“Children are in love with their hands!” – Frances Clark
We piano teachers can be a very opinionated bunch. If you don’t believe me, check out any piano teachers discussion forum. Individually, we have arrived on the truth about piano teaching and we are passionate about this truth.
One issue that is particularly divisive is the subject of piano technique. Some will say that a supple wrist that shapes phrases is ideal. Others will counter that the wrist should be a stable fulcrum, and shaping comes from the arm. Some espouse the virtues of finger independence. Others believe that the fingers and arm should work in coordination.
With all of this controversy, how shall I approach the subject of piano technique with beginning students? I’ll begin by stating that I’m not going to address any of the issues in the above paragraph! But I will state some principles that I believe have been helpful in my teaching:
* Develop the senses:
– Sight: How does the hand look? What is the desirable “look?”
– Feel: Get students in touch with the feel of playing the piano: the feel of the finger on the key… Put the key down slowly, feel that sensation. Also, what feels comfortable? What does not feel comfortable? So many technical problems are a result of being disconnected from your body! (This sounds impossible, but it’s about being in the moment and not being detached from the sensation of playing). When we dismiss little discomforts, injury can be the result.
– Sound: What kinds of motions make the sound that is desired? The correlation between the way we use our bodies when playing the piano and the sound created can actually be lost quite easily.
*Demonstration/hands-on learning: Instead of using a lot of words, demonstrate the look you want. Alternatively, have the student “ride” your hand to catch the feel. Often, I constantly make adjustments to student’s hands in beginning lessons, without saying a word. They don’t seem to mind. Words can be misunderstood much more easily than a demonstration.
* Develop a vocabulary for describing the playing mechanism. Be certain that you and the student are speaking the same language. Once I thought I was doing a great job of reminding a student not to buckle the nail joint when 8 weeks into it, I realized that the student didn’t know what the word “buckle” meant! I thought I had explained it. I thought wrong. When I worked with Ted Cooper, I saw that he set forth simple guidelines for hand position in very beginning students: Knuckle bridge, loose thumb. The children checked one another’s hand position to see if this criteria was being met. Below you will find a video clip of a group class that illustrates the idea of developing a common language for the joints involved in playing the piano:
*Experiment with the use of imagery, and keep it simple!: Some of us get flustered when faced with too many complicated instructions. The image that comes to mind is “Rosie the Robot” from the TV show, “The Jetsons” (totally dating myself here). When it’s all too much for her, steam comes out of her head. I couldn’t get that image for you, but here she is looking distressed:
I retrained my own technique, so I know how difficult it can be. The teacher who was able to help me used lots of images. When words failed in describing the release of a staccato octave, he said: “Touch your nose!” as he demonstrated simultaneously. I caught on immediately. If I want a student’s fingers to be more relaxed, I might use an image such as “cooked spaghetti.”
* Leave it! Be on the lookout for those “Rosie the Robot” moments and change activities before the student becomes frustrated. You can always return to the activity in another lesson. Working on refining hand position, etc. takes intense concentration, and we must be respectful of a student’s ability to concentrate at any given point.
* Proceed from the general to the particular: There is something about that seeing a collapsed nail joint that can send many teachers into an uncomfortable panic. We want to fix that right away. But what about the larger mechanism? Is the posture tall and relaxed? Are the arms freely hanging from the shoulder joint? Is there tension in the elbows? I believe that we must constantly monitor the posture, shoulders, elbows, etc. before going to the finer details.
* Cultivate your vision and your patience: Know that developing a fine hand position takes time. See if you can get the student to play 2 or 3 notes just the way you want them in a piece (for example, the last notes of each phrase, the longest notes, the cross-over notes, etc.) If praised enough, these 2 or 3 notes will turn to 4, 5, 6 notes and more. You will need to…
*Practice your cartwheels: When you see that “perfect” hand position, even if it lasts for a moment, celebrate this accomplishment! Practically do cartwheels over this achievement. The student will remember this incredible reaction and seek to achieve this reaction again and again. This praise tends to be much more effective than criticizing what is undesirable.
* Short, easily-memorized warm-ups: If a student is reading a warm-up instead of playing from memory, he or she cannot possibly look at hands or fully concentrate on the feel. Warm-ups often provide the only experience in which a student can fully focus on the look, feel, and sound of playing the piano. Warm-ups can prepare students for concepts before their appearance in repertoire.
* Consider rote pieces: Solo Flight (Elvina Truman Pearce) is a good example of a collection of pieces that can be taught by rote, freeing the student up to experience the feel and sound.
* Consider working on technique without making a sound: Look at the natural hand position when hanging by the side. Bring the hand to the piano in this very same shape. Try short patterns on the keyboard cover.
Now, I’ll be braver and give two of my own opinions on the specifics of teaching technique:
* Help students to keep a naturally straight hand. Avoid twisting:
* Help students to avoid stretching the hand to the extreme range of motion. For example, when playing a one-octave arpeggio, don’t keep the hand spread out over all the notes at once, but walk along to each note.
One last reminder: Proper bench height and distance must not be neglected in the lesson or in home practice! What are your most important ideas about developing good technical habits in beginning students?