Piano Studio Etiquette 101

Here’s a post I plan to publish at pianoparents.net. I thought piano teachers might find it entertaining. I would love to hear some of your comments and stories.

I’ll start with a disclaimer if you are a subscriber to pianoparents.net you probably don’t need this. If you care enough to read this blog you are likely are a caring parent who really appreciates your child’s piano teacher. In fact, you will more than likely be flabbergasted by that a post like this even needs to exist (actually I am flabbergasted that a post like this needs to exist). But it does, so keep reading and maybe together we can raise some awareness about how youngsters should behave at the piano studio.

I am an active member of several piano teaching groups on the internet and in “real life”. One issue that has been coming up a lot lately is the fact that children are mistreating the piano teaching space, which in many cases turns out to be the teacher’s home. Stories of kids running amuck through the house, breaking things, leaving messes are not unusual. In fact, they are becoming more and more commonplace. So I invented my own mini course I call it “Piano Studio Etiquette 101”.

These lessons are geared toward home studios, however, they apply to any space in which lessons are taking place.

Continue reading “Piano Studio Etiquette 101”

Teaching Piano Students to be “Let Go” Players

Boy-jumping-off-a-cliff1Piano Students Need to Let Go!

Nicholas was playing the Beethoven Minuet in G Major when he suddenly lost his place in the trio section. “Ms. Hall where am I?” he asked. “Second line, second measure” I answered. My student then did something rather strange. He pointed to he measure with his nose. “You mean right here?” he asked again. I have seen this behavior before. This boy doesn’t want to let go of the keys. He is hanging on for dear life as though he may never find them again.

There is definitely a fear among less experienced players that they will lose their bearings on the keyboard. They feel that by being in close contact with the keys they will lessen the chances of making a mistake. It’s kind of like walking on a winding mountain trail, hugging side as closely as possible for fear of falling off of the edge. Just hang on and everything will OK.

But will it? While may or may not increase the chances of playing accurately this overly cautious playing can’t be very much fun for the player or an audience. In the end this “Hang On” playing is not very musical and it’s not what I want for my students. I want my students to be “Let Go” players.

Playing the Piano is Fun!

I tell my students that in order to be a “Let Go” player you have to let go of the idea that playing the piano is something to worry about. Playing the piano is supposed to be fun! With some careful practice and the right mind set it can be. Let me explain how I teach my piano students to be “Let Go” players.

Right from the start while teaching piano students I teach beginners to lift and relax their hands. We practice playing a note using the pad of each finger and then lifting and gently closing the hand as if picking something up. After that we work with several notes at a time, and them all five fingers. Playing, lifting and relaxing. I remind my students to relax and have fun. If I see a student getting nervous or hanging on to the keys I have them go back to their simple “Let Go” exercises.

For more advanced players I believe the key is to choose appropriate repertoire and practice letting go. If a piece is too difficult it is natural for a student to become stressed. Stress causes the student to be fearful of making mistakes, resulting in a stiff or “Hang On” style of playing. To combat this I intentionally have my students practice slowly with relaxed arms and hands. I use a “place and play” technique for practicing. This is especially effective for left hand jumps. It works like this; play a note then go to the next note or chord as quickly as possible, place your fingers on the keys before depressing them. This allows muscle memory to come into play you hand and arm will remember just how far it has to go to get the right notes.

Something else that really helps is demonstrating “Let Go” playing while working with students and having the watch great concert pianists. This way they can see what “Let Go” playing looks like. I point out to them that music is a performance art and performance is about watching as well as listening. How we sound, look, and feel while we play determines the experience our audience will have.

I also make it a point to refer to my students as “pianists” from the very first lesson. I want them to see themselves as real musicians. I let them know that it doesn’t matter if they are playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or a Chopin Etude their job is to make the music they are playing beautiful, interesting and meaningful. Because that is what the art of music is all about.

Playing the Piano is About Letting Go!

It was Beethoven who said “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable”. Making music is not about perfection. As much as we all strive for the error free performance, mistakes happen. Sometimes big ones! But playing music is about being human, about connecting with others. It should be something that makes people happy, and that includes the performer.

So in conclusion being a “Let Go” player is about preparing the music well and then enjoying experience of playing the music. Playing the piano is awesome! That’s why (almost) everyone wishes they could. I encourage my students to have fun let go and play!

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Piano Method Books a Brief History

I have been doing some research on the history of piano method books. Who taught the great composers of the past to play? and what materials were used to teach these great musicians? Has piano teaching changed over the years? I think this topic is worth exploring.

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It is well known that Johann Sebastian Bach began his musical education under the tutelage of his very musical family. It is thought that his eldest brother Johann Christian probably taught him the basics of violin and music theory. He also played the Organ and the Harpsichord. What materials were used to teach the young Bach, who is now regarded as the father of modern music, is unknown. We do know however that Bach created his own music to use in teaching his second wife Anna Magdalena and several of his children to play the Clavier.

Most of the other great great musicians were trained by their musical families or by prominent musicians of the time. Mozart was trained by his father Leopold. Brahms learned piano from his mother but little is known about what music was actually used to teach these great masters or anyone else back in those days. We can assume that they had probably used Bach’s works as well as the easier works of other composers. Scales, and Arpeggios were undoubtedly used as well.

Carl Czerny (1791-1857) was the first composer to include fingerings in his music and actually create exercises based upon those fingerings. He also wrote a library of teaching pieces. Czerny’s music is still standard fare for the aspiring pianist. About the same time composers Henri Bertini, Franz Kohler and others wrote piano method books. These books consisted mostly of drills and exercises and are not wisely used today.

The time period around 1925 is referred to as the “Golden Age of the Piano”. The instrument gained popularity as many piano manufacturers made the purchase of a piano attainable for the middle class family. To coincide with the surge in interest a “New Age” of piano method was born. These newer piano books promised to make learning the piano more fun and featured whimsical songs and illustrations. The most popular of these older methods were written by John Schwam and John Thompson. There are newer versions of the same of these such as Faber and Faber, and the Alfred Piano Method.

In addition to traditional style piano books there are also a plethora of piano books with catchy themes and gimmicks that are supposed to make piano playing easy and fun. And let’s not forget learn to play online methods and those that rely heavily on technology such as computer based piano learning programs.

Keyboard playing has little changed since Bach’s time. Aside from the fact that Bach did not have the Piano as we know it today (The Piano Forte was invented by Bartomoleo Cristofori circa 1700.) the mechanics of playing are comparable. Music notation remains virtually unchanged since the 1600’s as well. And people are still people. So what has changed? Why do we have all of these “new” piano methods?

The culture has changed today’s piano students are more independent and I believe more sophisticated than I was as a child. Today’s kids have the world of music at their finger tips. They know what they like and what they don’t. They have technology and they know how to use it. They live in a fast paced highly engaging world, there are many things competing for their attention. I can not imagine any of my students sitting through Bertini’s Piano Method. No disrespect intended toward Mr. Bertini he was a fine pianist in his day but tastes and preferences have changed.

I really don’t believe in gimmicks or learn to play instantly piano methods. I firmly believe that students need competent teachers. I love to write music so I set out to create a piano method that would have some fresh music and would help my students with reading by moving slowly and omitting gratuitous fingering numbers. But I want Paloma Piano to be more that just a piano method, I envision a community where we can share ideas. Piano teaching is always evolving it is my wish that we as teachers can work together to better meet the needs of piano our students,

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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