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Building a Strong Foundation

July 12, 2015

I was considering whether or not I should post a blog during the summer. After thinking about it, I decided to go ahead and write at least one or two blogs.  Even though many teachers are on vacation, some of you may be spending your free time reading and listening to music as I am doing. Before I begin, let me bring you up to date.  Over the past couple of months, I have given a brief but hopefully, interesting summary of classroom instruction for the course, “The Teaching-Learning Process and the Piano Teacher.” Today’s blog is the third posting for this class.


Frances Clark and Louise Goss believed that the teacher should practice with their students during the lesson in order to establish an efficient practice routine. I have already described the benefits of using a practice plan that piano students can follow at home, but I still need to add a few more remarks. First, practice steps curtail reading problems as students are instructed to keep trying until they play the notes correctly. Difficulties attributed to a poor understanding of rhythm are also avoided. The student may be playing the right notes, but if he is unable to decipher the rhythm, he is incapable of feeling the rhythm, let alone performing the piece as written. A practice plan that includes steps such as tapping and counting the rhythm out loud before playing tests retention. Does the student know how to count the rhythm without prompting from the teacher? The teaching of proper technic in tandem with steps that allow students to focus on the movement is just as important. Students will not be able to play the piece if they do not possess the skills to perform the required technic.


When I conducted my research and observed teaching, I found that most students did not appear to have overwhelming problems that could develop into bad habits. Reading by interval and using landmarks as reference pitches, they played compositions notated on the grand staff just as easily as they performed “Take Off” and “Landing” pictured off-staff in the primer, Time to Begin.  If students did falter, they were asked to pinpoint the cause and resolve the problem. In addition, I noticed that students did not stop and fix mistakes. As Louise Goss explained in class, good reading skills depend on a student’s ability to continue playing in spite of wrong notes and erratic rhythm. Students who continually make corrections or start over should be encouraged to “keep going.” At the same time, the teacher must resist the temptation to stop the student. Interrupting a performance to give corrections defeats the purpose of telling students that they need to keep playing. Repeating a wrong note, which many teachers do when they stop the student to point out an error, is not helpful either as repetition simply reinforces the wrong sound. No matter how tempting it is to correct a mistake, it is always better to “force” students to go on by singing through the mistake and playing along with them in a different register or at a second piano.


As mentioned in other blogs, Louise Goss stressed that reading skills can be developed if sight playing exercises are assigned at every lesson. The exercises need to be much easier than repertoire level, at least two levels below playing level. Provided that a slow tempo is set and eyes are on the music, students should be able to perform the exercises correctly the first time played. Many mistakes in note reading are due to carelessness. A lack of concentration frequently accounts for errors made in playing repeated notes or similar passages. The eye can also glance over repetitions. Whenever fingering is ignored, mistakes result from the hand being out of position.  Miss Goss insisted that the suggested fingering should always be observed. Because the teacher must never reveal answers, rules for fingering are discussed so students understand why a particular fingering is preferred.  If there are any changes, the student rather than the teacher writes the new fingering in the music.


These fundamentals that are the building blocks for a solid foundation seem obvious, but often, they are not given much thought.  Without this rudimentary foundation, students will struggle to attain mastery. We all want our students to play with expression, but it is hard to add musical nuance if they are not able to play the notes and rhythm accurately.  In other words, teaching students how to play with careful attention to notation and details is more than helpful.  It is mandatory since musicianship is determined by how well students can interpret the score.  In addition to playing the correct notes and rhythm, piano students must recognize every sign on the page and analyze the form of the piece. Stylistic interpretation has to be considered, etc.  Students who can look at the score and “hear” the piece without playing it have a better understanding of the music and, as a result, they will be able to project the musical meaning and mood without depending solely on the teacher for guidance.


Throughout the years, I have seen our piano students at The New School gain confidence as they make ongoing progress.  Once a foundation has been established, each new challenge is tackled with enthusiasm and assurance because every success becomes a stepping stone for the next challenge.  This confidence also inspires a desire to perform in front of others.  Students have to play well when they perform as far too many choose to quit piano lessons after a bad recital experience leaves them feeling discouraged and frustrated.  Recitals can be overwhelming for the teacher as well.  If you want advice, look for my next blog at the end of August.  I will relate some suggestions on recital preparation made by Louise Goss and Elvina Truman Pearce, who was invited to share teaching tips with the class. Enjoy your summer!


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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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