so-called musical establishment. It has been a thrill to check e-mail the last week and hear what you have to say on the topic. Clearly, there are a lot of rebels out there. None of us are alone.
As it happens, this column is my last one for AMT. I had a two year agreement with the magazine, which was then extended by a year. This issue marks the final one for now. It has been quite a privilege to muse out loud in such a forum. I certainly don't plan to stop writing (any one have an inside track with a publisher?); I will stay faithful to this blog, and I'm sure that from time to time my thoughts will appear either in AMT or somewhere else.
For the many, many responses you have sent during my Marking Time
tenure, Thank You.
It has been a true honor to be on the receiving end of your stories. The last three years have been quite a ride.
Here's to the rebels everywhere.....
PS. One reader writing this week forwarded this link
to a music video on YouTube. Thanks to YouTube, we have access to all kinds of wonderful (and some less-than-wonderful!) expressions of music-making. We all need these reminders from time to time, that music-making is far bigger than the small, rigid box of our piano teacher profession. This video link I received this last week is truly joyful. Check it out
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org