Philosophy of Teaching Classical Piano
There is a great deal to cover in the philosophy of teaching and learning appropriately. The following are important ways to guide a student in learning classical piano.
Age and qualification to start lessons
Incorporating music lessons early in a child’s life makes it natural. Depending on the child, age four is a good time to start. Some children are ready to learn at three-and-a-half years. The youngest child I taught began at three years.
The first quality for the piano student is a natural musical gift, promoting its cultivation and applying his energy for hard work. The most common fault, not only with students but with professionals, is sitting at the piano as a pastime instead of working seriously hard and following the teacher’s every advice and assignment. Students without this natural musical gift can still develop quality piano playing by applying discipline and hard work.
It is critical that the pupil have an instrument available for practice. If not, one must rent or purchase a piano. An electronic keyboard is inappropriate and should not be considered as a “starter” instrument. Electronic keyboards are not pianos and their key action is different as is their touch and feel. Piano technique will be negatively affected. A “good weighted key electronic keyboard” does not exist.
The piano should be tuned and in good shape. My piano tuner and technician Mr. Vick Hovanessian once said, “Playing an out-of-tune piano is like trying to look at a beautiful landscape through a dirty window.” An out-of-tune piano will take the student’s concentration, interest and curiosity away, making practice tedious, boring and not enjoyable.
The correct way to study the piano is to apply one’s self directly to the work, following the teacher’s method and specific assignment for a same length of time EACH DAY. This time depends entirely upon the future that the student or his parents decide upon. If the student takes music as a serious profession, four hours daily should be given to study; if as an amateur, two hours is enough. In either case, the time devoted to practice should not be less than one solid daily hour on a previously set up schedule to be respected regardless of circumstances.
I am a strong believer in discipline. A student should absolutely follow a teacher’s advice. Anyone who would insist upon his own interpretation should not have a teacher. A teacher represents a system, and it is absolutely important in any kind of work to have a system.
I enjoy and consider absolutely important an applied method and organized way of leading a student through the right path of piano playing to include a deep, detailed and a very specific technique, and well understanding of Music Theory and Solfegge. As a teacher I must decide when and how, depending on the student and his sensitivity, to guide him to correct and beautiful playing. At the same time, I believe that a teacher should adapt his teaching to the needs of each pupil. Some students need more time to understand and to apply the important concepts of technique and interpretation. We, as teachers, should analyze and understand every student’s need, speed of learning and ability to follow a teacher’s instruction, before moving on to the next level.
We know that no method or guidance can lead to artistic mastery. It is not what a student practices that is important, but rather how he practices.
In learning a correct way of playing the piano, the fundamental factor is Technique. This word incorporates everything. It includes not only dexterity, but also touch, tone, rhythmic precision, perfectly relaxed posture and pedaling. Alberto Williams once said, “Pedaling can make a piece beautiful or it can ruin it.”
We should teach how to reach a good, rich, wide and warm tone, taking in account that this is also very “personal” because tone is an expression of the soul. The outcome, as I have learned from many great teachers and pianists: “No technique without musicality, no musicality without technique.”
A parent should plan to sit on the bench with the student through about age eight. At about age 10, the child should be able to practice "alone," but a parent should be within earshot. Many children do not continue in piano study because they are "left" in the piano room by themselves. I cannot stress enough that a parent must be present in the room with the child, and even better right on the bench. Also, a parent should be sure to understand the assignment, particularly what the teacher expects the student to do every day until the next class.
Attitude at the piano
The first important point to teach is attitude at the piano, which should show absolute relaxation of the entire body from head to toes. Any stiffness will create a wall between the instrument and the performer.
“Posing” should not be approved in any way. A pianist’s mind should not give space to anything that takes him away from the composition itself, the correct technique to be applied, and the meaning of the written notes. “Posing” is an egocentric way of opaquing the beauty of making music, putting ourselves selfishly above what really matters and wrongly leaving music on a second instance.
Real feeling in piano playing is not expressed by an emotional posture. A pianist’s art is shown by his fingers, not his face; and if the player has real feeling, it will display itself naturally without any effort. Unnecessary body movements will take energy and concentration away from creating while performing and will jeopardize a clean, neat, accurate and honest execution.
To attain natural piano playing, it is of high importance to learn to relax our muscles consciously. We should reach a feeling of relaxation from deep within. The most important goal is to achieve the least possible strain of the muscles when playing the piano accompanying with deep breathing to keep the brain oxygenated and being able to control every finger action.
The pianist hand should be flexible at the wrist. Relaxation should come from the shoulders and the elbows should not be pressed against the sides. By applying these points, a pianist will develop wide fingertips and a beautiful muscular hand.
The nails must be well trimmed for the elastic fingertip gives a richer tone than the hard nail. The hand should be given a noticeably arched, natural shape as the rounding of the hand is the only way to get full strength in the finger attack. Flat hands and fingers result in an amateurish and unpleasant effect of a weak and unmeaning sound.
Knuckles should be higher than the wrists, responding to the natural and effortless position of the hand in a “dead” position. If the wrists are not slightly lower than the knuckles but leveled with the arm, then this will create a harsh and uncontrollable hammered tone due to stiffness. The movement of the wrist should respond to absolute relaxation and natural posture.
The shape between the thumb and first finger should be the natural “C” shape that this “dead” position of the hand shows. The wrists should stay slightly lower than the knuckles maintaining a constant and uninterrupted relaxation state resulting in a beautiful, warm and fine tone.
In training the hand, a great mistake is very common, not only among beginners and amateurs, but even among professionals and that is the bending out of the first joints of the fingers. Such position of the finger, its joint bent out, makes the getting of a good tone impossible. Students and teachers should pay great attention to the “breaking down” of this joint. This is a difficulty that MUST be settled in the very beginning. Most of the students will verbally express: “I cannot do it!” to which Ignace J. Paderewski would respond: “... those whose finger joints “break down” should not play the piano unless they have energy enough to correct the fault, and IT CAN be corrected.”
Strength should come from the weight of the arms, controlling it continually and without letting all this weight overwhelm the piano keys. We, as teachers, should guide, show and prove to our pupils what a huge difference it makes to play with the full weight of the arms, versus controlling this weight and letting a high finger action activate the mechanism of each piano key. Which way to choose and apply depends on the passage to be played and the required dynamic.
Ear as the guide
When the technique mentioned above is mastered and accomplished, then the student should learn that the ear is the guide, and the student must be able to hear when any undesired inequality begins to be evident. The tones will be equalized only after much practice.
To reach this point, a teacher must guide the student to the natural dependency of the fingers, to use smaller, more economical motions when playing fast or complicated passages. All this should be thought of and applied carefully from the very beginning, avoiding bad habits.
To be able to follow all these treasured advises mentioned above, the student needs absolute concentration while practicing. One of the characteristics of learning the demanding discipline of piano study is that pianists have to practice well and long enough to be able to keep control and track of everything mentioned above. The only way to do so is to apply absolute concentration. Concentration is accomplished when there is absolute silence.
The student should be able to practice in peace so he doesn't have to struggle to concentrate. Practically speaking, a piano cannot be moved, so people in the family will have to vacate the piano room. Before practice or lessons begin, family members must agree to honor practice time by taking themselves elsewhere. The family should agree beforehand that they will leave the piano room without a fuss, no matter what they are doing, when it is practice or class time. This is just one reason a regularly scheduled practice time is a good strategy.
Practice should be slow, very slow, to avoid mistakes. Mistakes occur due to lack of concentration and silence or because the fingers are going faster than the ability to think ahead of time to control them. Every mistake is engraved in the brain and will always be there without the possibility of undoing them. These mistakes pop up during future practices and performances. If the student does not have the discipline and energy to control the speed while practicing, consequently, mistakes and playing “dirty” are committed and the student is simply “mastering the mistakes” and will never be able to play correctly, cleanly and neatly. Along with the slow practice, the right path of learning a piece is to focus on very small passages. These passages could be as small as one or two measures, depending on the difficulty of the musical work. On very advance master pieces, two measures can be “too much,” one measure can also be “too much.” Sometimes “beat by beat” should be taken and repeated until playing without effort, letting the fingers react by feel.
Counting out loud
Counting out loud is indispensable for the correct development of the sense of rhythm, respecting every note and rest to perfection. Counting out loud will create a “map” in the brain, developing a sense of security and precision. The student musician must learn how to know exactly what beat of the measure he is on. The first time a student tries to count out loud, he will experience a feeling of confusion because he will be saying numbers that are different from the numbers related with the fingering. At the same time the student is trying to focus on every note, coordinate both hands, in correct posture, on the value of every note, etc. At the beginning to count out loud makes a student lose track of the other important technical points. Then, trying to get back to those important technical points, the “counting out loud” fades and disappears. Because of all this, it seems that it is impossible to develop the habit of counting out loud, and the majority of students gives up and believes that counting out loud is not possible. This is a serious mistake. Every student must insist on this constant counting, practicing much slower so in this manner the brain will be able to process all the important details. Unquestionably, the habit of counting out loud will be developed naturally in approximately two weeks. After this time, the counting will be natural and automatic. The sense of rhythm will be refined and coordination will develop at a high level. The IQ will increment and the brain will learn to process thinking and finger motions in a faster and more precise manner.
The use of a metronome does not replace the importance of learning to count out loud. If a metronome is utilized, it must be done with permanent counting out loud. After this, the execution of fast passages, dotted notes, double dotted notes, triplets and other rhythms will be performed with precision and neatness.
Influence of good music
Finally, a piano student should be guided to eliminate trivial music. Listening and watching great pianists will educate and influence the pupil to a refined taste, learning to reject, hate, abhor and abominate “cheap” trivial music. If low quality music interferes with the process of learning the beautiful art of classical piano playing, there will be confusion and a lack of learning to like, enjoy and choose the right music for the ear.
Sylvanna’s “Philosophy of Teaching Classical Piano” is noticeably supported by the fine piano technique and teaching of pianists and teachers like Martha Beth Lewis, Walter Gieseking, Karl Leimer and Malwine Bree