My teaching term finished at 4.45pm today as I saw the last student, Tom, out of my warm, cosy home into the cold, dark, snowy evening. I pressed a giant chocolate coin from M&S into his gloved hand, and cheerily wished him and his mother a Happy Christmas, while also reminding him to practice over the holiday. Officially, my teaching term (which runs for 12 weeks) ended last week, but I had to cancel some lessons and carry them over from last week.

Now, I am afforded an opportunity to review the term just ended and look forward to the spring term. As always, it has been a busy term: there has been much music made, new pieces learnt, old ones revised and finessed. I’ve sat through hours of scales and other technical work, done a fair amount of pre-exam hand-holding (mostly of anxious parents rather than students), and talked endlessly about “telling the story” and “painting pictures” in music. The hugely successful Christmas concert marked the culmination of the term and was a wonderful tribute to my students’ hard work this term – and mine too! Three students took the Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 “taster” exam, five are working towards Grade 1, including two of my adult students, and three are working on the Grade 2 syllabus. I am enjoying teaching the exam syllabuses, as the current crop of pieces are varied and interesting: why weren’t the exam lists this interesting when I was taking my music exams, way back when….?

Particular highlights include: Eli playing my adaptation of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’, a piece he chose himself, and which he played with real panache and surprising depth for an 8 year old; Claire, a student who has really blossomed this term, playing ‘Walking In The Air’ at the Christmas concert; Harrison’s improvised ‘Vampire Blues’ (“but please don’t do that in your exam!” I warned), Bella’s lovely, measured reading of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C; Tom’s ‘Chinese Crackers’, one of his Prep Test pieces which utilises the piano’s harmonics in a clever way; and Marianne’s ‘Snowdrifts’, a piece which seems particularly appropriate given the current weather!

As for my own music, I have put to bed, for the time being at least, Debussy’s Prelude ‘Voiles’, after performing it in my Christmas concert. Listening to the recording was a mixed experience: despite all the plaudits I received from friends, parents, students and family on the day, I feel there is plenty of room for improvement. A pause from this piece will help me reappraise it and think about what else I need to do with it. Meanwhile, I am making interesting inroads into Messiaen’s 4th Vingt Regard, a deeply arresting piece which requires a huge amount of emotional input (the notes themselves are not so difficult), and the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, which is cerebral and satisfying (the scores are in my suitcase to read in France, together with my fold-out keyboard to enable me to mark up the rest of the Messiaen properly). The Chopin Ballade continues to haunt me – in a good way – but it is on the backburner while I try to get as much Diploma repertoire into my fingers: 2011 could be the year I take the exam, or not, depending on how I get on….

The Spring term will see three students sit their Grade 1 exam, and at the end of the term I will attend my teacher’s advanced piano course again, where I hope present more of my diploma repertoire. I will also rise to my teacher’s challenge, and play Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 No. 3 at the end of course concert.

For the time being, I am looking forward to a couple of weeks “off” (though not off the piano, of course), and a chance to catch up on some reading and listening.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, some loyal and regular, others casual and occasional. The Cross-Eyed Pianist will return after the holiday.

“It sounds wrong, but it’s right” is something I say to my students quite regularly. And sometimes I say it to myself as well, when a ‘crunchy’ or unexpected harmony catches me out, and I have to go back and check that what I played was in fact correct.

Fairly early on in their lessons with me, my students learn about intervals, “the distance between one note and another” as it says helpfully in the tutor book I use. We play them and listen to them and describe them: a major second, a “pinched” sound, usually elicits a shriek of distaste at its dissonance; a third is pleasant, warm; a fourth, when played in different places on the keyboard, “sounds Chinese” (it sounds “medieval” to me); a fifth is a bare, open sound – it needs the middle note to form a satisfying chord; a sixth is easy on the ear; a seventh “hurts” almost as much as a second, though when converted into a dominant seventh chord, it is enjoyable, especially the sense of relief when the harmony goes “home”.

An unfamiliar, or especially crunchy harmony – and in the simple pieces (pre-grade, and Grades 1 to 2) my students are learning these are often very bare chords, formed of only two notes and are therefore far more noticeable – can bring a student up short, cause them to stop playing, go back and play that section again, thinking they have made a mistake. “It sounds wrong but it’s right” I say patiently, urging them to keep playing. Afterwards, we play “spot the interval”, and it becomes apparent that the problem was not an incorrect note, merely that the ear did not like the sound!

Saskia, who is working on ‘Tarantella’ from the Grade 1 repertoire, a rather charming, plaintive little A minor dance by Pauline Hall (she of the excellent Piano Time series), does not like the chords in the first section, which alternate between a straight A-minor tonic chord and a chord composed of A, D and E. “I can’t play it!” she grumbled at her lesson this afternoon, and then proceeded to play it perfectly, albeit somewhat tentatively. We have been trying to achieve the effect of a strummed guitar in the left hand, with soft chord changes, while the right hand melody dances moodily over the top. Going back to the score, I showed her why she did not like that A-D-E chord, and explained that it was a deliberate device on the part of the composer to create moments of tension, and delayed gratification, before the resolution comes on the next beat. “Music would be very boring if we didn’t have these crunchy harmonies and surprising moments,” I said.

It is this sense of delayed gratification that makes the Chopin Ballade I am working on (and indeed all his other music I play, or listen to), so fascinating, so suspenseful, and so utterly addictive. He forces player and listener to work hard, taking the ear on amazing harmonic journeys, to distant highways and byways, and so when it comes, the resolution, the “reward”, is all the more wonderful and satisfying. Sometimes it may sound ‘wrong’, but in Chopin’s extraordinary hands it is most definitely right.