When is the right time to start teaching piano technique?
Renowned pianist and pedagogue Penelope Roskell believes that technique should be taught from the start and her new series of books aimed at children turn learning technique into an enjoyable and stimulating series of exercises, games/quizzes and imaginative original pieces.
Author of the award-winning The Complete Pianist, Penelope Roskell is recognised as a leading exponent of healthy piano technique which leads to “natural artistry and a lifetime of pleasure at the piano”. In her new trio of books for children, from the outset Penelope aims to encourage these early piano students to explore the keyboard as widely as possible: the first volume is called ‘Hop, Skip and Jump’ (by contrast, many beginner tutor books tend to start in the Middle C position, which can be very limiting). Through a series of fun exercises and short pieces and songs composed by Aaron Burrows and Carl Heap, accompanied by delightful illustrations by Eilidh Muldoon, the student is introduced to techniques such as lateral movement, playing staccato, hand positions, playing sustained notes, legato and more – all aspects of technique which are, or should be very familiar to the advanced pianist. The final volume, ‘Leaping Ahead’, builds on the techniques learnt in the previous two books, while also introducing new challenges, including playing hands together, chords and broken chords, leaps, slurs, chromatic scales, two-octaves scales, fingering and rotation.
As the introduction to the books makes clear, these are technique books, not method books, and as such can be used alongside the teacher’s favoured method books or personal teaching approach to ensure technique is taught in an enjoyable and stimulating way.
In addition to the exercises and pieces, each book includes teaching endnotes, complete with a video demonstrations which can be accessed via a QR code or by visiting https://www.editionpeters.com/essentialpianotechnique1. Learning Objectives and Teaching Tips are concise and informative.
Drawing on the best current pedagogical practice, the books use imagery and gesture to develop ‘piano technique’ in the broadest sense of the term, and remind both teacher and student that technique should always serve the music, rather than be taught and studied in isolation. Thus, this approach ensures the young pianist is equipped with all the necessary skills to play with both technical assurance, confidence and artistry, without tension and with a rich palette of sounds.
Having studied myself with Penelope Roskell for six years (the first few months of which were a crash course in all the technique I was not taught when having piano lessons as a child and teenager), at a time when I was myself teaching piano to young and early students (children and adults), I can attest to the value and ease of her approach to piano technique. She would often demonstrate something to me and then suggest I try it with my own students, using appealing imagery and gestures, and I quickly realised that learning and teaching technique need not be complicated – in fact, it is very simple and I believe the approach laid out in these new books can be easily adapted for older students and even adult learners.
Following the success and acclaim of The Complete Pianist, Penelope Roskell continues to make a vital contribution to piano pedagogy. These new books lay the crucial foundations for a lifetime of secure technique coupled with immense pleasure at the piano and are an excellent addition to piano teaching literature. I cannot recommend them too highly.
Essential Piano Technique (Primer A, Primer B & Level 1) by Penelope Roskell is published by Edition Peters
My mom used to tell a story about me. She said that she would lie in the bathtub at night and listen to me practice piano.
I find this story strange because I honestly have very, very few recollections of practicing. I know I played because I remember the irritation I would feel at competing with the blare of the TV, or my angry older brother yelling at me to stop making a racket. But then there was the idea of “practice”, which was a bit of a fuzzy concept for me. Was it playing things over and over again until I could play it perfectly? Or was it something else altogether? I didn’t really know and there was no one at home who understood it either.
I didn’t start piano until I was 9 years old. We didn’t own a piano and my parents only
experience with music lessons was my brother’s aborted attempts at trumpet, which
left them unenthusiastic about investing in lessons for me. The subject of piano only
came up because they received a call from my best friend’s mother. Mrs. Kim had
called to say that I seemed to spend a lot of time around her piano and she thought
they should have me start lessons. My father balked at the idea of purchasing a piano
for an 8-year-old so I was given a plastic recorder and signed up for recorder lessons. I played recorder for a year and when it became clear that I loved music, they figured
out a way to get a small spinet piano.
I adored my first piano teacher, Mr. Erikson. He was a tall, gangly, bearded man with a
raspy voice. He started me off and we worked together until I was nearly 16 years old.
Every week when my lesson rolled around I’d feel a flurry of emotions. Anticipation was usually the biggest one. Sometimes a bit of shame for not doing the music worksheets he would assign. And also for not “practicing”. I didn’t like to let him down and I knew that practicing was important. I just wasn’t sure how to do it. But I also didn’t want to ask him what it meant because it seemed like I should understand it already.
Something magical always happened in those lessons with Mr. Erikson. Our work
together would absorb me completely. The lesson would flash by as I immersed myself in each new intricacy of music-making and sound. I progressed steadily. I must of practiced, right? How do you progress without it? And yet why didn’t I understand
what it was?
My musical life stumbled after a tearful parting from Mr. Erikson when he moved to
California. Limited for competent piano teachers in my small town in Rhode Island I
had begun lessons with a music professor at the local university. That relationship was life-changing. My weekly lessons became agony. There was no flow or understanding during lessons. Just a series of orders of what I was supposed to do. I was unable to focus because I was so frightened of this teacher. My ability to immerse myself in the music and grow and learn evaporated. Each week became worse as I was berated over and over again with my musical (and perhaps personal) deficiencies.
By this point, I had been accepted into the university at age 16 to pursue a Bachelor of
Music. He was the teacher I needed to work with in order to get my degree. He was
annoyed with me for this early acceptance, which he had been against. He said I
wasn’t mature enough. He was also annoyed with me for being accepted into the
Young Artist Piano Program at Tanglewood over the summer before I started at
university. He had told me I would be wasting the time of the audition committee if I
applied and would never be accepted. I auditioned anyway and spent a month
studying with Robert Taub, surrounded by amazing young musicians who were far
better than I was. They practiced! I was starting to get the concept.
And I DO remember practicing for him. I practiced a lot! But I just couldn’t seem to
progress. I couldn’t connect with the music. And each time I sat down to practice,
determined to show him what I could accomplish, I would just become more
discouraged. I ran scales. I did technique exercises. I worked on the assigned music.
Joylessly and with trepidation, driven by a sense of his seemingly endless disapproval.
It all came to a head during a lesson when I was mucking up the Mozart Sonata he had
assigned. By this point every time I played for him my hands would shake, my eyes
would have trouble focusing and my brain would go blank. In a fit of irritation he told
me that I had no capacity for hard work and I was just someone who liked music but
would never be a musician. He then told me to play it again for him. I couldn’t because
I was crying so hard I couldn’t see the music. He sighed and said “This proves what
I’ve said. Go home.”
I was devastated. My teacher Mr. Erikson came back for a visit that fall. I played for him and he just stared when I finished. “What happened?” he said weakly. Not only could I not play fluidly or with any musicality, I had developed so much tension that I was losing the feeling in my arms and hands. All that practice had done significant damage.
Before he returned to California, Mr. Erikson helped me to make some changes. I
altered my program from a Bachelor of Music to a Bachelor of Arts in music because
that allowed me to drop piano lessons.He had a long consultation with a friend who
had a D.M.A. from Eastman School of Music and set me up with this new teacher. I
began commuting to Boston every Saturday for lessons. I had to relearn how to play
again. Gradually I began to heal. Gradually I started to play again (or was it practice?). I adored my lessons with my new teacher. The sense of ultra focus and immersion
during lessons returned and I made enough progress to be accepted into University of Texas at Austin’s music program where I earned a Master of Music in piano.
So how does this impact my own teaching and the advice I give to parents and
students about the importance of practice?
In my opinion, at every level students need help understanding what they’re trying to
achieve when they practice. That understanding needs to be age appropriate. And it all springs from the quality of the teacher/student engagement during lessons. Working together in a way that feels collaborative, exploratory and uncovers each student’s connection to the music sets students up for better success on their own. Lessons that include regular, honest, and non-judgmental conversations between a teacher and a student about what (if anything) the student achieved in the week. We all know lesson time is precious because there just isn’t enough of it. But it is time well spent for students. Learning to self-reflect. Learning how to engage with sound. Learning to recognize how technique is tied to the sound produced. Learning to immerse themselves in a process that, when it goes well, can make an incredible difference.
Many years ago, I heard a friend joke that “you don’t need to practice if you just play
every day.” And I realized I finally had my answer to how I had made my progress.
Jennifer Griffin Gaul is a US-based pianist and educator. She holds a Master of Music in piano pedagogy and performance from the University of Texas at Austin.
Before I discuss some of the points made in that article, I would like to clarify the following:
● The intention of my response is not to point fingers as to who or what is right or wrong. All of us are entitled to our own opinion and the purpose of this article is to provide an alternate viewpoint.
● All of us are unique individuals, what works for one person (musically and otherwise) might not necessarily resonate with another. In an ideal world, we will learn to respect someone else’s opinion without the need to resort to some form of online slur of abuse. However, the world we live in is far from ideal.
● Everything in the article is based on my own experience as a human being, educator, musician and a pianist.
I must applaud the author of the article for being so articulate and standing up for what she believes in. The music industry and the world of piano teaching will always be indebted to teachers with Lorraine’s passion.
I agree that some form of panel or administrative board (notice I stopped short of calling them ‘third-party’ interlopers) might be useful not only to regulate the quality of piano teachers, but also to provide general information and guideline to aspiring piano teachers as to what good teaching might be. Ultimately, this does not guarantee that everyone who is examined and passed by the board will end up as good teachers (as Lorraine rightly pointed out later in her article). It is all very well being able to convince a panel of examiners or judges that you have the credentials to be a good teacher, but applying what you have studied in real life is an artform in itself, and one which takes a lifetime to perfect. I also see the benefit of CPD (Continuous Professional Development) for piano teachers, but I must admit that the best teachers that I know have often been musically curious (in a healthy way) and always considered themselves as students of the arts. In general, it is my opinion that being a good teacher has less to do with the qualification and more to do with being a relatable human being, as teaching is the transference of knowledge from one individual to another (and very often from one generation to another). Ultimately, teaching is a spiritual exercise which requires patience, empathy, integrity, dedication, and sometimes even humour – in short, all the qualities that make one a honourable human being. Though it may sound obvious, we often take it for granted that some form of qualification is the minimum requirement for all professions. Bad teaching is often attributed to teachers having little, or at times no qualifications or formal training, whereas an excellent student is often the product of certain highly qualified individuals.
While Lorraine asserts that, in her experience, the majority of poor students have been taught by unqualified teachers, I would like to suggest that there are many other reasons why a piano student might not have as solid of a musical foundation as one would like, some of which I will try and address below.
Firstly, no teacher is ever entire responsible for how a student develops, as I strongly believe that there also has to be a sense of accountability on the student’s part. As much as I enjoy the 1984 film Karate Kid, I have come to find Mr Miyagi’s famous line ‘No such thing [as a] bad student, only [a] bad teacher’ a little simplistic. This is because I pay all of my students the compliment of being responsible for their own decisions (musical or otherwise). Take a common musical occurrence: if (for whatever reason) you left your sheet music at home instead of bringing it to your lesson, then it is no fault of your parents. And if we are preparing for an external exam or performance, there will be musical consequences should you choose not to practise your scales and technical work properly. A teacher can do their best to help, facilitate, teach, even go as far as practicing with a student, but at the end of the day we cannot play for them. I recall meeting an excellent Singaporean piano teacher during my travels who told me that she was ‘embarrassed beyond words’ because one of her students had taken a rather spontaneous opportunity to play for a very famous piano teacher when she was on holiday in China. I might have read the situation incorrectly, but in this instance the teacher clearly felt that all her students are a reflection of her teaching and personal credentials. When I reassured this teacher that she is not ultimately responsible for everything her student plays, and given the circumstances it was very understandable, she looked at me as though I was speaking Wookie! As excellent as some piano teachers are, I sometimes wonder if their dedication and commitment (particularly in Asia) have more to do with the preservation of their own self-image and reputation. This makes sense from a business point of view, especially when you are making a living in a results-driven culture.
Secondly, I believe that the gaps in all our musical development often have more to do with the lack of interest (or even laziness) on the student’s part rather than lack of effort by the teacher. A sweeping statement perhaps, but I count my lucky piano stars that I was fortunate to have studied with some of the most sought-after piano teachers in the business. As different as all my teachers were, they were unanimous in believing that unless I studied more Bach and work on my sight-reading, I would never reach the musical heights of my fantasies. I sometimes wonder if things would have turned out differently if I had at that stage come across Maria Tipo’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Grigory Sokolov’s performances of Rameau and Couperin … Unfortunately, I was young, hot-headed, and lacked any sort of emotional or musical patience. Why play contrapuntal music when I aspire to perform works with eight-note chords on every single beat of the bar? What I failed to notice was that contrapuntal musical lines exist within almost all chordal textures. And who needed sight-reading when I was able to learn new repertoire just as quickly through obsessive practising? I was wrong of course, and it was only years later when I become a teacher that I started addressing these musical gaps. To this day, I have never felt that the talented but wildly undisciplined Michael Low of twenty years ago was a reflection of any of my teachers.
Ultimately, it is up to the student what they want to get out of their piano lessons. As a teacher, would you turn down the lucrative proposition if a potential client offers to double or even triple your fees, only to let you know that they have absolutely no interest in learning how to read music notation? The same client’s ultimate aim is to play a few soundtracks from iconic Hollywood movies or well-known pop songs when hosting elaborate dinner parties. As a teacher, do you take on such a student in the hope that, while this is far from a ‘proper’ or ‘ideal’ way of teaching the piano, maybe the student will change their mind somewhere down the line and recognise the importance of reading music notation? Such an occurrence might be rare, but it is not entirely impossible, and I have experienced it. Or do you simply refuse to entertain such profanity? The situation becomes even more complicated when there is a new teacher trying to build their reputation. Does the new teacher turn down this very profitable musical venture and run the risk of losing out on future clients of the same social status? I cannot speak for everyone else, but when I started teaching I took on anyone who wanted to learn how to play the piano, partly for financial reasons, but most of all because I believe that I have to work hard in forging my musical reputation. I did everything (within reason) to assist my students when it comes to note-learning, even to the extent of spoon-feeding them. Looking back, I probably should have considered a less strenuous methodology when it comes to reading musical notation, but that was an important part of my journey as a music educator, and I certainly do not think any less of myself for the musical decisions that I have taken.
The Piano Teacher’s Musical Blanket
Imagine going to bed with a blanket long enough only to cover three quarters of your body. If your pull the blanket over your chest, then your feet will be exposed; and when you cover the lower part of your body, your chest will be cold. Any student and piano teacher worth their musical salt will tell you that managing time is one of the most challenging factors during weekly lessons. In other words, one can never have enough of it. If you spend all your lesson working on technical studies and repertoire, you run the risk of neglecting other aspects of the student’s musical development such as sight-reading and aural. By spending a substantial time on the latter, you will find it hard to delve into the details and the emotional subtleties of musical interpretation. And because of this, I would argue that there will inevitably be gaps in any student’s musical and pianistic developments. It is very difficult for any teacher to address all the musical weaknesses in a student. Sometimes the teacher just isn’t experienced enough, but most of the time this is a logistical issue. By the same token, most teachers are not so bad that they cannot address any of the more glaring issues in a student’s playing.
I have never been keen to give my new students a ‘check list’ of things we need to do to improve their playing as I find that in doing so only creates tension and bad feelings especially when the student (for whatever reasons) feels attached and loyal to their previous teacher – I am speaking from experience as I have been on the receiving end of such a treatment during my student days. Rather find out what was done and what hasn’t been done so well and build on this. Just like any musical performance, if you look hard enough, you will always be able to find interpretive discrepancies. It is up to the individual how they move forward from here.
Again, this may be another unpopular opinion, but studying with highly qualified or sought-after teachers doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have all your musical and pianistic questions answered. This might sound like a simplistic statement, but highly qualified (and famous) teachers often have the musical gravitas to attract more advanced students. This of course makes complete sense – you are not going to study with one of the professors who teaches in a music conservatoire if you are just interested in playing Grade 3 level (nothing wrong with that of course, as all musical and pianistic goals are personal), and, conversely, you don’t seek help from a primary school piano teacher if you are studying the entire Liszt Transcendental Etudes (again, this is a generalisation – and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek – because I have come across excellent piano teachers who have yet to have the opportunity to showcase their teaching credential at a tertiary institute). The dilemma lies at the highest level of teaching, where prestigious music schools are more interested in having famous performers than actual teachers on their teaching roster. I knew of a brilliant young pianist who won a scholarship to study with one of the twentieth century’s most prolific pianists in London, only to have a handful of lessons due to his teacher’s own personal commitments. And I am sure all of us are familiar with the story of Martha Argerich, who recalled only having four lessons (in eighteen months) when studying with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Michelangeli asserted that he taught Argerich ‘in silence, and away from the piano.’
I would like to leave you with the following scene from John Avildsen’s 1984 film The Karate Kid. I am sure many of you are just as familiar with the movie’s plotline as I am: the teenage Daniel LaRusso and his mother Lucille move to Los Angeles and live in the same apartment block as the Japanese immigrant Mr Miyagi, who accepts Daniel as a karate student when he becomes the victim of bullying. What follows is a mentor/student relationship that encompasses not only, karate but life itself, as in the following exchange:
Miyagi (to Daniel): You remember lesson about balance?
Daniel (nods somewhat hesitantly): Yeah.
Miyagi: Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance, everything be better. Understand?
As piano teachers, it is our duty to teach our students the mechanics of how to play the instrument along with the basic of music such as rhythm, note-reading, musical notation, as well as interpretation and music appreciation. However, as much as we want all our students to succeed and become international prize-winners, it is worth remembering that, ultimately, every student is different and some are more interested than others. At the end of the day, it is not the teacher who does the playing or performing in practical exams. Just as it is left to Daniel LaRusso to find the balance in his life that ultimately propels him to become the karate champion, our students will ultimately have to walk through the musical door that we open for them, and that will be enough.
Michael Low, March 2023
Listen to Michael Low’s podcast with The Cross-Eyed Pianist
I am aware that this is a very contentious issue/question for many; however it is something I personally feel very strongly about and believe that it should be addressed and discussed widely within the profession.
To that effect, in preparation for my article, I posed the question on an online piano forum as to whether or not piano teachers ought to have achieved a minimum level of piano specific qualifications in teaching and/or performance before setting themselves up as piano teachers, and whether or not the profession should be regulated to ensure that teachers do have the minimum piano specific qualifications.
The post drew some pretty strong reactions, and I must admit I was very surprised at the number of piano teachers who strongly disagreed with me. However, there were many who strongly agreed, one of whom is eminent concert pianist and Professor of Piano, Karl Lutchmayer, who has kindly agreed to share his thoughts and views for this article below:
“Would you send your child to a ‘paediatrician’ who only had an A level in biology? Of course not, and neither would you be able to because it is a regulated profession. Yet, anyone can set up as a private music teacher. As such, every year, professionally qualified music teachers take on students who have been poorly taught and have to put them through the utterly disappointing process of unlearning bad teaching. This may turn the student off music entirely, and occasionally, particularly at higher levels of study, the student has endured long-term psychological or physically damaged that will seriously undermine their future learning. Yet, as long as the first teacher has done nothing illegal there is no way to prevent them doing the same to hundreds of other students.
Such a situation would be intolerable in other forms of teaching. Various commentators point out that there are bad qualified teachers. This is certainly true, and only means that regulation should set the bar higher, particularly with CPD, than it is at the moment, it is not a reason to avoid regulation. Others point out the cost for teachers, but such regulation is required, for instance, for osteopaths who bear the cost as part of their costs. Would you really want osteopathy without regulation? If we are going to accept that bad teaching can cause both psychological and physical damage, then the lack of the requirement for a regulatory body is not only bizarre, it is a derogation of our duty of care as professionals educators..”
I wholeheartedly agree with Karl. Like many piano teachers I regularly inherit transfer students from other teachers, and whilst many have been well taught, and have strong foundations on which to build, at least an equal number have not. The majority of those students who come to me with poor technique, notes written in the score, no idea about phrasing, articulation, tone production, balance and voicing etc, have been taught by unqualified teachers. By this I mean people who have set themselves up as a teacher with a very minimum level of skills themselves, perhaps a playing level of below even grade 5 standard, and very little understanding of the instrument and its repertoire, nor of pedagogy or andragogy.
Sadly, many of these students will not have realised that their teacher does not have the necessary skills required in order to help them build the strong foundations they will need to be able to play the piano well, and by the time they transfer to a teacher who does they are already frustrated at not being able to play the repertoire which they are learning as they lack the technical and musical skills to do so, unfortunately many find the task of rebuilding those foundations too daunting and will give up. I find that incredibly sad as they will have started out with enthusiasm and joy for the piano.
To add to my concerns, I frequently see job advertisements stating ‘piano teachers required, no qualifications or experience necessary’ this is a very worrying situation and not only will lead to more poor teaching and the increased risk of physical injuries due to poor technique, but it seriously undermines our profession.
Every interview I have ever attended has required me to perform and to teach to a panel of highly qualified professionals, followed by rigorous questions on technique, repertoire, my entire teaching ethos and also questions on child protection/ safeguarding issues. This is in addition to evidencing my qualifications and experience, so for me this is answers the argument that others are raising about qualifications not guaranteeing good teaching, they don’t always, but evidencing them in some way, and a requirement to undergo CPD goes a long way towards doing so.
As Karl mentions, other professions require qualifications and have a system of ensuring that standards are upheld. For example, I have recently completed a Coaching course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I teach piano, the course is not specific to piano but I have a great interest in studying and in a wide range different educational approaches so I decided to delve deeper into the coaching approach. On completion of this course I received a certificate from GSMD, but to gain the Foundation level qualification I must now complete another 20 hours of coaching which I must record and send for assessment, then this will be submitted to the EMCC for accreditation, if I did not pass then I would need to complete further training and resubmit an application to gain my qualification. This qualification still does not mean that I would be a qualified Coach, the ‘coaching’ which I have experience of within my teaching does not count at all for this qualification, I must evidence that I am competent in order to call myself a Coach. This first course is just a start, I must then complete another course and another 100 hours of (non paid) coaching practice before I can give myself the title of coach. Do I think this is wrong or unfair, no absolutely not and I believe that a similar system would work well for piano teachers.
Another example is that I sing and have done so all my life – from madrigal groups to London theatre choirs and bands; I have been in many professional shows within these choirs but I would never attempt to teach singing lessons. I know how to use my own voice but I do not have the first clue of how to teach someone else to use theirs so it would be morally and professionally wrong of me to try and do so.
There are other professional issues which are really important to consider, one of which is that without professional status it would be more difficult to obtain public liability insurance and the enhanced DBS certificate along with the necessary child protection/safeguarding training that one should have if teaching children one to one in private practice. It will also not be possible to belong to a professional body such as the ISM as a professional member with private teacher status.
Finally, unfortunately because anyone can set themselves up as a piano teacher, it does lead to us being seen as having a lovely ‘hobby job.’ There is much discussion in the press and within music education in general of how music continues to be downgraded, how it is seen as unimportant and more as an add on hobby than a serious subject. By continuing to allow this situation of unqualified piano teachers setting up to continue are we not perpetuating this school of thought?
I am proud of my career and my hard-earned qualifications, I continue to study not only because I am passionate the piano and my lifelong journey with it as a player and teacher, but because I strongly believe that we owe it to our students to offer the very best teaching we can give them because the students, the music and the piano deserve no less.
Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.
There are certain habits of piano practice which are ingrained in us from an early age and which have become a form of “piano dogma”. As young piano students, we may accept these practices without question, trusting in our teacher’s seniority and greater knowledge – and the assertion that these activities are “good for you”, that they will make you “a better pianist”. These include scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises (Hanon, Czerny etc), separate hands practicing, slow practice and use of the metronome. Many of these practices come from theorists, lesser musicians, traditional teaching, and exam boards, who perhaps exert far too much influence on what is “good practicing” rather than actually listening to active musicians who have formulated their own ways of doing things which reflect the realities of learning and performing music today.
Scales, broken chords and arpeggios
These are generally considered an essential part of the pianist’s practice regime, still seen by many as the path to superior technique. By the time the piano student is approaching Grade 8, they will have learnt scales and arpeggios in all the major and minor keys, plus various permutations such as scales in major and minor thirds and sixths, octave scales and arpeggios, chromatic scales (also in thirds), dominant and diminished seventh arpeggios, and contrary motion scales and arpeggios. Scales and arpeggios have a use – they teach us about keys and key relationships.
But, like the technical exercises devised by Hanon et al, scales and arpeggios are generally mechanical exercises used to build greater finger dexterity, independence and velocity. Although one can practice such exercises in a musical way (fluctuating dynamics, different articulation or rhythms), in my opinion, they are fundamentally unmusical.
How often are you required to play a full four-octave arpeggio or scale in major thirds in a piece of music? Sure, we encounter many scale and arpeggio patterns within pieces but these are devices to illustrate the drama and narrative of the music or to create specific effects (a descending chromatic scale can be darkly, spookily dramatic, for example). You may have practiced octave scales in a book of exercises but the test is whether you can play them musically in the context of real repertoire.
Not scales, never. Exercises, never….. I worked on pieces. Then if that didn’t work, I’d work on individual passages.
~ Martha Argerich, in an interview with Charles Dutoit
Separate Hands Practicing
This is one of the “holy grails” of piano practice – perhaps the holy grail! – that we should learn the music hands separately first and then bring the hands together. This was how I was taught as a young piano student and many, many students have the benefit of separate hands practice drummed into them from their early years to conservatoire level.
There are many occasions when separate hands practicing is very useful; but there are also occasions when separate hands practice is less helpful or even a hindrance to learning. Sometimes it is necessary to hear the complete harmony of the music or to have the foundation of a bass line or melody to support the other hand.
Another holy grail of piano practice! Like separate hands practice, there are occasions when slowing the tempo right down can enable us to manage a tricky section, get the notes learnt and under the fingers before speeding the music up. Slow practice also allows us to hear details in the music (but only if you are actually listening while practicing – and you’d be amazed how many pianists, including advanced or professional pianists, don’t listen to themselves!). But if you always practice the same passage at below tempo, the procedural (“muscle”) memory will find it harder to cope with playing at full tempo. In reality, tempos should be able to work both too slowly (a musical challenge) and too fast (an efficiency challenge).
Practicing with the metronome
Tick tock tick tock tick tock…..The insistent tick of the metronome is one of the abiding memories of my childhood piano lessons; my teacher made me play scales to the beat of a metronome. It was pretty hellish, but I submitted anyway. As a result, my scales were fluent, accurate and even.
The metronome can be useful in helping you establish a clear pulse, but practice too much or too often with that insistent tick and your playing may become overly mechanical without the necessary nuance of tempo which adds ebb and flow to music.
I’ve observed a certain metronome addiction amongst some student and amateur pianists: nearly all exam repertoire comes with a suggested metronome speed – note suggested. Yet some people believe they will be marked down in their exam performance or play the music incorrectly if they don’t adhere exactly to the metronome marking. It’s often worth pointing out that the metronome wasn’t invented until 1815; before that time musicians relied on an innate sense of pulse and an understanding of what tempo was appropriate for directions such as allegro, largo or adagio, for example – and that’s what we should all aim for. By all means use the metronome to get a feel for the pulse in the music, but don’t become addicted to it!
A music-led approach
While I may employ all of the above activities in my own piano practice, I have found that a “music-led” approach allows me to practice more productively and, importantly, enjoyably. The first teacher I had when I returned to the piano as an adult after a 25-year absence encouraged me to create exercises out of the music I was learning – a far more useful tool than turning to boring, mechanical exercises. There is so much beautiful music out there for us to play and a Bach Prelude, for example, can offer far greater technical and artistic challenges than a book of exercises by Hanon.
Don’t be afraid to look for alternatives and to experiment with practicing. Fundamentally, it’s about finding an approach that works for you as an individual, rather than a “one size fits all approach”.
You should diligently play scales and finger-practices. There are many, however, who believe they’ll achieve all, by practicing daily on technique for hours on end, up till high age. It’s like practicing every day to enumerate the alfabet faster and faster. One would think one could make better use of their valuable time.
This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site
The covid-19 pandemic has forced many of us to reinvent ourselves in one way or another. For some this has involved having to find a completely new way to earn a living; for others it has meant searching for ways to keep ourselves busy and, importantly, to keep our spirits up. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising there has been a huge increase in the number of people buying puppies…and pianos. As someone with both pup and piano, I can’t advise you on which might give you more pleasure, but I can offer some advice about learning the piano, although I have to declare a vested interest.
At this point I need to thank Fran The Cross-Eyed Pianist for very kindly asking me if I would like to write a guest blog for her website. So here I am, putting my head over the parapet to talk about what I have been cooking up during lockdown, while others have been getting to grips with sourdough. In fact my ‘piano method’ has been simmering for much longer than that. For many years, I have felt uncomfortable with the glaring gaps in the way we approach piano playing and teaching. As a result of those gaps, most of us are reliant on the printed page for every single note of music that we play. Playing by ear and improvisation are a completely alien concept.
For myself, I never really believed that I could call myself a musician if I could not make music without a printed sheet in front of me. The fact that I could not was a source of shame and embarrassment. Then one day I decided to teach myself. Working on the basis that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it, I found a group of willing friends and set about teaching improvisation. What resulted from those weekly sessions taught us, I believe, something even more important than how to add harmony to melody; it gave us a much greater understanding of how music ‘works’.
As a piano teacher during lockdown, I began to teach (with some trepidation) using video exchanges on WhatsApp. This approach was more successful and rewarding than I had anticipated, and brought me to some interesting conclusions about teaching in general. For my own part, the need to produce video lessons that were absolutely clear and concise, gave me new motivation, and stimulated fresh insights into my own teaching. As far as my pupils were concerned, learning from videos forced them, in their own space and time, to figure things out for themselves. Having to prepare videos to send back to me also seemed to give my pupils a new motivation to practice, until they were happy watching their own performance. Gradually it began to dawn on me that now was the perfect time to finally release my own piano ‘method’, which has been steadily germinating for longer than I care to admit. Despite lengthy dialogues with music publishers over the last three decades, my ‘book’ was ultimately turned down for being too ‘gimmicky’, too ‘different’, and, on one occasion, for teaching only pieces in C major for the whole of the first chapter.
Being different was always my intention. It has never surprised me that so many people ‘give up’ the piano so quickly (quite apart from the considerable, and often prohibitive, expense of regular lessons). Our obsession with teaching music-reading from the start, and the discouragement of any kind of improvised playing, means that many slow readers ‘fail’ before they have even started. At this uncertain time for musicians (and for classical music itself), it is even more vital for those of us who make and teach music to be flexible, so that we can adapt our style and our teaching in ways which will bring us and our pupils success, or at the very least, joy. For many classical musicians, the reality has always been a life of long working hours and low pay. Of course, there is money in music, as those successful in the popular music industry well know, but few classical musicians ever tap into this other world, even if they are struggling to sustain their careers. The reason? Their highly specialized training frequently has not included improvisation or composition, even at the simplest level. Almost unbelievably, it is still possible to graduate from a top UK music college, without ever having been encouraged to play by ear, or improvise. Yet armed with three or four chords, popular musicians come up with catchy tunes which are whistled and sung the world over, and which make millions, if not for the composer, at least for someone, somewhere along the line.
Learning to play the piano is a lifelong journey, and it should be a journey that we enjoy, every step of the way. In recent years there has been much evidence to tell us that, at all stages of our lives, we learn best when the process is enjoyable and playful. Instead of ‘learning to play’, this course encourages ‘playing to learn’. It is designed to keep the joy of learning and playing alive at every step, introducing colours to enhance the whole experience, and to impart a deeper understanding of what we are doing. Chopsticks to Chopin takes the student right back to the beginning – to Chopsticks, in fact – and then progresses via a very different route. It is easy, fun and creative, and can teach a beginner to play real music with two hands, from day one. It opens the door to improvisation, and encourages playing ‘from the heart’, not merely from the ‘dots’ on a page. The system can, I believe, be an effective alternative way into music for children or adults who face challenges such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and ADHD, who may previously have tried and ‘failed’. It also has much to offer an experienced player who might be aware that there are important things which have been missed out of their music education.
So how does it work and how is it different?
My aim in this course is to be absolutely systematic and clear so that an adult beginner can teach themselves without difficulty, and without a teacher present. Equally, I would claim that an adult beginner can use the course to teach a child, or an older child a younger sibling, in exactly the way that Chopsticks has been handed down over generations. Chopsticks to Chopin is a ‘bottom-up’ method which starts with harmony, allowing you, perhaps for the first time, to tap into your own creativity. It will introduce you to vitally important concepts which traditional methods so often ignore, and which make playing so much easier and more fun. The use of colour makes learning and memorising pieces much easier and less daunting, so that tackling a new piece of music becomes a joyous and thrilling experience. Working in only one key at a time greatly speeds up the process of learning to hear harmony. Once these keys have been mastered it is easy to apply the system to any other key. Though not specifically designed for children, the system is appealing to all, and can be used from the earliest stages, so that children learn to play with two hands long before they have learned to read music.
One of the biggest challenges for any piano teacher is sourcing the right musical material for their pupils at exactly the right time. Music which is just too hard, or with insufficient appeal, can put a pupil off for life. To encourage playing by ear, however, it is vital to begin with familiar music with very simple harmony. For this reason, Chopsticks to Chopin starts out with well-known children’s music and folk songs. Whilst children’s music may not appeal to all, it does mean that this course is also perfectly suited to primary school teachers who wish to sing and play music in the classroom, and of course to parents and grandparents.
You can find the course at www.patreon.com. As a platform, Patreon has much to recommend it. Subscribers can work at their own pace; they can also ask questions and send feedback, so that anything that is less than crystal clear can be edited and improved. The course is designed to be fully interactive, and feedback from participants will help to shape its trajectory. With the addition of the linked Instagram page, the idea is to create a friendly community where people can learn from the video lessons, and from each other, in a stimulating and enjoyable way.
Chopsticks to Chopin is virtually free to use. Subscribing for one year will cost you less than the price of most single piano lessons. Fifty percent of proceeds will go to support selected music therapy charities, starting with Chiltern Music Therapy. Chiltern Music Therapy is a not-for-profit organisation which brings the joy and healing powers of music to people with diverse medical, psychological and neurological conditions.
Do come and join us. You can subscribe to the course from as little as £3 per month (for beginners). For experienced players, Level 2 costs £5.
“As an early childhood music specialist, and as a timid pianist myself, I believe that Lizzie’s ‘colourful’ approach to piano can support the musical development of a wide range of students. Her method is suitable for beginners of any age, and also can give experienced music ‘readers’ a sense of freedom and the confidence to improvise.”
“When I have the colours, I only have one element to focus on. That gives me complete freedom to make music. Whereas if I have the score I have to focus on every single note.” “Much easier with colours! It’s also easier to be more expressive when you can see what’s coming up. Your playing can be more fluid.”
The creator of this course, Lizzie de Lacey, is a two-times graduate of the Royal College of Music, London. Her qualifications include ARCM (teachers); dip ABRSM (performers); and MSc in Performance Science.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site