In the science lab that we call a piano lesson, teachers often experiment on our dear subjects, ahem, students. Sometimes when one technique does not work, we try another… and another. This spirit of experimentation how I ended up sprawled on the floor at a piano lesson a few weeks ago.
My student was preparing to play Pirates Bold, by Marie Seuel Holst (Student’s Choice Part 3, distributed by Alfred Publishing). This dramatic minor piece starts out with strong accents, staccato, and a big sound. A melody is then introduced mf and the same melody is repeated an octave lower p. My student’s first performance saw no change in dynamics, despite coaching this very performance goal the previous week and her successfully making the change the previous week. The hard truth is that no matter how transformative the coaching of a piece, if the student comes back the following week and the change has not “stuck,” we have failed to make an impact.
The previous week, I used one of my standard teaching staples: I had her stand up, turn around and sit back down between dynamic changes and say each dynamic before playing. That usually does the trick, because it’s something to practice at home, instead of a more general directive “play softer in measure 8.” This student is dedicated and has good support at home, so I know she did this step… it just wasn’t working. I found myself then saying: “Can you make the soft part so dramatically different that it gives me a heart attack?” She said she could, and when she played softer, I channeled my dramatic daughter’s numerous practicing of death scenes. Making gagging noises and falling to the floor, I didn’t even feel silly. This is what getting older does: you just stop caring if you look silly! Anyway, we repeated this process again. Later in the lesson, we did a performance exchange with another teacher’s student. The other teacher and her student had dramatic heart attacks when the change was made. The student’s mom then got in on the act.
Yesterday’s New School recital included a very effective performance of Pirates Bold, which included excellent dynamic contrast. This was the proof that the heart attack experiment was successful. I am not suggesting that all teachers take to the floor, just that we think outside of the box and don’t give up until the desired musical result is achieved.