Recipe for Excellence: Ingredient #1 Specificity

From my previous post:

What gets in the way of excellence in our teaching, manifesting itself in mediocre student performance?  What distinguishes good teachers from excellent teachers?  Is there a recipe for success and that can be codified? 

When we witness excellent teaching in pedagogy conferences, it is often in a masterclass setting. Before our very eyes, a performance is transformed in some meaningful way.  Often there is a magical effect.  In contrast, it may seem incredibly mundane that I would start with “specificity.”

Think , though, of what it takes to get that student to the point where he or she can play with security in a masterclass in front of a hundred or more teachers:  the many lessons, the many practice sessions.  I alluded in the previous post to what distinguishes good teachers from great ones.  Much of the difference is in the basic details.  There are things that each teacher can do to make a difference in our effectiveness right away. There is magic in teaching, but a lot of what makes a great teacher is practical and logical.

I find that we teachers often believe that we are being specific enough with our students in our practice advice and instructions, but we are falling short.  (Obviously I include myself in this “we!”)  How often do we write on our students’ assignments:  “Listen for dynamic contrast?”  What does that mean?  What is the student supposed to do at home with that instruction?  Another familiar instruction:  “Memorize for next week.” How will the student achieve this?

We may believe that it’s not necessary to always specify how many times we want a student to play a passage or piece.  I’m beginning to believe that if we do not,  the average amount of times a student will choose is one.  When a student does repeat a passage, what tempo will be chosen?  When unspecified, the default tempo is often too fast.  When a student has is preparing a memorized piece for a performance, do we take it for granted that the student knows to play with the score and not always without the music?  I recently adjudicated a festival and the format was a combination of written and verbal comments.  One student had a “memory meltdown.” With some questioning, I learned, unsurprisingly, that the pieces was always practiced without the music, from beginning to end, at performance tempo.

I will give some ideas for rewording instructions on assignment sheets.    If you find writing too cumbersome, perhaps typing might be faster.  Alternatively, you may want to record instructions into an audio recording device or videotape the lesson:

***Below you will find video clips to support the written ideas.



– Listen for the dynamics in this piece.


– Play measures 8 – 16 looking right at the music, very slowly, exaggerating the p, f, mp, f.  Play 3 times.  


– Play measures 8 – 16 putting your HANDS IN LAP between each dynamic change.  Say out loud the next dynamic before playing.  Do this 3 times daily.  Next, perform without putting hands in lap, just a slight pause.  Now, eliminate the pause.  (Here’s the shorthand I would use once students know the routine:  m’s 8 – 16 HIL 3X a day)


– Play measures 8 – 16 and RECORD yourself each day.  Did you hear the p, f, mp and f?

(Crescendo and decrescendo):

– Play your G Major scale warm-up with a crescendo and decrescendo.  Listen for each note to be slightly louder than the last!  Now, practice the RH alone of each scale passage in your Clementi Sonatina 3X that has a cresc./decresc.  Listen for the “perfect” crescendo!

Below you will find a video clip of a warm-ups assigned to help a student achieve crescendo and decrescendo sounds in her piece, “Sneaky Business,” from Jazz Rags & Blues, Book 1 by Martha Mier:



Pay attention to the staccatos.


“Say ‘long short short long’ as you play.”

Below you will find a video clip of a student performing a portion of  “March of the Trolls” by David Kraehenbuehl, saying the articulation as she goes.  I like this kind of activity for this particular student, who tends to memorize instantly and never look at the finer details in the score – you know the type, I’m sure.  She went through the whole piece saying the articulation.



Balance your hands.


-“Ghost play” the LH while the RH plays as written.


-Play the LH pp staccato and RH forte.

For me, it is much easier to give concrete practice instructions and advice when endeavoring to improve accuracy and fluency than it is to give concrete advice on how to practice musicality.

These days it is easier than ever to give specific practice ideas to our students with the new technology of smart phones, ipods, ipads, computers, digital recorders, etc.  Even if WE do not have the income to purchase some of these items, our STUDENTS often have these items in their back pockets, ready to use.  The videos that I used were made with the “Flip” camera.  My young student taped me and the quality is not always ready for prime-time, but certainly ready for her to use as a practice guide (and hopefully good enough for the reader of this article!).

A future post will discuss police line-ups and how they relate to piano lessons.  Stay tuned!



1 thought on “Recipe for Excellence: Ingredient #1 Specificity

  1. I often use video practice steps. It doesn’t take long and they should be very short and specific. With the advent of the iPad it is completely easy. The video can be emailed if it is short enough and if not you can upload to YouTube and set it for private then send the link to the student’s email address. You can also utilize DropBox if your families use that “cloud” application.

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