Structures and Strictures in the Studio

As I teach studio piano, I am continually confronted by the question of how much structure to provide for my students. Though I like to think that all my suggestions fall on heeding ears, I find that only rarely to be the case. The far more common scenario is the good-intentioned student who nods eagerly throughout the lesson and returns the following week with only those very same nods to show for his (and my) effort.

What stands between those good intentions and more impressive results? The first and most obvious possibility is that these students' good intentions fail them as they near the practice room door and that they never quite make it in to practice at all. I remember clearly filling out practice charts when I was a child to prevent that very occurrence, and though I hate the authoritarian tinge it imparts to lessons, I have on occasion re-instituted the policy at the college level. Indeed I always ask for practice information in a self-evaluation gathered from students at the end of each term. The results can be revealing for the student as well as the teacher. At least if I know a student isn't practicing, I can stop blaming myself for more subtle failings and move on to helping her restructure her schedule to find more practice time (before 2 a.m.!)

Most often however, the student is getting to the piano and even sitting there for several hours a day. If his tusch could do the work, he'd be in fine shape. Not surprisingly, the biggest practice problem seems to be a diagnostic one. How does one move from the general perception of things awry to the specific recognition of what to fix? Frequently a student gets stuck in the "moaning" stage; three hours a day can easily be spent flailing at a piece in trouble. I try in such cases to suggest limited practice time on any one piece, a week or two of practice on only the difficult spots, and very specific practice strategies for those spots. I give the student a practice plan sheet which specifies the measures to be practiced and the techniques to be used. The following week I hear only those measures. If, for instance, memory was the problem, I hear the measures slowly and hands alone by memory. If rushing was the problem, I may hear the passage with full-leg stomping (an approach garnered from a string friend who claims many a quartet rehearsal to have been saved by the hilarity of whole-body tempo integration.) If sheer solidity is the issue, I often suggest a range of metronome markings at which the passage should be worked daily. Occasionally I ask that the piece be performed the following week at half tempo without pedal in my performance class. A week of slow, clean practice can work wonders, and I find that my whole class benefits from watching the before, during, and after stages of the transformation. If all else fails to clear a piece up, and I sense that simple application is the problem, I've even threatened to charge a nickel apiece for persistent errors that have been marked in the score. I've found that the mere mention of collecting tolls is staggeringly effective! It would seem that the thought of actually parting with money focuses a glaring light on suggestions that otherwise fade into oblivion.

Obviously, when the issues are more technical in nature, I try to deal with them in more complex ways. Endless hours with the metronome and the most dogged determination will not alone bring speed, despite my students' insistent attempts to prove the contrary. The exact place where discomfort occurs needs to be pinpointed and then the reason found. Fingering is a most frequent culprit. So is a lack of grouping-an inability to divide a long and difficult passage into sub-groups that are more manageable both physically and mentally. I encourage my students to mark in not only their fingerings, but their mental divisions of passages. A lack of tangible markings often seems to correspond with a lack of tangible thoughts. I think that many technical problems are organizational in nature: noting chord structures, planning when and where the hands move and where they rest, noting how finger ings relate between the hands; this sort of conscious choreography is crucial to the pianistic enterprise.

Has all this structuring gone too far I worry about some of the tricks and resort to them only as varying degrees of desperation strike. I would far prefer that inspiration could do the job, and certainly I don't believe for a minute that fines and charts have much to do with music-making itself. don't want my students hemmed in by so many rules and procedures that they can't experiment on their own or find their own voices. Yet if I can impart to them a sense of organization and control over their work at the piano, I will have given them a wonderful foundation from which they can build their more sophisticated musical and technical endeavors.

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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

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