What A Lesson Looks Like

Introduction

Many prospective piano parents ask me how I teach. I prefer to answer with what a lesson looks like since that removes a lot of the variables that go into this very loaded question. Just to simplify this a bit, I’m going to describe here what a lesson looks like for a beginner. I teach intermediate and advanced students as well, but they tend to be much more customized since they involve older students.

Rote Playing

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention note reading first, since it is a fundamental skill since modern staff notation was invented 1000 years ago. While note reading is extremely important, more important is getting the child immersed in playing the piano. Many adults also enjoy rote playing, as an addition to their regular written pieces, because it gives them a break from studying the written page. In one 30-minute first lesson, I can teach 2 or 3 rote pieces that give the student the chance to immediately connect with the instrument.


What Is Rote Playing?

Simply put, it’s a way of learning that resembles how we typically experience many of our first experiences in life, like tying our shoes or riding a bike. Small patterns are introduced in a follow-the-leader style. Those patterns are put together to form a short piece. Each new piece will become more complex, by adding additional fingers or more complex rhythms. In short, it’s the quickest way to learn a simple piece when you haven’t spent many months learning the intricacies of note reading.


Is learning the piano always fun and easy? No and no! But there has to be some element of both of these in lessons and practice, or interest will wane quickly. Rote playing connects the ears, hands, and brain of the student in a way note reading doesn’t. Besides giving the student a quick way to build repertoire, it prepares her to deal with note reading challenges when they are presented.

Note Reading

Note reading is what would be considered a traditional approach, and it’s still an important part of lessons. I’m including all of the pieces learned as a result of learning this notation. For the typical beginner, much of the challenge in learning a new piece is deciphering the notation versus the difficulty in playing the piece. This can be seen in how readily they pick up rote playing, which subtracts the reading element.

In the piano method I typically use, Piano Safari, reading is approached carefully and methodically for younger students. For older students, grand staff reading occurs much more quickly. Younger students start with pre-notation reading on the black keys, then proceed to the white notes as they become more familiar with the note names. Once that’s comfortable, grand staff reading is presented.

Technique

Technique is important in playing, but the youngest student needs to have experience with playing with one or two fingers before getting all five fingers involved. Piano Safari presents an innovative set of simple skills called Animal Techniques. They comprise seven building blocks of piano technique, which we would learn otherwise haphazardly as a piece calls for them. By learning these techniques early, we can set a great foundation for playing that will help for a lifetime of piano playing.

I start my students on pentascales, also called 5-finger patterns, as soon as they are operating with all five fingers. Once pentascales are fluent, we go on to learning 2-octave scales. That’s about as far as we get at the beginner level. Learning technique is foundational for playing. By working consistently on it as a separate discipline, we encounter difficulties that will eventually appear in their pieces.

Improvisation

Improvisation is an activity that I’ve come to appreciate later in life. When I was a kid, I was never introduced to it. I never enjoyed composition, which is considered to be the written form of improvisation. The good news is that you can enjoy improv, and even become really good at it, without moving on to the composition stage.

Music improvisation simply means to doodle. It’s the musical equivalent of drawing on a napkin or scrap paper. That’s really different than composition, which is like getting out the oil pants and applying the brush to canvas. Improv for kids typically involves a set of rules or limitations intended to make the process less overwhelming. At first, it might involve just the notes that are under one hand, and playing just quarter notes. Later, we can extend the range of notes and rhythms, which can lead to short pieces.

Some kids really enjoy this and do it at home as part of their practice. Others try it but don’t really enjoy it. The important thing is that they get a chance to be the creator of their own works instead of just the interpreter of other people’s compositions.

Conclusion

I’ve introduced you to four activities that comprise a beginner’s lesson. We sometimes don’t get to do all of these activities every week. However, I try to rotate them in, so that each activity happens fairly regularly. Lessons are a wonderful chance to learn about and make a connection with music. I love exploring alongside each child to encourage and bring out their creativity in ways that often surprise them.

Last Updated 2021-10-09 | Originally Posted 2021-10-08

Going the Second Mile

Introduction

I remember seeing this expression on a motivational poster decades ago, where a runner is shown in full stride with no one else in sight. I get it, the others gave up before going the second mile. It’s an interesting expression in the figurative but not literal sense since real runners don’t tire easily. Most wouldn’t probably even bother to lace up for just one mile!

Origin of the Expression

However, it turns out that this expression isn’t about runners at all. Going the Second Mile has Roman and Biblical roots. As you may know, one of the feats of the Roman empire was to create an elaborate road network not previously seen in the ancient world. The expression “Many roads lead to Rome” comes from that. Any Roman soldier or citizen could ask anyone traveling along the road to help carry his/her load for exactly one mile. In Matthew 5:41, Jesus tells anyone who is so asked to go two miles. Of course, Jesus doesn’t say just go an extra 100 yards; he makes it clear we are to go far beyond what is expected!

Inspiration to Carry On

I think about this instruction when inspiration is lacking, and the urge to quit is swelling! Sometimes the burden seems too heavy, and just getting done sounds good. I won’t lie, I often feel that it’s hard to keep going and I just want to quit early. That’s true whether I’m trying to make my step count for the day, at the computer, or on the music bench. I try to keep thinking how good it will be to complete that second mile, and sometimes it works!

The Struggle of Piano Students

I’ve seen the same struggle at work in my piano students, particularly as they arrive into the early intermediate repertoire, where pieces double in length and become more complex between the hands. Some of them come to lessons with a first-mile attitude. You can see it when they come in saying they only practiced hands separately, or that they’ve only gotten a partial way through their piece. To be fair, there are some advanced pieces that require several weeks to get through. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about bringing a beginner mindset to intermediate pieces. They haven’t fully embraced arriving at the higher level.

However, some of my students don’t seem phased by longer and harder pieces. They try their best, and they sometimes surprise me at how far they’ve gotten or the achievement they’ve shown. They’ve learned the secret that a piece double the length isn’t necessarily double the work. Lots of those passages repeat. They are much better readers than they used to be and can cover more measures in a practice session than they used to be able to cover. They’re okay with certain passages being complex and don’t just stop and give up when they encounter a hard passage. They know I’m here to help them figure those out.

Thoughts?

What are your struggles in going the second mile? Where do you find it easy or difficult to go on?

Last Updated 2021-09-21 | Originally Posted 2021-09-19

Train Your Ears

Introduction

Ear training isn’t something that I do enough with my students. It’s really difficult trying to fit so much into a half-hour lesson, which is the length of time that most of my students choose. I use the phrase train your ears, because I’m going way beyond the discipline of listening for intervals. It also involves listening to styles of music. You need to use different types of articulation. Hearing with precision is an important part of playing with precision. Let’s get the dissonance out of the way first!

Dissonant Intervals

A dissonant interval is one that sounds wrong. Technically speaking, it’s either a 2nd, 7th, or a tritone, which itself has two different names! Each of the above intervals, when played in isolation, sounds like someone made a mistake. That’s frequently the case, since dissonant intervals aren’t a large part of beginner repertoire, except when a mistake is made. I try to use the mistake as a learning opportunity, so I say “Does that sound right?” Most of my students will instantly know that I only ask that question when it doesn’t sound right!

Sometimes, the student played the correct notes but is practicing at a slow tempo that exaggerates the dissonance. In other words, when sped up to a proper tempo, the dissonance will make more sense as a part of the longer phrase. In cases like that, I point out that such dissonances are ways of transitioning between consonant intervals on either side. Sometimes it takes a brief dissonance to travel between those two places.

I especially love discussing the tritone. It’s a series of three whole steps connected together, which make a sound that is very unstable, and typically resolves up to a 6th, or down to a 3rd. It’s a fun interval to discuss in lessons since for centuries it was considered the devil’s interval. It certainly has the sound of conjuring no good when heard in isolation. However, these two notes are sometimes just part of a larger dominant 7th or 9th chord, and the notes determining that are in the opposite hand.

Consonant Intervals

Technically speaking, the 3rd and 6th are the consonant intervals, while the 4th, 5th, and octave are perfect intervals. I will take students through the differences between these intervals when it’s the right time during theory discussions. However, for the purpose of this post, I’m mostly concerned about the differences between notes that sound right and those that don’t.

Listening for Inversions

Listening goes well beyond whether something sounds correct or not. It also concerns whether a chord or note is played in the correct disposition. I’m not talking about whether it’s sunny or cranky, but what note is at the bottom. In any chord, we can have the root at the bottom, called root position. Sometimes the third or fifth is at the bottom, which is called first or second inversion, respectively. This gets a bit complex, but essentially we need to listen to determine that the notated chord is what we played.

Listening for Style

Often it can be helpful listening to a recording, especially when the style of the piece is unfamiliar. Even in beginner pieces, there’s sometimes an indication that the eighth notes, which are written as though they are even, are to be played in a swing style. In that case, they sound like they belong to a triplet, where the first note is twice as long as the second.

Some styles of music are hard to pick up from the page. I’d include anything that isn’t standard to our ears. I worked with an early advanced student on a Bossa Nova piece that just didn’t click until he listened to a recording of the piece. The printed score is where we start, but it shouldn’t be where we end our work!

Listening for Articulation

Broadly brushed, there are three basic articulations, with increasing length, from staccato to detached to legato. These are details that aren’t emphasized in depth at the very beginning of musical study, but become more important as the student climbs through the beginner levels. A performer on a recording making these differences can often help the student understand how to produce them herself.

In Conclusion

This is just an example of the type of listening we do in lessons, in order to try to connect the notation on the page to the notes on the piano. Combining theory with listening can be an effective technique, even if I don’t point that out per se. Students who become good critical listeners to their own playing tend to be more successful pianists. For that reason alone, I try to let the student figure out the error, instead of taking the easier route of pointing out what went wrong.

Image by Asoy ID from Pixabay
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2021-09-18

Sharpen Your Pencil

Introduction

When I was in public school, you learned quickly whether the teacher required a pen or pencil for class. Once you got past early elementary school, pretty much every class except for math required a pen. It’s always been a surprise to find that kids typically don’t bring anything to write with to lessons. In case your kids missed the onboarding notice, here’s the announcement once again: Sharpen your pencil!

Fingering

The most important thing we’ll often discuss at a lesson is fingering. Unless you have one of those uncanny minds, how can you possibly remember what we’ve discussed unless you write it in your score? Sometimes I’ll give two different fingerings to try, each with its advantages. A good fingering often simplifies the execution of a passage. Or, at the very least, it simplifies the passage by using sound fingering principles.

Other Score Markings

There are other things that you might want to write in your score. It might be the metronome marking of practice and goal tempos. It could be to circle a dynamic marking or write a reminder on the page. (Slow down here!) Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme as you’ll see in the picture below. However, this is much preferable to seeing a page with no markings, which to me means no extra effort.

Sign of Respect

I had a boss several jobs ago named Fred who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, when I apparently wasn’t thinking, I just plopped down in his guest chair empty-handed. Fred asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for tea and scones (or coffee and donuts). He wanted something specific done, and I wasn’t prepared to take notes. Lesson learned. When I see a student with a pencil, I see a student who cares and is ready to learn. When I don’t, I often think back to that day in Fred’s office.

Sharpen Your Pencil

In choosing the wording of the title of this brief blog post, I was trying to be a bit clever. Bringing a pencil is a good start. When you sharpen your pencil, you’ve gone the extra mile. This points to other parts of preparedness, like being ready to play the scale that was assigned, knowing the pieces in your repertoire, and what I expected you to cover during your practice since your last lesson. Sure, a sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it shows you are serious. And that has to count for something, right?

music score with writing
A student who took my “don’t stop” advice seriously.
Last Updated 2021-09-12 | Originally Posted 2020-07-25

Feel That Beat

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Introduction

I was tempted to call this post Hear the Beat, not Feel That Beat. See the pullout quote below if you’re unfamiliar with the lyrics of the title song of the musical 42nd Street. However, there’s a big difference between hearing and feeling. When you hear good musicians, you can feel that beat because they do, too.

However, if you’ve ever heard some beginning piano students, I bet you’ve noticed some who don’t feel the beat. One of the things I do more and more is to introduce rote playing. In rote playing, the student imitates what the teacher does, learning the piece by pattern and repetition instead of reading notes on the score. They are thus freed up to really listen and feel what they are doing.

Feeling the beat is so important in music because it’s the first thing a casual listener will notice is wrong when it’s absent. They will forgive or maybe even not notice a few notes incorrectly here or there. Plus it’s essential in ensemble work, whether playing duets with another pianist or playing in a band with other instruments.

Use Your Own Percussion

There are lots of ways to establish a beat. Clap. Walk around the room. Patsch – it’s a German/British English word indicating smacking the legs with the hands. Tap on a closed keyboard cover or a table. Count using either metric (numbered) beats or use Kodaly syllables like tah and ti-ti.

It’s difficult to get students to break down music in this way. However, once a student breaks the rhythm apart from the notes, it’s naturally easier for him to play it correctly when the notes are added back. Besides rote playing, sight reading is a great way to keep reinforcing the primacy of rhythm. I use the Piano Safari sight reading cards, but there plenty of other options. It’s important to keep adding more complex rhythms in advance of when the student will encounter them in his music.

Hear the beat
of dancing feet,
It’s the song I love the melody of,
Forty-Second Street

Title song of film and Broadway musical 42nd Street, Lyrics by Al Dubin

The Dreaded Metronome

There is not much that is dreaded by the music student as much as having to use a metronome. To the student who doesn’t understand the device, it’s just an obnoxious ticking device that makes playing more difficult. Yet every mid- to late-beginner has to at some point be introduced to one. For the beginner student, it’s typically used to make sure that notes with the same rhythmic value are played evenly. Sometimes the last beat of a measure or phrase gets extended as the student sees a bar line and thinks that’s a good pausing place. Or, it’s a way to regulate the rhythm of contrasting note values, like the quarter and eighth notes.

After a student gets a good sense of rhythmic values, she tends to use the metronome for tempo regulation. Every piece has a final tempo and good practice tempos. As a rough rule of thumb, once a student works out the notes and rhythms well enough to play more or less in time, we are aiming to get the piece to 80% of the final tempo, or 80 beats per minute (BPM). Once the piece is clean at that tempo, we can move the tempo progressively to and beyond the final tempo. Practicing a little faster than the final tempo is good in order to see what difficulties remain. Plus, it helps the performer know he is okay even if it starts too quickly or accelerates midway.

What Kind of Metronome

I used to be against metronome apps on principle. It just seems strange to turn a $400 device into a $25 one. Then, I found myself routinely grabbing for my iPad with its two tempo apps during piano lessons. When on the road, sometimes it is easier having one less physical object to carry! If you always have a phone or tablet with you and prefer it to a separate device, look no further than Tempo – Metronome with Setlist. It was several bucks when I last checked, and has iOS and Android versions. Everyone likes free stuff, but many free apps are extremely limited. Don’t hesitate to purchase a great app you’ll use all the time, especially at a negligible price like this.

Although I love old-fashioned pendulum metronomes, they are a poor choice for most music students because they are fragile. Drop it, overwind it, or simply leave it properly wound without using it, and your device will soon cease functioning. If, after that warning, you still want a pendulum metronome, the German-made Wittner brand is the gold standard.

The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is one that has been in production in a similar form for decades, and is still the best-selling metronome according to Amazon.com. Its analog dial allows you to choose any tempo within a second. For people who hate analog, or want to save a few bucks, I’ve included the Seiko DM51B Metronome. I don’t understand why anyone would want to use the long-press up and down buttons instead of an analog dial, but at least you have a choice!

In Conclusion

To feel that beat is important in music. It’s not something that’s achieved just by older, more advanced, musicians. It can be done from the very beginning, as long as the instructor is willing to insist on playing correct rhythmic values. Playing rote pieces, and figuring out songs by ear also help in establishing the beat. It doesn’t have to be drudgery, requiring the metronome to be frequently used as a crutch. In the best case, it should be seen as a friend who checks up on you during your time of need!

wooden metronome
Courtesy Wikimedia
Last Updated 2021-09-12 | Originally Posted 2020-03-01

Sight Reading Is a Priority

Introduction

When I write my practice corner articles, I typically think about my students’ struggles in their learning. In many cases, I struggled with the same issues when I was a piano student. However, not in this case, since sight reading always came easy to me. Rest assured I struggled in other areas of playing like technique, sound projection, and memorization.

Definition

What exactly is sight reading? It’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score and translate that to the piano on the first try. It might be slow, a few notes played incorrectly, and there may be some hesitation here and there. However, the result resembles the piece in some way. A parallel would be how well a student can read a written passage and summarize the main points after a first reading. Both in music and literature, it’s important to get the gist while not getting bogged down by details.

Sight reading in music is just a first step to the finished product. It’s great to grasp what’s on the page quickly, but making music is another thing. Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that only practice can work out. Plus, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated in certain playing styles, like jazz and pop. Some extra work might be needed to add the details. Successful sight reading gives the student a good foundation.

Older Methods

It’s important to step back to discuss a bit about the old ways of doing things. Many methods popular decades ago, what I call the dark ages, because I grew up then, used a middle-C-based approach. These methods, which I consider inferior, stuck around for a long time, but are hard to find these days. If you remember your thumbs constantly fighting to play middle C, you learned piano in that type of book.

The problem? You’d get good at playing by finger number from line notes F in the bass clef to G in the treble clef. In order to go past that, your teacher would drill using mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine for the lines and the acronym FACE for the spaces on the treble clef. When you needed to move away from those nine notes in the middle of the piano, it would be really difficult!


Mnemonics Is Not A Dirty Word

Mnemonics, pronounced with initial m silent, refers to any device or trick to aid in memory. I use the skips alphabet from Piano Safari to map the notes FACE and GBD to the lines and spaces. It’s one tool along the road to aid reading, but it shouldn’t be the only one.


Newer Methods

Music educators agree that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be superior to the old fixed-note methods. Most of the methods that are popular today use these tools as the primary way to train note reading. Piano Safari, the method I use, goes beyond that to make sight-reading a regular part of the curriculum. Their sight reading cards are so good that I sometimes use them with transfer students who come in using other method books. They help develop good note-reading techniques, and the student learns to read the entire grand staff and then above and below it.

From Sight Reading To Score Reading

I also have a student transpose certain pieces from time to time. Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in several different keys. What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs! That’s helpful since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. To read some parts in concert pitch, like trumpet and clarinet, you need to transpose. The viola primarily uses alto clef, and the cello occasionally uses tenor clef. You can’t work at your best with other musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!

Can You Hear It In Your Head?

Another benefit of being a good sight reader is to hear music without playing it. When I open a score, the music pops off the page. This has enormous implications when learning new music, shopping for scores, or determining which pieces to work on next. I can quickly find pieces that will work for a particular occasion by scanning them with my eyes, not needing to sit down at a piano.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, you’re convinced that sight reading should be a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture and remediate when necessary. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s beneficial when the parent helps the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a huge thing!

circular music score
Photo by Sebastien Paquet of George Crumb Music Score. Courtesy Flickr.
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2020-02-04

Law of the Farm

Introduction

Sometimes it pays to relate the complex world that we create for ourselves to simple principles. Stephen Covey did this when he discussed the Law of the Farm in his manual on life, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Learning a piece of music is not much different than planting a tomato. You have to be attentive from the beginning to the end of the process. I’m sure you’ve seen the difference between a tomato that is scrawny and one that is a spectacular celebration.

Sure, there are always external factors in farming, but that takes away from looking at the farmer’s role. There are some farmers who are more successful than others because they do everything in their power to produce the best result. The same is true about the factors that go into producing the best musical results!

Time And Attention Are Important

I try to have the conversation early on with my students and their parents about a good amount of practice per day. I talk about it in my post Guide Your Child to Independent Practice. While that article discusses guidelines towards practice time, it doesn’t discuss the limitations to practice. Some children might be able to focus for 10 minutes, whereas some might be able to focus for up to an hour. Focus might be easier on some days than others, or at certain times during the day. Lack of focus isn’t the only limitation to practice.

Distraction can be an enemy as well. It can be from a device like a cell phone, where you end up being your worst enemy. The distraction can also look more old-fashioned, as an adult student recently related to me. He sits down for his 30-minute practice session, but he’s frequently interrupted. It might be a work call, followed by his child who approaches with a homework problem that needs to be addressed. For him, waiting for that perfect block of time never comes along. Sometimes, it’s better just to start, then find your way back to the bench.

Frequency Is Also An Important Factor

Regular practice is the key to most students achieving the best results. However, that isn’t possible for some older students or adults whose free time is lumpy. They might participate in sports, which tend to have complicated schedules. They may have family obligations as well. The good news is these folks tend to have the gift of longer focus. They might be able to find those two or three days where they have longer blocks of free time, and they are able to take advantage of them. I often encourage my pre-teen and teen students to transition to a more realistic schedule of practice based on their particular schedule.

Advanced Preparation

If there is anything relatable to the Law of the Farm it’s allowing plenty of time for recital or festival preparation. I make sure my students have plenty of time to learn a piece for a festival or recital, and I do the same for my own performing. If I have a recital coming up in a month or two, I try to get a jump on my practicing, because I cannot afford to get behind. However, I know that there will be weeks that certain things take precedence over my practice, and the same thing happens to my students. The good thing about advanced preparation is that you can deal with practice obstacles early enough to get back on track.

Sometimes, even advanced preparation doesn’t make the difference. It could be a timing issue, where a student gets involved with another school activity that parallels the critical practice phase. That commitment becomes consuming, with little time left over to practice. Sometimes a student just gets into a practicing funk, where finding joy on the piano becomes more important than the original goal. Although life is full of second chances, sometimes it’s clear that time wins and it’s better just to drop an unrealistic goal. The good news is that the next opportunity is likely to be just several months away.

Enjoy The Gift Of Time

You’ve probably heard many successful people say that their best ideas came to them away from their actual work, which for us would be on the bench. They might have had a discovery in the shower, while driving, or in the middle of their walk. The same is true with us. Our practice doesn’t end when we get off the bench. Our brains process all kinds of things even when we’re not intentionally focusing on them, but time is the key here. If you practice at the last minute, you don’t allow time to be your ally. I don’t want to come to a musical discovery about a piece two days after an important performance.

I Come Up Short, Too!

A couple of years ago, I performed a piece on the organ where I played the notes correctly, but I didn’t understand the musical style. It was an early Baroque piece by a composer whose music I hadn’t previously played. Since I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, I didn’t understand the larger form of the piece as well as I should have. There were lots of nuances that went unexpressed, trills that weren’t well-executed, and the registration was not varied enough. When I performed it the next time, the result was so much better.

There are also more times than I’d like to admit where I left the note learning to the last minute. The Law of the Farm applies to me too! Even if I was able to fool some or most of the people in the room, I disappointed myself. If you are your worst critic, you already know how that feels!

The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t!
(Said during a break in the action on a long day of semester-ending juries)

Professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

In Conclusion

While I don’t recommend your wearing overhauls onto the concert stage, I would recommend paying attention to the Law of the Farm. There are no shortcuts to musical preparation. I have had my own farming successes and failures, and I’ve observed lots of good and bad farming practices through student performances. I’m talking about observation, not judgment. I may not know what limitations affected any particular performance, just like I might not know the heat or rainfall irregularity that impacted a growing season. I do know that all students, regardless of potential, can produce results that might even surprise them if honor the Law of the Farm.

Photo by Don Graham of Iowa corn fields. Courtesy Flickr.
Last Update 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2020-01-01

Memory Magic

Introduction

Gotcha! There is no such thing as memory magic. Yet, some students often treat memory as something that’s just going to happen, because it always has before. As a student progresses, pieces get longer, more difficult, and trickier to memorize. Thus, form study, key/chord analysis, and visualization are just three ways to provide a multi-layer approach to memorization that repetition alone cannot provide.

Form Study

Form study simply means looking at the big picture. This is often done better away from the keyboard, pencil on the score. I provide a specific example of this for my students, taken from a piece that I often teach to late beginners. Essentially, we just look for the themes and mark where they appear.

In basic sonata form, the first theme typically appears in the tonic key, whereas the second theme appears in the dominant key. When you move out of the exposition, or opening part, into the development, those themes often appear in a variety of transitional keys. When you arrive at the recapitulation, which is the third and final section, the second theme will often come back in the tonic key. Being aware of this one detail can help a lot when memorizing!

Key/Chord Analysis

I’ve already pointed to some of this above, but the chords are sometimes worth further study away from the first and second themes. We often use what are called major cadential points, as a landing place for memory issues. If you get lost in the details, it’s best to be able to jump to a nearby place, and then continue. Otherwise, you might jump to the beginning of the piece, and get stuck in a loop. Or, you might skip to near the end and cut out lots of good playing.

Visualization

By visualization, I mean playing the piece through in your mind. You know you’ve been teaching too long when you can memorize a piece just by seeing it on the page. This happens frequently with pieces that I teach often to my students, without any separate effort. I refer to playing a piece in my mind as musical meditation. You could sit in a chair, or even lay down on a bed to do this. You could even do it as sleepy-time practice – and don’t worry if you fall asleep before you get to the end. The true memory magic might happen without any effort from you!

In Conclusion

When memorizing music, it’s important to obviously know it well from the score. However, repetition alone makes for a risky performance, since the tactile and aural memory is easily thrown if you wander onto the wrong keys. . You increase the chances that you will have a memory secure performance by studying the score away from the keyboard. At least you can get back on track quickly. That’s where you find the real memory magic!

Frederik Magle – www.magle.dk; Photo by Morten Skovgaard
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2019-12-01

Make Those Refinements

Introduction

Music is inherently difficult because there is no such thing as a perfect performance. When learning a new piece, it’s routine to get to the point where everything sort of works, but it’s still not great. I’m talking about my playing, too. It’s not just my students. I call this place the 80% malaise or the 80% plateau. It feels good because everything is sort of working. But you haven’t arrived at great! It often takes extra practice to take care of troublesome technical passages or to make sure that those tricky transitions make musical sense. It doesn’t happen on its own. You have to be purposeful to make those refinements.

A Teacher Helps

Students have that built-in helper: their teacher. She will point out all of the places that have the potential to be better. It could be little stops and starts, unclear phrases, or a lack of dynamic contrasts. However, in order to take advantage of that help, it’s crucial for the student to practice within a day or so after the lesson. Or, at the very least, to work through the suggestions, even if that’s just with a pen, a notepad, and the scores for reference. I have often written in measure numbers on scores just so I can make notes that are clearly referenced.

But You Still Must Do the Work

There’s nothing more disheartening when a student comes back making the same mistakes, and remembers the lesson details less clearly than me. When this doesn’t happen, it puts the teacher in a bind. Do I take the time to explain all of these things again, as patiently as possible? Or, do I just move on, since I don’t want a student to get bogged down on one piece, even if it’s squarely on that student for happening. While I always strive to give my students my best, I realize that not all students are striving to be excellent. Some are satisfied with just good enough.

When I train my athletes, it’s a dictatorship with three rules: show up, work hard, and listen. If you can do those three things, I can help you. If you can’t we have no use for each other. I will bust my a** for you every way possible, but I expect you to do the same for yourself. I’m not going to work harder than you do for your benefit. Show me you want it, and I’ll give it to you.

Tim Grover, trainer to elite NBA athletes, including Michael Jordan 1

Try A Digital Audio Recorder

A good digital recorder can be helpful to both students and professionals alike. There is one built into your phone, and it might be all you need. However, there are limits since the fidelity won’t be great. I own separate Zoom audio and video recorders. The Zoom brand is widely used by serious musicians; you can get the base models for $200 or less. I list some models on my books page that can be found from my Piano Parent Portal.

A generation ago, the Sony Professional Walkman cost far more than this, and that’s before adjusting for inflation. Listening to yourself while not playing can give you an unbiased perspective that you can’t get any other way.

In Conclusion

Even though it’s true that we’ll never be perfect, striving to be better is always worth the effort. There’s lots of guidance on that score to get you closer to musical nirvana, and you might have a teacher to give you that extra boost. In the end, it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to do the hard work that makes our listeners sit up in our seats, or just looking around waiting for the performance to end.


Footnote

1. Relentless by Tim Grover (h/t James Clear) – NOT an affiliate link

Courtesy Wikipedia/Project Gutenberg
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2019-11-01

Set a Practice Goal

Introduction

When I sit down to practice, I usually set a practice goal. The practice goal is pretty clear and not needing a lot of thought when I have to have a piece ready to go for the next day. Practice goals become more important when I have a bunch of pieces that are in different states of readiness. At any one time, I have a number of pieces that I’m working on that are scheduled to be performed at different times.

Much of this comes from my job as a church organist where there’s a weekly requirement to have new music ready. Fortunately, I have a lot of experience doing this, so it’s pretty routine. My students, however, may be new to this, or have at most a few years of figuring out how to manage their practice. For that reason, I like to help all my students learn how to set a practice goal each time they sit down to practice.

What Does Practice Look Like For A Beginner?

For the beginning pianist, practice is going to be pretty straightforward. Read through all of the pieces in the assignment, and then repeat two or three times. Stop along the way if you need to figure out the notes, or clap the rhythm. You might remember that I talk about establishing good practice from the beginning in the post Guide Your Child to Independent Practice.

How Does Practice Change for the Intermediate Student?

An issue I see frequently is when a pianist moves on to early intermediate repertoire where pieces typically double in length and become more difficult. No longer is it possible to practice every piece cover to cover in each practice session with good results. Intentional practice becomes a lot more important for this student. Why? The tendency is to start from the beginning, which means that sometimes the student doesn’t get to the end. Ever!

I typically will notate practice zones in the score. Sometimes I map them to the recognizable structure of the piece, like exposition, development, and recapitulation. At other times, I might just choose zones that equalize the amount of difficulty in each section so that there is a similar amount of material to be practiced each day. If there are three sections, and a student practices six days a week, she can cover each zone twice during the week. This fixes the problem of getting really good at the first page or two while neglecting the rest of the piece or movement.

Practice Often Includes Other Things

Many of my students forget to budget time to do other parts in their lessons plan. Technique comes to mind, even though I’m not specifically addressing technique in this post. It also might be a little homework assignment or activity page, which is really theory work. Depending on the size of this supplemental work, you might choose to do a little bit each day, or two or three times per week. Typically it’s not good to do it all at once unless it really is a small assignment.

Conclusion

It’s really easy for me to preach practice goals when I’m not the one enforcing them in the home. However, it’s my goal to be a partner with the parent and the student to make practice a normal part of each day’s activities. Please let me know how I can provide the support and guidance you need, no matter where you are in your piano journey. Certainly doing a little bit each day, moving forward bit by bit, is going to get you far when weeks become months, and months become years.

Scrabble rack with tiles GOAL
Goal by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2019-10-01