Category Archives: Practicing

Standards and Expectations

Many parents, after looking at my website or after the initial meeting where we discuss piano lesson details and the student plays for me, comment that they like that I seem to have high standards and expectations for my students.

They seem to appreciate that their child will be challenged, and seem confident that I know how to work toward pianistic success, taking into account each student’s personality, learning style, individual strengths and areas in need of improvement.

They understand that this is a triangle: teacher-student-parent, and everyone has a part to play. I as the teacher have the training and experience, and desire, to help the student succeed, the student is motivated and enthusiastic about learning, and parents understand their commitment to making sure that their child is well-prepared and has the necessary materials, including a good piano, bench, and so on, to practice at home.

It makes me incredibly sad then when a parent does not see any problem with expecting their child to make do with an inferior instrument and or bench. They seem to think, “Well, of course our instrument is not as fancy as the teacher’s!” but don’t understand that there is a certain minimum standard below which things simply do not work.

The thinking seems to be that as long as the child learns a new song every once in a while, things must be going well.

From the very first meeting, I emphasize the importance of a healthy technique – where technique has nothing to do with plowing through fast and furious etudes, but everything with figuring out how to move at the piano: how to move fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders, how to sit well-balanced, etc and so on. It also has to do with developing an ear for sound, and a feel for touch – what sound do I want? and, what do I do to produce that sound?

All of this requires the kind of instrument and bench, plus footstool for short students, that allow them to work on these things, to be able to experiment at home, and work on issues we covered at the lesson. An out of tune piano is actually not as bad as one that does not respond to the student’s touch, or where the keys respond unequally, because it forces the student to compensate in unhealthy ways.

At the lesson, I explain and demonstrate to the parents and students frequently why it is so very important to sit at a good height and distance from the piano. I also use my digital piano to explain and demonstrate – allow the student to experience – the differences between an acoustic instrument and a digital one. I also emphasize that a good digital piano is always better than a not-good acoustic piano.

Once students are at an intermediate level and have developed a good technique, it is not the end of the world when they occasionally practice on a piano that is less responsive. But in the beginning, a good, responsive, instrument is really crucial because we are laying the foundation for a lifetime of success and love for playing the piano.

It is so disappointing when a student struggles with technique – despite seeming to understand and being able to demonstrate that understanding at the lesson – and I suspect that their piano at home may be contributing to their struggle.

A few months ago I asked the parent of a second-year student who played with a lot of tension, especially raised shoulders, whether the bench at home could possibly be too low as that can cause the student to try to compensate by raising their shoulders. The parent thought about it for a minute and then thoughtfully said, “No … I don’t think so.”  –  Fast forward to last week when, after asking the parents if it would be ok for me to look at their piano to see if the piano could perhaps explain the children’s continued struggle with technique, and overall unusually slow progress – and being invited to do so and thanked ahead of time for my time and effort -, when I discover that the stool the children were using was so low that when sitting, the younger child’s shoulders were at the same height as the keys, forcing her to play with straight, out-stretched arms. Even the older child was still sitting much too low, having to reach up to the keys.

The piano was out of tune and not very responsive, keys responding unequally, some of the key tops missing. They had never had it tuned, and from looking inside I could tell that it would take major work, and probably a lot of money, to get the piano to a point where the children would be able to practice the things we are working on at the lessons with any kind of success.

This is a family who had, before starting lessons, met with another teacher who made them “even more determined” to study with me, presumably because of my high standards and expectations.

There is such a disconnect between wanting their children challenged, but at the same time being unwilling to supply the children with what it takes to meet that challenge.

For me, the important issue here is that the instrument and bench are doing actual damage, physical damage. It’s not just that the children are unable to practice at home what we work on during the lesson – that would be annoying, was disappointing -, but that the piano and bench are setting them up for injury and pain. It would actually be better if they didn’t practice at home.

I explained to the parents that their current piano is detrimental to the children’s development, in an email so they could read and re-read and think and discuss, and after they repeated that a new instrument is simply not in the budget, I suggested to put lessons on hold for, say, ten months, and use the money they save on lessons toward a new piano because I cannot in good conscience continue to contribute to this unhealthy situation.

I knew that my thinking here might come across as haughty, arrogant, privileged. I didn’t know how else to say it.

The parents made the decision to discontinue piano lessons.

Contrasting experience: I have recently started to teach two new (transfer) students, unrelated, both of whom had only an electric piano at home, with what they described as unweighted keys. But both of them had somehow been able to develop an adequate technique. The first student hit a wall after a few weeks, with no more progress possible on the current instrument, so I said, Let’s put lessons on hold until they have a good instrument which they said they were planning to get but for now was too expensive. Two weeks later they had bought a new piano, and things are progressing marvelously now. The other student’s family cannot afford a new instrument at the moment but the parent found a grand piano in the university’s Student Union where they go every so often to practice now, in addition to continued work on the electric piano at home, and, again, very satisfying progress is happening.

I suppose it is a matter of what one values. Learning to play the piano is challenging enough without hampering a student with an instrument that is simply not suited to the task. I strongly believe in the benefits of challenging my students but we have to give them the tools to meet that challenge. An Against-All-Odds attitude can be carried too far.

The frustration of not playing well at your lesson

A common complaint of many students is that they never play as well at their lesson as they do at home. They are frustrated but at the same time seem to accept this as a fact, as something that is just the way it is, nothing you can do about it.

Here are my thoughts on this matter.

The reason you don’t play as well at the lesson as you do at home is because you are not as well-prepared as you think you are. At home, you are comfortable and relaxed, and you probably never perform, instead you can always try again if something wasn’t quite right. At the lesson, you are nervous, and you expect to play your piece once and get it correct the first time.

If you want to play at the lesson (almost) as well as at home you have to practice differently: you have to be much more detailed in your approach: hands separately, not just once but many times, with metronome and without, looking at the book as well as from memory, ultra-extra slow, then faster, repeating one measure or phrase at a time, many times, always listening for things to improve (and then improving them), hands together with the same focus as HS, then stringing two measures or phrases together, etc and so on. That way you get to REALLY know the piece, or part of a piece, not just from having played it many many times, but from really understanding. Test yourself: before you start playing a section, look at the book, then look away and name the first note(s). Can you do it?

Since at the lesson your goal is to show me that you have improved or learned something new – show me by playing something, once – you need to practice this at home. With a completely different focus now, you have to set the goal to perform whatever you want to play/perform (whether it is two measures or two pages): start and keep going until you are finished. Do not stop and fix something, even if it wasn’t perfect. This requires a completely different mindset because you have to take mental notes but you cannot be bothered by mistakes. You need to practice to perform especially at the beginning of your practice session, when you are not warmed up yet (mentally, mostly) . The way you play then will be the way you play at your lesson.

Goldberg Variations . Aria da capo e fine

Around the middle of February, I decided to join 31 other Kansas State University piano faculty, students, alumni and guests, preparing a performance of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, to take place April 2.

The entire work, 50 pages of “technical  virtuosity, compositional ingenuity, and transcendent musical expression” (according to Dr. Virginia Houser’s program notes) also takes between 75 and 90 minutes to perform, depending on one’s tempo, and is therefore not something that the mortal among us endeavor to tackle in its entirety by oneself.

Since I came in as the preparation was already well underway, I had no choice in which variation I would perform; it so happened that the person who had signed up for the reprise of the aria at the very end was unable to perform, so that’s what I got.

I had heard the piece but had never taken the time to learn it. It was surprising, and a bit depressing, how long it took me to just learn the notes. There is some polyphony, some tricky rhythms, a bit of ornamentation, and then there was, for me, the challenge of trying to figure out what to do with such deceptive simplicity. I listened to a few YouTube recordings but didn’t really like any: most of them were either sentimentally swooney, or strict and unfeeling. Glenn Gould was extreme but actually came close to what I thought it should sound like.

I practiced, and played, practiced, played, over and over, trying different things, and finally realized that I had no real concept of the piece. No plan, no image, no anything. It was such a perfect example of hitting all the right notes and still not making music – at least not the kind of music this utterly sublime Aria deserved.

With some panic, and hesitation – I should be able to figure this out on my own, shouldn’t I?! -, five days before the performance I emailed my professor from grad school, Bob Edwards, asking if he would be willing to listen to me. He was, and did, and mostly encouraged me to use a bolder tone, carrying the sound to the last row, and to linger a bit more, here and there, employing a very careful rubato. He used words like “delicious”, and “scrumptious” to describe the tone and sound to aim for. And always, sing! Sing! It opened my ears, and I liked the new sound.

When I told Mark, who had patiently listened to my practicing over the last couple weeks, that I had found a new tone, but that – three days before the performance – I still wasn’t entirely sure of everything, he asked how this Aria fits with the piece that comes before it – the Aria should be a somewhat logical continuation, or perhaps contrast. Without thinking too deeply about it, I said that this Aria, unlike the first one which – note-wise – is identical, should sound retrospective, perhaps like an old person looking back over their life, remembering the good, and the not so good.

Suddenly I saw my mother who a bit more than seven years ago had just been informed by the hospital physician that the mysterious neurological symptoms that had plagued her for a good ten, twenty years, gradually worsening, were in fact ALS. No cure, no prospect of ever getting better again, or even going back home, only gradually losing more and more of her ability to move, swallow, speak, eventually breathe. She already was unable to use her legs anymore, and because of severe osteoporosis wasn’t able to sit up, comfortably.

My mother used to love to travel – she was in Turkey when she became too sick to stay and had to be flown to Germany -, and she delighted in good food, whether prepared at home or dining out. I remember her phone call from Turkey, “You should taste the food here! The carrots! I’ve never had carrots that tasted so fresh!”  Now she would never be able to travel again, and eating had become a chore already.

While she had a preference for sentimental books and movies, when it concerned her life, herself, she was refreshingly unsentimental. She had short bouts of honest sadness and despair, allowing – once – that her diagnosis was “crushing”.  But she also, in one of the many introspective moments she shared with me, said, in a voice as if it had just occurred to her, “You know … we really did have a good life.”

The next time I sat down to play the Aria, I saw my mother, looking back over her life, remembering, reminiscing, somewhat removed already but still very much here. When I ended I was in tears.

I was afraid that performing the Aria which had now become so very personal, private in a way, would get to me emotionally and I’d end up in tears on stage. But as I kept playing and practicing over the next two days, playing mostly, practicing to perform, my mother who had been so very present started to fade into the background. The memory of her was still there, and I will probably never hear or play the Aria again without thinking of her, but I was able to play without tearing up.

 

Photograph in the local newspaper, The Mercury.

Receiving a short email from Bob Edwards after the performance, saying he thought I played the Aria beautifully – that was emotional. As was having several of my students come up to me after the performance – one even brought flowers. And Mark. Many many hugs, and Thank You’s, and smiles, and relieved laughter.

Video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/mLmjuPOoTeE 

Johann Sebastian Bach. After almost three hundred years, he still gets to people.

Thank God.

Between competitions

Three weeks ago, my students qualified at the district level for the state level of the KMTA Fall Auditions.  One week from today, they will compete at the state level, same repertoire, no changes allowed.  Which means we will have had four weeks between the two competitions.  Which means we had to find ways to keep the pieces alive and well without wearing them out.  The pieces were already practically perfect (or else they wouldn’t have qualified for state), so “practicing” in the sense of “improving” had to take on a new meaning.

Four weeks / lessons suggested four different areas of focus:  week one, LH alone; week two, RH alone and some hands together; week three, practice to start from anywhere, hands separately as well as hands together, with metronome; week four, get back to practicing to perform.

The first three weeks were meant to find anything that wasn’t absolutely perfect, anything where things might possibly fall apart.  I kept telling my students, “If I smile happily when you make a mistake it’s not because I am mean but because I am glad we found this snag at your lesson – and not at the competition!”  Most students had snags here and there, things they were not aware of, things they thought they had down just perfectly fine …

Next week will see some of the same work we did the week before the district auditions:  the major challenge for pianists is that we don’t get to take our instrument with us, we have to make do with whatever instrument we encounter at a competition / recital / audition.  To prepare for that, I ask my students to perform on the other piano, the one they don’t normally play.  It looks just like the one they normally play but it feels, plays, and sounds completely different which means they have to instantly adjust their touch in order to get the sound they want.  We may leave the bench too low, and not use the footstool which really cramps the smaller students.  They have to kind of crouch, and reach, and – do the kind of playing that when I see other students do it at competitions gives me the hives because it is just so unnatural and uncomfortable and unhealthy, but I explain to my students that this may be what they have to deal with and adjust to at a competition. Kind of like preparing for disaster and hoping that we will not need it.  (So far, we haven’t.)

We may review the videos I took at the district level.  They are interesting and revealing because I had the camera at the very back of the hall = some of the sounds disappeared before they reached the camera – even though the student, up on stage, was able to hear everything just fine.  But – for a performance – we must aim to project the sound to the very corners of the performance hall, not just the few feet around the piano.

For some of the students, it will be their last week of lessons with me.  I hope to make it particularly successful and fulfilling.

The way I practice

My style of practicing is similar to the way I discuss things with Mark.  He’s a good listener and I appreciate his feedback, so I like to bounce ideas off him, things big and small, issues I have with students, parents, colleagues, teaching challenges, logistics.  Usually, I start out with a more or less vague idea of the issue, and as I talk and then listen to his feedback, and talk some more (lots …) and listen some more, things tend to become clearer, more focused.  Mark knows that I don’t want him to solve my problems.  But he understands that it helps me clarify things when I talk about them. 

For instance:  last week, I judged the KMTA Music Progressions in Kansas City.  Over the course of five hours, I saw nine students who each had 30 minutes to show me what they knew:  two contrasting pieces (one memorized), music understanding and vocabulary, scales, chords, chord progressions, arpeggios, rhythm clapping, sight-playing; and, for the lower levels, more applied theory such as playing intervals and “sharped and flatted notes”, they also did their listening test with me.  As we were going down the list of things to do, I wrote comments on the pre-printed form of several pages, I checked off items on the list, giving appropriate points for each.  When a student didn’t do well on one of the items, I tried to write a little comment on why I only gave, say, 8 points out of 10 points possible, etc.  The event was well-organized, most students were well-prepared, some were not, one was a complete disaster.  A normal audition/judging situation.

When I finished, around 7:30 p.m., I was exhausted.  Not just tired.  Exhausted.  Wiped out.  Mark and I had planned to attend a concert (same location) after my judging duties were done – I had really been looking forward to that.  Now all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed.  I shared this with Mark, and my confusion about it:  I didn’t understand why I was so exhausted.  When I had 25 to 30 students in Manhattan, it wasn’t uncommon to be teaching for five hours, with only a short break here and there.  Yet at the end of a long teaching day, I was invigorated as much as I was tired.  So, why would judging feel so different?  We looked at a couple of different reasons:  the fact that the audition students are strangers, the time constraints, the having to assign points for accomplishments, the knowing that my written feedback on their performance pieces would carry a certain weight and that therefore I had to choose my words even more carefully than I normally do in a lesson (where I get the chance, if necessary, to clarify any remark or comment at the next lesson), etc and so on and so forth.  What made the biggest difference, though, in how I looked at the audition, was this:  Mark has experience in both teaching and judging martial arts.  As I was complaining about how exhausted I was, he suggested that the energy that the to-be-evaluated students bring into the room is different from the energy they bring to a lesson.  That different energy tends to sap yours.  This insight didn’t take the exhaustion away, but it felt good to be able to put these feelings into words, to be listened to and heard.

Sometimes when we talk about things, we don’t get anywhere.  Sometimes his feedback results in a new insight.  Sometimes, his feedback is brilliant, sometimes it’s – not.

Practicing, for me, is similar to these conversations:  I play something, with a more or less vague idea of where I want to go with this piece; I listen – to the sound, to my body -, I take mental notes of what I’d like to improve and how, then I play some more, listen, watch, and in the end I have made progress.  To an outsider it may look like I just played the same thing over and over, which would be true of course, but every repetition yielded subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, changes.  I listen, I pay attention, I use the feedback I receive from my ear, my brain, my body, my heart, to make necessary changes.  Sometimes I stray, it’s not often a straight road, but in the end, because I listened, I have made some kind of progress.  It’s what I call mindful practicing. 

Simone Weil, French philosopher and passionate teacher, once said (something to the effect) that if you study something and it seems that despite your efforts you do not make progress, you made progress nevertheless.  Every attempt, fruitful or not, to learn something results in growth.   I try to keep this in mind when I practice.  And it occasionally proves true – when, occasionally, things seemingly suddenly fall into place, after having stalled for a while.  They were fermenting, gelling under the surface.  So, while an individual practice session may not have been as successful as I would wish, it still did its part in the bigger scheme of things.  And that, to me, is efficient and effective practice. 

Practicing

The following is an excerpt from an article by Steve Yegge.  While much of the original article centers on the aspects of programming and the underestimated need for programmers to practice their craft, the author makes some excellent observations regarding the way musicians practice. 

How does the average guitarist practice? In the years before I started getting serious about lessons, I played a lot — 6 to 8 hours a day for about 5 years. I learned a lot of songs, all by memorization, and I had to play them constantly to keep them in memory, so at least 2 hours of every day was wasted just running through the pieces. Through brute-force effort I eventually started to sound like I knew what I was doing. Fooled myself and most of the people around me, anyway. […]

The problem was that I had no idea how to practice correctly. The saying “practice makes perfect” is inaccurate, as any music teacher will happily tell you. Perfect practice makes perfect. I’d been practicing sloppily, and had become very good at being sloppy.  […]

Real musicianship is the result of studying and applying the theory, history, and performance of music. Many musicians also advocate studying the physics of sound and music, the construction of musical instruments, the mechanics the human hand and ear, and the psychology of performers and audiences. The average guitarist is no more aware of these sub-disciplines than your average laborador retriever. I sure wasn’t. I just wanted to play guitar. […]

(R)eal musicians don’t practice by playing the piece over and over from beginning to end. They dissect every piece of music into tiny components and work on each one individually — every phrase, every note, every fingering, every transition, it’s all worked through, mechanically and musically, for countless hours. They play it slow, fast, quietly, loudly, even in different time signatures and beats. And they do daily drills: right- and left-hand finger exercises for building stamina and dexterity. Sound like a total pain? Actually, it’s not too bad at all. Takes a bit of getting used to, but once you start doing it right, your overall technique improves rapidly. And you’re no longer “capped” at a particular difficulty level, because you’re not exhausting yourself, and you know how to tackle complex technical passages. Oh, and one hour of that kind of practice is as good as a week of playing songs over and over. […]