Time to re-post this entry from two and a half years ago:

I take my work as a piano teacher very seriously, and part of my job is to teach how to perform. Most students and parents underestimate what it takes to perform successfully in public. I have very high standards for myself and for my students, and dismissive comments about a proposed performance, such as, “oh, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just for church …” are unacceptable.

I enjoy teaching all ages and levels, and my goal is always to teach towards mastery. Mastery is different from perfection. A piece may be “perfect” but the skills necessary to perform the piece may not have been mastered.

People tend to think that the first year or so of piano study is not as important because the student is “only” a beginner, but they couldn’t be more wrong! Having to re-teach and re-learn after the student was allowed to acquire bad habits is not only frustrating for both teacher and student, it is highly unfair to the student.

The following is from an article by Bruce Berr, first published in the Autumn 1999 issue of Keyboard Companion (which has since changed its name to Clavier Companion), a professional journal published by The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the support of keyboard pedagogy in all its varied aspects:

Newer teachers sometimes assume that because students are at an elementary level, they cannot play their pieces with mastery and artistry – this is not true! This is a matter of confusing standard with level. Instruction on any musical instrument is based on mastery learning. This hinges on the highly-successful completion of each unit of study along the way, especially and particularly the first few. Since students have varying levels of aptitude, and learn at different paces and in different ways, the main variant should be how much time and reinforcement is needed for that mastery, not the degree to which that mastery occurs.

To be more specific, when a well-taught student at any level successfully learns a piece, the student’s performance is virtually as good as the teacher’s:

  • The physical approach is reliable and natural.
  • Fingering is consistent and secure.
  • Tone quality and rhythm are solid.
  • Legato and staccato are clearly played and differentiated.
  • Dynamics and dynamic differences are boldly projected.
  • The performance authentically communicates the title and mood to a large degree, to any music listener (not just the trained ear of the teacher).
  • There is flexibility in all of the above (except fingering!); one slight change in something, intended or unintended, does not cause a cascading failure and meltdown.
  • Playing the piece is enjoyable.

This is true even for the beginner’s first few lessons! Yes, perhaps there are subtle nuances of shaping and timing and other aspects that a more advanced player might bring to an early-level piece. And an older player may understand the music on a deeper intellectual and emotional level, but these are not absolutely essential for each piece to shine and express. If we focus too much on these exceptions, they can become a smoke screen that hides from us an essential fact: if students’ final playing of most of their pieces is not excellent or very close to it, we are in effect building a structure whose foundation is of questionable strength to support what will be added on later.

Setting a goal of complete mastery right from the start, communicating that goal repeatedly to the student, and giving the student the means for meeting that goal – all of this acts as a springboard for many good habits: efficient practice, careful listening, etc. Conversely, if our initial goals for each piece are not set to the highest standards, we sell students short before giving them a chance to fully blossom into what they can become.