Tag Archives: Piano lessons

5 common misconceptions about pianists and piano lessons

Guest post by Javen Ling, founder of Alternate Tone Music School, Singapore

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“I do not have the potential to be a great pianist as I don’t have long, slender fingers”

Long, slender fingers do not necessarily make you a better pianist. While longer fingers may be an advantage in playing certain repertoire with large stretches, short, fat fingers are also an advantage when it comes to playing other music

Some of the world’s greatest pianists have small hands and stubby fingers. Instead of worrying about how your genetics have not provided you with your ideal fingers, start to work developing your technique and learn to accept your physical limitations. If a piece of music is not particularly well-suited to your hand, find a way to work around it. Every pianist eventually has to learn to live with their limitations and adapt to them.

Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no specific type of finger size or length that determines your potential.

“When I start learning a new piece, I should work from the beginning to the end”

Typically, most people will learn the piece from beginning to end and continuously practice until they can play the entire piece well. The problem with this method is having the discipline to push forward when music gets harder to play. As you approach a section that you’re unfamiliar with, you might be tempted to stray away from that and repeat the part in which you are comfortable with, rather than working on the difficult sections.

The most efficient way is to learn the most difficult sections first. This allows you to spend more time on the most difficult sections, rather than avoiding them or leaving them until later in your practicing. Thus when you start learning a new piece, scan through the composition, and determine which section/s appears the most difficult and start working on it first. As you become familiar with the harder section, you will tend to practice it more and under practice the easier sections.

“I don’t see any need to practice hands separately”

Professional pianists continue to practice hands separately even after playing a piece for 25 years or more! Many people are usually taught to practice hand separately first in order to reach their end goal of playing their hands together.

The benefit of practicing your hands separately is that you can focus on note-learning, technical sections and nuances of voicing and phrasing that might be overlooked if you practice hands together. So don’t forget about practicing separately once passed the initial phase of learning a passage. Use it as a tool to polish and improve your playing.

“Never look down at your hands when playing”

Most piano teachers encourage their students not to look at their hands. Firstly, this activity can slow down their learning, especially sight-reading skills as it inhibits them from looking ahead in the score. Secondly, students should not be too reliant on looking at their hands to find the right keys. Thirdly, the action of continually looking up at the sheet music and down at your hands can make you dizzy and might make it difficult to keep track of where you are at in the music.

An occasional glance down at the hands is PERFECTLY FINE. The trick is to not move your head too vigorously, but rather to just glance down at your hands quickly before looking back up at the sheet. By that I mean keeping your head perfectly still and just look down your nose at your hands. Lastly, of course, you should know the sequence of the keys well enough to locate them easily!

“I can easily learn the piano on my own”

With YouTube and Google, it is easy to pick up any skill via the Internet.

You can certainly teach yourself about music theory, history and techniques via the internet; however, a teacher’s experience is invaluable in helping you to improve your playing skills and technique, and advise you on common mistakes. In the long run, this will probably save you time and accelerate your learning.

Many people think that by taking piano lessons you have to go through graded piano exams. That is not the case. It really depends on what you are looking for. If you are interested in becoming a piano teacher or a piano professional, then it is advisable to take exams and diplomas. However, if you just want to learn for leisure, you don’t need to take exams and you can play repertoire which you enjoy, whether classical music, jazz or pop. Alternate Tone music school in Singapore specialises in teaching contemporary music and offers personalised lessons, which means you get to play your favourite music no matter what level you’re at!

If you’re still convinced you can get there without any professional help, that’s absolutely fine! There are many great and talented musicians who did not undergo any formal training. But in my opinion, the piano is definitely harder to learn on your own because of the structure of the instrument and its repertoire. If your goal is to play well, I definitely recommend having a good piano teacher to guide you through your piano studies.

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A lesson with Alan Fraser

Last month I was fortunate enough to have a piano lesson with noted pianist and pedagogue Alan Fraser.

Originally from Montreal, Canada, Fraser is a professor of piano at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, where he now lives with his family. Alan Fraser is best known for his writings on piano technique, including The Craft of Piano. His piano technique is the result of much research into earlier piano schools and methods, and has resulted in a deeper understanding of the complex physical, mental and emotional processes of artful piano playing. The underlying unifying theme is his analysis of the the innate structure and function of the human hand, which helps you replace tension or over-relaxation with effective hand activationit’s not so much about the hand’s shape or position as how it moves. He is also an ardent champion and senior practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, which focuses on learning and movement, and which can bring about improved movement and enhanced functioning. Not dissimilar to Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais can permanently improve  posture, balance and coordination, and relieve tension and physical discomfort.

I was curious to meet Alan, having come across his writings online and in his book, and via the recommendations of colleagues, and I found him an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher (I was also permitted to observe him teaching another student). While some of his technique and suggestions runs counter to my own teacher’s philosophy, he had interesting and valuable advice and techniques for relieving tension and producing a vibrant sound, and I think as an adult student it is always useful to play for teachers other than one’s regular tutor.

Alan runs regular seminars and masterclasses across Europe and America. Further information about his teaching, writing and performing can be found on his website

It is standard practice for him to film his lessons, and I have uploaded my lesson with him to YouTube to allow others to observe the lesson.

Guest post: More Than Just Piano Trivia

Pianist, teacher and writer Catherine Shefski studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, and at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where she was taught by EPTA founder, Carola Grindea.  Catherine has performed as a soloist and chamber musician, has taught “virtual” piano lessons, and writes an informative blog, All Piano, with the mission to “make piano lessons relevant for the digital generation”.

During my piano playing “formative” years, age eight to seventeen, I studied with four piano teachers. Two teachers at college and four post-grad brings the total to ten. Each teacher contributed something to my growth as a pianist and as a teacher. I find myself passing along choice tidbits of information to my students, clearing up confusion about musical terminology and offering practice tips.

I’d like to share just a few lessons I learned along the way, in addition to all the repertoire, which made certain teachers (and lessons) memorable.

  • Piu means “more” and peu means “little.”
  • Piu mosso means more motion and meno mosso means less motion.
  • Accidentals do not affect the same note of a different octave, unless indicated by a key signature.
  • Senza means without and sempre means always.
  • To shape the melodic line it usually makes sense to go to the long note.
  • If there is no fingering written in the score, follow the “next note, next finger” rule.
  • Una corda means use the soft pedal (one string); tre corda means release the soft pedal (three strings).
  • When you have two phrases with identical notes and rhythm, make them different by dynamic contrast or a change in touch.
  • Grace notes in Chopin are generally played on the beat.
  • F# minor melodic scale is the only scale that changes fingering on the descent.
  • m.d. (main droite) right hand and m.g. (main gauche) left hand.
  • With a ritardando at the end of a piece pay attention to the space between the notes. Should be incrementally longer with the longest wait before the last note.
  • When working on very soft passages, practice “excavating the pianissimo.” In other words, begin from nothing and then gradually you’ll get to the softest sound possible.
  • Before playing extended octave passages, try flipping your arm over and reaching an octave with your hand upside down, fingers pointing to the floor. It a good stretch!
  • Sopra means above.
  • Sotto voce meas “under voice”, or soft.
  • A staccato note under a slur is a portato. Think of it as a “plump staccato.”
  • When working for dynamic contrast, practice stopping and preparing before the change.
  • When working with large complicated chordal passages, practice squeezing the chord to shape the hand. Your muscles will remember.
  • Sightread chords from the bottom to the top.
  • To play a passage of thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. legato lift the finger that is to be repeated while connecting the rest.
  • When in doubt sing the melody.

© Catherine Shefski

http://allpiano.wordpress.com

 

Memories

Opening the new Grade 2 piano study book yesterday to check out the repertoire for the 2010-11 season, the name Felix Swinstead leapt off the page at me, and took me straight back to Mrs Scott’s pink and mauve piano room in Sutton Coldfield, circa 1973. I remember learning quite a few pieces by Swinstead as a young piano student, and Felix Gerald Swinstead is one of those composers, like Dunhill and Markham Lee, that those of us who learned the piano as children associate with our early studies. Many of his pieces were studies, or genre pieces,  easy enough for children from about Grade 1 onwards, with winsome titles like ‘Cornfields’, ‘In a Playful Mood’, ‘Day Dream’, ‘Masquerade’, ‘A Tender Flower’ and ‘Malvern Hills’, and evoke a pre-war golden time. ‘In a Playful Mood’ rings a bell with me: I probably played it when I was six or seven, and I probably didn’t enjoy it that much as my then teacher had a tendency to make me play the same piece week after week, until I was bored witless with it.

Recently, returning to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I opened my old ABRSM edition and saw another teacher’s annotations, including her diagrams explaining the construction of the fugue form (Sue Murdoch, Rickmansworth, circa 1980-1985). It brought a great rush of memories and nostalgia: of cycling to her house for my lessons, of playing her grand piano with a dog across my feet and a cat staring at me from the lid, of exams taken in the studio of a local professional pianist (a room devoid of all furniture except for the vast black Minotaur of a Steinway), and of being told off by her husband (a prof at the RAM, who was scarily tall with a huge booming voice) for saying I was about to play “only some Beethoven” (it was the Sonata Op 10/i).

I like to think my students will enjoy similar reminiscences of their lessons with me when they are grown up. What will they remember, I wonder….?