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Reader Question: Guiding students toward playing beyond “just the notes”

April 2, 2014

I have a student who is very smart, but does not play musically.  He doesn’t want to do any detail work, can sight-read and doesn’t want to polish anything. 

It is so difficult when students’ goals and standards are dramatically different from our own.  We can really only effectively teach in the area of common experience.  There are two aspects of “polishing:”  ease and musicality.  Ease will be achieved when the student is practicing at a “thinking tempo,” in small sections, and with meaningful, correct repetitions.  Experiencing the success that these practice  strategies produce in the lesson might motivate the student to continue with this successful experience in his home practice.  The problem may be that he doesn’t realize that he is making errors.  Recording a performance might be enlightening.  Also, assigning repertoire at the right level will be key.  In this response, we will deal primarily with the musical aspect of performance.


Demonstrating for the student is key:  the teacher plays a phrase for the student, the student “copies” and then repeat the process again and again.  To carry this step further, send the student home with a recording of your performance of the piece, with the direction:  “Make your playing sound just like the recording.” Get students involved in the sound and to begin to have the same high expectations for performance.


Begin a process of self-examination.  Record the student’s performance one week, and both you and the student will listen for positive attributes only (choose his “best” piece.)  The next week, repeat this process, and ask the student to listen for something obvious, such as observing all of the dynamics in the score.  You might begin with the directive:  “We are going to record this performance.  See how closely and musically you can follow the dynamics, and they we’ll listen for that.”  It can be a bit tempting to use recordings as a “gotcha!” moment, illustrating for the student what you’ve been saying all along.  In the scenario outlined in this response, he has a better chance for success. If he is able to indeed improve his dynamic contrast, and this improvement is evident on the recording, let the student know that you will begin the next lesson by playing this recording once again, followed by the student playing the piece with at least this much dynamic contrast.


We suggest re-evaluating the chosen repertoire.  Does he really like the pieces that have been assigned?  We often use a “rating” system:  rate this piece from a scale from 1 – 10.  If he’s fully invested in the pieces he’s learning, there might be increased motivation to polish.  Also, we have sometimes found that “educational pieces” (Robert Vandall, Catherine Rollin, etc.) might be a good place to start for students who are not yet ready to tackle the sometimes subtle requirements of Classical repertoire.  Student/teacher duets might help with fluency (a duet can highlight when there are stops and starts) and musicality (the teacher can guide the dynamic plan of the piece, shaping, etc.).  Consider rote pieces (or teaching part of a new piece by rote.)  This will allow the student to focus exclusively on the sound he is making, and following your model.  Finally, since the student is a good reader, you might meet him “halfway” by continuing with an influx of new material, and allowing some pieces to be short-term reading assignments, not necessarily polished completely.

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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