“What a piano lesson is about: the student leaves feeling HE CAN.”
– Frances Clark
I wonder what this quote might mean to one who does not teach piano. It might seem that a student feeling capable at the end of the lesson is the result of affirmation from the teacher. Perhaps the teacher gives an inspiring pep talk. I am reminded of an old Saturday Night Live bit: a motivational speaker says: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”
Anyone who studied with Frances Clark will realize that the philosophy was always brought to its practical application. In this case, the student “can” because of a carefully planned lesson. The student will see what is “easy” about the piece that he or she is learning. The student might even exclaim in the lesson: “That’s easy! I can do that!” This is in part accomplished by guiding the student to see what is true for the whole piece. We must know the pieces that we are teaching better than we know our own literature. We must begin to see piano literature in a different way. To begin, we ask ourselves two questions:
Looking at the Whole Piece of Music
“What is true for the whole piece?”
Spanish Guitars (from Music Tree Part 1, Clark, Goss and Holland, Alfred Publishing, used with permission)
If we are not thinking of what is true for the whole piece, we might ask the student play and say the intervals (“D down a 5th same…”) or say the note names (“D G G B…”). Much less cumbersome is helping the student discover that there are only two fingers needed in the right hand, 5 and 1. The left hand only plays 2nds, using only fingers 3 2 and 1. Through this discovery, the piece becomes instantly “easier.” What is true about the rhythm of the piece? The only note values are quarter notes and dotted half notes. These observations might seem painfully obvious, but my experience has shown me that this way of thinking does not always come naturally; it is often a skill that needs to be developed over and over.
A Little Joke, Kabalevsky (excerpted from Contemporary Piano Literature Book 2, Clark, Alfred Publishing)
What is true for the whole piece?
White key triads. This knowledge will dictate how the student practices the piece: Play left hand 5th finger E, up a second, down a second, down a second. There, you’ve played the left hand of the first line! The right hand and left hand thumbs are right next to each other and always move together in parallel motion. The only notes the student needs to read are the first notes of each measure.
Rhythm: The rhythm is the same for the entire piece, with the exception of measure 8. This is the joke. In order for the eighth measure to be a surprise, the preceding seven measures must have identical inflection.
Practice Instructions: (two lines at a time)
Play the left hand blocked, hands together blocked, tap rhythm, play two lines.
In my view, it is not necessary to analyze every chord in this piece.
It is a comfort for students to realize that for the whole of this attractive and fun piece, the right hand only plays 3 notes, C, D and Eb. The student discovers that the left hand plays the same pattern in just three different positions. There is only one main rhythm for the entire first page. The second page introduces the second main rhythm. The exception to the rule is the very last measure, which starts with a half rest. This must be prepared carefully.
Tap and count the two main rhythms, and the last line, using the voice to mimic the staccato notes and accents
Trace the left hand moves
Play the left hand main idea until each note is consistently staccato, then play the left hand alone.
Add the right hand after tracing the one move down an octave at the end of the piece.
It is fun to try to find the essence of pieces that our students are studying and even apply this strategy to our own repertoire. We want to hear the exclamation “I can do that!” from our students as often as possible, as this feeling will surely translate to eager home practice.