“We must be sure they really understand. If we say ‘do you understand?’ and the student is almost playing correctly, then he DOES understand. He understands how to ALMOST do it.”
– Frances Clark
As a piano teacher, I can really relate to this week’s quote. When I work with a student on a passage during a lesson, my goal is for the student to be able to play the passage correctly before going home. This way, I am confident that he or she can do it and will be able to practice effectively. This is true whether the student is working on a brand-new passage or incorporating a specific musical goal into a more seasoned passage.
I am often surprised to discover that many students simply do not realize how much hard work it takes to be able to play a tricky passage correctly – and consistently. During a recent lesson, a middle-school student stumbled over a scale fingering, then expressed frustration that she had just played it correctly at home. I explained to her that since the fingering had been giving her trouble during the week, she had likely played the scale incorrectly many times before she had eventually “gotten it.” In other words, it had taken a lot of incorrect play-throughs to reach that first correct play-through. I told her that while she was definitely making progress in the right direction, a good goal would be to be able to play the scale correctly more frequently than incorrectly. Then, I had her try out various practice strategies to help her reach this goal more efficiently. (This idea comes from the chapter entitled “Sequencing Instruction” in Robert Duke’s book Intelligent Music Teaching, which really changed the way I look at repetition in practicing.)
Several years ago, one of my piano teachers reminded me of something that has stayed with me ever since: never forget the power of sheer repetition. In today’s fast-paced, instant-gratification culture, it may seem “old-school” to ask a student to practice a passage ten or even twenty times in a row. But in my experience, once a student can do this – and the key here is that the repetitions are played 100% accurately – it is quite difficult for the student to get it wrong. In other words, sheer repetition – or what Duke calls “multiple correct repetitions” – can be very helpful. However, while some students thrive on this type of practicing, others do not. In my experience, this type of practicing can be especially challenging with students who are sensitive, hard on themselves, or perfectionistic (or all of the above!).
In my studio, I have found it helpful to institute a simple, unbreakable rule: once you get it right, you have to do it again – right then and there. When a student plays a challenging passage correctly – or the way I had asked him or her to play it – I unabashedly praise the student for his or her achievement. (Applause is great for students at any age, and high-fives or high-tens, depending on the level of excitement, work well for younger students.) Then, I remind the student of the rule. “What’s the rule?” I ask. “Now that you got it right, what do you do?” And then the student plays it again. Sometimes, incorrectly. Which makes my point without my having to say anything: You played it right once, which is fantastic and deserves congratulations, but you still need to keep practicing. I make sure the student gets to a second correct play-through before we move on to something else.
When students can play correctly during the lesson, they can practice correctly at home. When they practice correctly at home, they can play correctly during the next lesson. When they play well during the lesson, they feel good about playing the piano, and they feel good about themselves. They have tried hard. They have learned. They have succeeded. They have achieved. They have mastered something. And mastery very often leads to joy – which, in my opinion, should ideally be at the very center of making music.
 Robert Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching (Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources, 2005), 116.
Jyoti Hench is an independent piano teacher and has presented workshops for music teachers at local, regional, and national levels. Presentation highlights include the Music Teachers National Association National Conference, Music Teachers’ Association of California State Convention, California Association of Professional Music Teachers State Conference, and College Music Society National Conference.
Dr. Hench has taught pre-college piano students in her own independent studio as well as in children’s programs at Sacramento State University and the University of Oklahoma. She holds degrees from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Sacramento State University, and the University of Oklahoma. Her doctoral research involved the creation of a performance psychology activity workbook for six- to twelve-year-old pianists and their teachers. She lives and teaches in San Marcos, California.