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.