autonomy: the ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else – Cambridge Dictionary definition

The best teachers want to be made redundant – that is, their aim is to help their students become confident, independent musicians. In other words, they want to encourage autonomy in their students.

As a teacher, perhaps the simplest way to encourage autonomy in one’s students is to give them a choice in the music they play and learn. As a child in the early 1970s, I had my first piano lessons with an elderly and very traditional teacher who decided which pieces I would play and selected all my grade exam repertoire. I would have to practice pieces until I could play them perfectly and then I would move on to new pieces. I can still recall the excruciating boredom of some of those piano lessons and intervening practicing, when the same piece of music, which I disliked, confronted me on the music stand day after day. Looking back, I’m amazed that I stuck with the piano, but when I reached around Grade 5 standard, I began to realise that I had enough ability to strike out on my own and choose which music I really wanted to play. It was around this time that my mum bought me a score of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux and I sight-read these pieces voraciously. (I loved them, without really understanding much about them at the time, and that affection for these pieces remains with me today.) This was also a great learning tool, although I may not have realised it at the time: finding my own way through the intricacies of Schubert’s writing improved my sight-reading, problem-solving abilities, confidence and musicality. When I took this music to my new piano teacher, she never said “Oh you shouldn’t be playing this, it’s far too advanced for you“, but helped me around some of the trickier corners, and encouraged me to explore more repertoire on my own. This was the start of my personal musical autonomy.

It seems obvious to say, but most students will be more motivated and progress better if they actually enjoy the music they are learning and playing. So don’t impose repertoire on them, in the mistaken notion that it will be “good for them”, but involve them in the selection of the repertoire by playing pieces to them. Even very young or beginner students will know what kind of music appeals to them – it may be something as simple as an attractive melody or rhythm. And if a student comes to a lesson with a piece they have selected and worked on without teacherly input, celebrate this as an important stage in their growing independence and musical autonomy.

Actively involving students in the direction and progress of their learning, seeking their opinions on the learning process, asking them what their musical goals are or how they plan to approach their practicing, all foster confidence and autonomy. For the teacher it needn’t require a huge change of approach; I found that by simply changing some of the vocabulary I was using in my teaching made the student feel far more involved in what they were doing – it was their music after all, not mine! For example, instead of saying “you should practice this passage like this“, I would ask “how do you think you might practice this passage?” or “what do you think would be helpful here?” – a simple shift from a didactic to a more collaborative approach.

Encouraging students to think about what they can do for themselves, based on their accrued technical and artistic skills, musical knowledge and experience, coupled with specific and applicable feedback and support from their teacher, helps foster a greater sense of investment in their own musical pursuits, which, hopefully, leads to increased motivation. Showing students what they need to improve and how to improve it, and helping them understand the reasons for doing what they are doing, can give them better insight, involvement and control over their own learning and leads to a deeper form of motivation than simply practicing for the next grade exam because you feel you should be practicing.

In addition, encouraging regular self-critique during lessons and in practicing, and equipping students with the tools to exercise self-critique – mindful practice, self-recording, reflection and adjustments – provides them with a framework for success when similar challenges come up later and encourages them to become intrinsically motivated. With these autonomous skills in place, students have the confidence and ability to become independent, self-fulfilled learners; above all, they enjoy their music.

The Pianist’s Autonomy – Part 1: Going It Alone


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Acclaimed pianist and pedagogue Penelope Roskell announces the launch of her new digital course ‘Teaching healthy, expressive piano technique’.

Following on from the success of her award-winning book, The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry (publ. Peters Edition in 2020), Penelope has teamed up with publisher Informance to produce a nine-hour series of videos which gives teachers, both new and experienced, an in-depth understanding of how to teach all aspects of technique to students of all levels.

The course offers thirty-one high-quality videos complemented with copious notes and musical examples to illustrate a healthy, sustainable approach to technique. Each aspect of technique is presented in a practical step-by-step approach, starting with simple exercises which are then developed into more complex intermediate and advanced examples. Concepts are demonstrated in numerous repertoire examples from all levels, including several pieces written by Penelope for this purpose.

Key features:

  • Thirty-one videos (total approx. nine hours) on all aspects of teaching technique with very clear multiple camera angles.
  • The videos are supplemented with detailed notes and numerous musical examples which will help you put the exercises into practice immediately in your teaching.
  • Excellent navigation options will enable you to follow the course sequentially at your own pace, at times convenient to yourself (especially beneficial for those in other time-zones), and to try out exercises immediately at your own instrument.  You will also be able to reference specific topics easily as and when needed.  

The course is suited to all teachers, both new and experienced, who wish to improve their teaching and learn how to teach all aspects of technique to students of all levels. This is a very comprehensive conservatoire-level course, which already forms the core of Penelope Roskell’s new Piano Pedagogy course at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. 

A healthy piano technique not only avoids injury but also helps to achieve a more beautiful sound, greater artistic freedom and faster progress. This comprehensive course will help teachers to resolve common problems and instil a well-coordinated, confident approach to technique in their students, paving the way for a lifetime of fruitful, expressive and injury-free playing.

Students of the new course will also be able to access feedback from Penelope and former students via follow-up Q&A sessions and the dedicated Roskell Academy support group on Facebook. They will also have the opportunity to work towards accreditation in the Roskell Method if they wish.  

As part of the launch, Informance are offering readers and followers of The Cross-Eyed Pianist the opportunity to pre-order the course at a 20% discount off the normal price of £125. Order via this link or use code 67EHW6XPU47U at the checkout.


Workshops on November 6th

As part of the launch celebrations, Penelope is offering two live online workshops on November 6th. Both workshops are interactive so do be near your keyboard so you can try out all the exercises as they are demonstrated. 

6th November 13.30-15.00 GMT: Play Scales and Arpeggios evenly, fluently and expressively

In this workshop, Penelope will discuss her approach to fingering and demonstrate new techniques for evenness, fluency and speed.  Click here for more information.  

6th November 15.30-17.00 GMT: Improve your chord technique

Here Penelope will demonstrate how to use different types of chord technique to produce rich arm-weight chords, fast repetitive chords and powerful, vibrant fortissimo.  Click here for more information

Penelope Roskell is a renowned international performer, inspirational teacher and professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and a visiting professor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She is the author of The Complete Pianist and the leading UK specialist in healthy piano playing. 

peneloperoskell.co.uk

I have been rather disturbed to learn from a couple of teaching colleagues, in discussions in response to “that” tweet from the ABRSM, that music examiners are actively discouraged from saying “well done” to a candidate after their exam performance or writing similarly positive comments on the exam mark sheet. Personally, I can’t see the harm in offering such praise; in fact, I see it as a force for good, something which can help students, especially young children or more anxious players, to find the exam experience more positive. And it’s far more friendly than a rather curt “thank you” from the examiner at the end of the session.

Exam mark sheets are problematic too. Not only does one have to decipher the examiner’s handwriting (which can be as impenetrable as a doctor’s!) but the language can be opaque, full of special “examiner-speak” which is not always easily comprehendible to students and their parents. The often rather brusque comments may seem negative even when intended to be positive. When I taught regularly, I would highlight the good comments for my students and would also go through the mark sheets with them to help them get the best out of the comments and to understand how the more negative feedback could be used to inform their practicing in future.

Within the teaching studio, we should always provide a supportive environment to encourage learning, motivation and confidence. Sadly, some of us will remember dragon-like piano teachers from our childhood who highlighted errors but rarely praised; a few even resorted to physical abuse such as rapping a student’s knuckles with a ruler. Fortunately such abusive practices are rare today and should always be called out.

Negative feedback, such as continually picking up a student over small slips and errors, or constantly asking them to play a section again to “get it right” rather than allowing the student to play through the whole piece before offering critique, will dent a student’s confidence and erode their ability to trust their ability and their musical self. It will also make them more dependent on a teacher’s feedback, anxious for praise and the “credentialisation” that comes from it. This approach is not conducive to encouraging self-critique and independent learning.

How to critique well

Be respectful and kind

Teaching is about respect, between teacher and student and vice versa, regardless of the age or ability of the student.

Be collaborative

Use language which focuses on the playing rather than the person and make the critique collaborative. For example:

DON’T SAY: “You played some wrong notes in Bar 12.”

DO SAY: “Let’s take a look at Bar 12 together and see if we can work out what happened there.”

By involving the student in a problem-solving exercise, we hand them greater autonomy and encourage them to find their own solutions.

Accentuate the positive

In my experience, most students, regardless of the level at which they play, are alert to errors and will be quick to point these out if asked to comment on their own performance. When I taught regularly, I always asked my students to self-critique after they had played and would preface this by asking them to “find three things you liked about your playing today”.  (It says something about our education system, and an undue focus on “getting it right”, that it took some coaxing to steer students away from highlighting mistakes first and to instead focus on “the good bits”.) These needn’t be complicated or expansive, especially for younger/less advanced students – good use of dynamics or articulation, a well-shaped phrase, observing expression marks etc. When it came to my turn to comment, I would also begin with some positive comments and praise. This sets up a supportive and encouraging atmosphere between teacher and student which leads to a better environment for learning and progress.

Be humble and open-minded

The teacher isn’t always right, and even the most junior students has something fresh and insightful to about the music they are learning. Be willing to listen to students’ ideas and help them put them into practice, if applicable, or guide them to understand why something may not be appropriate in the context of the music.

The best teachers want to become ‘redundant’ by giving their students the tools to become confident, independent learners. Giving critique and feedback in positive terms is an important part of this process.


Further reading:

The Perfect Wrong NoteWilliam Westney

The Inner Game of MusicBarry Green

The Art of PractisingMadeline Bruser

That’s the view of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the major UK (and worldwide) music examinations board. It’s a view I don’t happen to agree with and this emphasis on “assessment” and testing rather than encouraging musicianship, musicality and, above all, enjoyment in making music, is one of the reasons why I stopped using the ABRSM exam syllabus only a few years after I started teaching piano privately in 2006. For me, this tweet is a sign of just how out of touch the ABRSM, an organisation which apparently prides itself on being the “gold standard” for music education, has become.

Unfortunately a lot of people – parents and teachers – think assessment and “getting your grades” is what learning music is about. You can read my thoughts on this subject here.

How the Taubman Approach reimages traditional practicing

guest post by Edna Golandsky


The phrase “Practice makes perfect” is a commonplace in piano pedagogy. But what do we do when practice doesn’t make perfect?

When I was a young student, my teacher would tell me to practice for two hours a day, repeating pieces over and over again, to further develop my technique. Since the pieces were memorized, and all I had to do was let my fingers play on their own, I started putting books on the piano stand and read a book while I practiced, thinking I could accomplish two things at the same time. It was only many years later, after my eight years of study at Juilliard when I began working with Dorothy Taubman, that I began to understand the negative results of this kind of practicing. I began to use my brain in a whole new way and understood that true learning starts with the brain instructing the hands how to move, and then, my hands sending a message back to the brain indicating whether or not those instructions improved the passage.

My own experience during my early years at the piano is not unique. Repetition, either of passages, exercises or pieces is the norm in piano pedagogy. Below are some of the more common, traditional approaches to practicing:

  1. Repeating passages endlessly in the hope of producing fluidity, speed and security.
  2. Using different rhythms and transposing passages into different keys to master passages.
  3. Doing exercises that are supposed to develop finger strength and dexterity. Developed by Hanon, Czerny, Pischna, Phillipe, Dohnanyi and other pedagogues. These exercises include finger isolation exercises, which are often done with curled fingers, stretching exercises, pushing, and pressing hard into the key, and more.
  4. Relaxing, what we call breaking the wrist fulcrum, which is often done on downbeats.

The first two approaches to practicing listed above have not shown themselves to be sufficiently effective in developing or enhancing overall technique. The third and fourth approaches not only fail to advance the technique but actually can lead to fatigue, tension, and pain. Nevertheless, all of these routines, as well as others have been around for at least two centuries and have survived until today as the mainstay for building technique.

Efficient practicing is the cornerstone to advancing at the piano; the more effectively the student can use his or her time at the piano, the greater the progress will be. What all these approaches mentioned above don’t consider is that existing technical problems must be addressed and resolved in order for practicing to be effective.

Technical problems can be caused by any number of reasons. The necessary alignment between fingers, hand, and forearm may be missing. For example, the fingers are often isolated, curled and stretched. The seat height may be too high or too low. The hand may be twisting to the right or the left from the wrist joint. The elbows may be too far out or too far in. The choice of fingering may be faulty. All of these reasons result in fatigue, tension, and pain. Uncorrected, they can lead to serious injury.

Enter the Taubman Approach: a comprehensive approach to piano playing that addresses all aspects of piano technique and, in the process, transforms the way we practice.

Practicing efficiently starts by initially solving the specific technical problems that obstruct learning. The goal of this approach is a technique that is free of symptoms, with freedom, ease and security. Once the issues are resolved and the technique is working well, practice becomes efficient, pieces can be learned faster, and endless repetition becomes unnecessary.

The process I outline below is the way students practice in the Taubman Approach:

  1. Unless the piece feels comfortable from beginning to end, the student comes to the lesson with specific passage problems that he or she has been unable to resolve.
  2. The Taubman teacher diagnoses the root causes of the problem.
  3. The teacher shows the student the solution. The student tries the solution and gives the teacher feedback until the problem is resolved.
  4. The student practices the solutions between lessons. The practicing is done on the material covered at the lesson. Initially, he or she practices the solutions at a reduced tempo, and the movements are somewhat exaggerated. Everything practiced leads to the final result.
  5. The student increases the speed as the solution takes root and playing becomes easier and more comfortable.
  6. The solution is then put into a broader context: first the phrase, then the section, then the entire piece.

There is a high level of precision within these types of solutions, and they are best handled with an experienced Taubman teacher. Practicing has to be result-based, which means that the student has to be involved in the process of learning and practicing. The brain can best absorb a small amount of information at any given time. The student practices for as long as he or she can concentrate and takes a break when necessary. It is best to repeat only until the hoped-for result is obtained, and then move on. Discomfort and pain always indicate a problem and the student should stop, as continued practice will exacerbate the problem.

When students first come to me, I evaluate the overall situation. Often, they come with serious injuries that need in-depth work, which can necessitate fundamental changes. These changes are made gradually, in short intervals of practicing, until the hands begin to function normally. The students start with scales, passages, arpeggios. They then progress into pieces of music and develop additional skills, such as intervals, chords, jumps of every kind and more. As the work continues into musical interpretation, practice includes how to get all the different qualities of sound, how to achieve true legato effects, physical shaping, rhythmic expression and timing.

On some occasions, people come with technique that works well, but with a problem in certain area, such playing octaves quickly or getting big rich sounds that are not harsh without getting tired. I show them how to resolve the specific problem and explain how to practice the solution to get the best results.

The correct technique, learned and practiced correctly, can last a lifetime. Playing becomes as natural as walking and talking; the hands don’t forget.

In the Taubman Approach, we first learn the correct technique, then practice it in the ways described above until it becomes as natural to us as walking and talking. When the playing is correct the hands don’t forget what to do, and the skills can last for a lifetime. In that way,

“Practice can indeed make perfect!”


Edna Golandsky is a world-renowned piano pedagogue, the leading exponent of the Taubman Approach, and the Founder of the Golandsky Institute.

A graduate of the Juilliard School, where she studied under Jane Carlson, Rosina Lhévinne, and Adele Marcus, Ms. Golandsky has earned worldwide acclaim for her pedagogical expertise, extraordinary ability to solve technical problems, and her penetrating musical insight.

www.ednagolandsky.com

 

An Introduction to the Piano – Christopher Northam

Amidst all the recordings of virtuoso repertoire comes this delightful collection aimed at amateurs and piano students from pianist Christopher Northam.

Northam takes us on a chronological journey through some 300 years of keyboard music, from Byrd to Debussy, with plenty of gems of the repertoire, as well as lesser-known works by Pachulski and Alkan.

Although described as music “for beginners”, the selection includes some challenging pieces of cGrade 6 to 8 standard, including Beethoven’s much-loved Für Elise, Field’s Nocturne in B flat and Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Admittedly, these are not necessarily “concert pieces”, but they certainly require a fair degree of technical and artistic facility.

We are so used to high-quality recordings of concert repertoire by leading, acclaimed pianists, it is refreshing to have a selection which is clearly aimed at amateur players. The actor and keen amateur pianist Alistair McGowan attempted something similar a few years ago with his Piano Album, though the music selection was almost as unimaginative as his playing, and I am not convinced by McGowan’s assertion that hearing someone like him playing this music will inspire others (I suspect most aspiring pianists find inspiration in high quality performances, whatever the difficulty of the repertoire). By contrast, Northam treats this music with all the authority, care and commitment one would afford virtuoso repertoire, and performs it as if in a concert rather than strictly pedagogical setting.

Remarkably, the recording was made over 20 years ago at St George’s Bristol, which boasts one of the finest acoustics for piano and chamber music in the UK. Northam’s sensitivity and attention to detail in this crystalline acoustic results in a recording which sounds fresh and immediate.

The amateur piano world is huge, and very supportive of professional players, from whom many amateurs not only drawn inspiration but also receive tuition, in private lessons, masterclasses and summer schools. Yet the amateur world is often barely acknowledged; this excellent contribution from Christopher Northam recognises the importance of amateur pianists while offering inspiration in repertoire which is accessible and achievable. If I have one criticism it is that there is not a single piece by a female composer included in this otherwise excellent selection, but I am told by the manager at the recording label that the music selection was based on the then ABRSM syllabus, which, at the time, included no pieces by women composers.

Recommended


 
An introduction to the Piano is available on the HOXA label distributed via Naxos. Catalogue no. HS950701
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