Terrific Technique

Introduction

What is terrific technique? It’s an aspiration for any pianist at any level because it makes playing easier. What’s not easy is talking about it. I realized there must be a reason that I hadn’t covered this topic previously in my Practice Corner articles. Is it because technique is a given, and doesn’t merit discussion? Or is it just a harder topic to flesh out? I think it’s both!

Simply put, it’s the nuts and bolts of piano playing. But there’s a lot more. Theory. Injury prevention. The way to scale up to harder pieces. Let’s look at each of these a bit more.

Nuts and Bolts

Everything we study in technique is in preparation for playing repertoire. The seven animal techniques we study in Piano Safari are immediately followed by pieces that contain those elements. Five-finger patterns, diatonic and chromatic scales, and arpeggios show up regularly in piano literature. By learning these in advance, we can more easily tackle pieces that have these elements included.

Theory

Studying 5-finger patterns, scales, and arpeggios is a great introduction to music theory. We need to know what sharps and flats appear in each key and learn the triads (chords) that are commonly found in each of these keys. That leads to discussing simple chord progressions, and identifying these in the pieces we’re playing. This kind of theory work can also help in memorizing pieces. Often, just a basic awareness of chords can help in those transitions where different sections go in different harmonic directions.

Injury Prevention

When I Googled the topic of teaching technique, I was looking to make sure I didn’t miss anything obvious. Even though I’ve lectured on and written about the Arrau Technique, injury prevention wasn’t top of mind when I was determined to finally write this post. That sort of makes sense, because injury prevention often only comes to mind after the injury has occurred. People sometimes require carpal tunnel surgery. Other pianists go to study the Taubman technique post-injury. I was lucky to find a teacher and a way of playing that prevented those injuries in the first place.

Many pianists and teachers know how to play in a healthy way. One of the reasons that I wanted to learn more about Piano Safari is that the animal techniques are very sound and similar to how I was taught to play. I asked Julie Knerr where she developed these techniques, and she said that they came from a variety of leading pedagogues. That said, not every teacher is enlightened on how to play and teach healthy technique. Your body will typically give you plenty of warning if you’re on the wrong path.

Harder Pieces

Playing correctly and having good technique helps when it’s time to try pieces that are more difficult than what we’re comfortable playing. For the past many years, I wanted to learn the Goyescas of Granados, among other difficult pieces. Every time I approached the first piece, Los Requiebros, I only got as far as the third page. It’s just so hard. But, as I dug in a little more, I was able to work through that piece, and a couple of the others, even though only one of them is ready for prime time.

In Conclusion

Technique is one of the four pillars of my teaching, along with rote playing, improvisation, and note reading. Over time, as students pass from beginners to intermediate players, rote playing and improvisation fade to occasional treats. At that point, technique remains a part of lessons along with the study of repertoire. Acquiring terrific technique may not always be fun, but it is so worthwhile. Each higher level of playing opens a student up to a whole new set of composers and pieces to discover.

Last Updated 2021-10-25 | Originally Posted 2021-10-25

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