Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Slow Practice Isn't Just for Beginners

     Common piano teacher scenario: A student comes to their lesson beaming with pride because they can play their brand new piece in a way that they think will make their teacher so excited! Despite being instructed to play slowly and deliberately with the hands separately, they play the whole song, hands together at a breakneck tempo and then look at me with a look of ardent expectation of the praise to come. Of course, praise comes for their hard work, but I always feel a dash of disappointment and frustration too.

     Why? Because they've skipped some absolutely essential steps in the process of learning. Fingerings are usually a mess, counting is usually off, and the student has typically ignored every slur, staccato and dynamic marking in the piece. These essential details are so much more difficult to teach (and to learn) when a song is played too fast too soon.

     Young piano players often associate speed and agility with accomplishment, and it's common for elementary school kids to strongly favor fast and action-packed pieces over slow and melodic ones without understanding that all pieces, whatever their final performance tempo, begin as slow and melodic pieces.

     Take Martha Argerich's utterly amazing performance of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3:

    I can absolutely guarantee that Ms. Argerich put in hours upon hours of slow and hands alone practice in the preparation of this amazing performance. How can we tell? Because her technique, fingering, phrasing, and interpretation are immaculate. A piece that is practiced to quickly falls victim to sloppiness of all sorts that only slow practice can correct. A person must learn to walk before they can run.

     So, if you really want to please this piano teacher, come back to your next lesson and play the most accurate, well-fingered and phrased right hand alone I've ever heard. I'll think I've died and gone to heaven.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Pianist Who Made Me Love the Piano

My next post is a share, and I'd love to hear your responses to this question:

Who or what inspired you to learn to play the piano?

Love him or hate him (and most studied pianists do have an opinion one way or the other), few could point to a more popular contemporary performer than the late Vladimir Horowitz. His penchant for taking wild liberties in interpretation were unknown to me at age eight when I first heard his rendition of Scarlatti's Sonata in E Major on the Live in Moscow cassette my parents owned. This performance was never considered one of his best, (he was in his 80's at the time), but something about his romanticized and imperfect rendition of this baroque classic stuck with with me permanently.

I don't just love him because he looks vaguely like my great uncle Victor or because he had terrible performance anxiety (a trait that we share.) I love him because he planted a seed in me that has allowed me to perform some of this music my own way, which is a very special gift indeed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Strategies for Fighting Summer Learning Loss

Welcome to our new studio blog! I hope you'll find this a fun and effective way to stay informed about happenings in the studio. I'll also use this forum as a place to share articles of interest, photos from our studio events, and fun teaching tools.

For my first post, I'd like to talk a bit about an issue that's of interest to nearly all private music teachers, parents and students: Giving kids a break in the summer without losing all the musical gains they've made during the school year.

Let me start by saying that I would prefer *not* to take the summers off. I find that a little bit of scheduling in the summer goes a long way in keeping my personal sanity (and pocketbook) in the black. As a mom, I also understand that kids who work very hard and are very scheduled during the school year need and deserve some summer freedom. So where is the balance and how do we find it?

Learning loss is a big issue for public school teachers as well as private tutors and music teachers. After students have taken a whole summer off, we nearly always spend the first month to six weeks revisiting the concepts we studied last year, correcting bad technical habits formed through unsupervised playing, and just getting back into the swing of regular practice.

Here a few suggestions you might consider for giving kids a break while maintaining learning:

1) Reduce the number of lessons you take in the summer, but don't eliminate lessons altogether. Coming to lessons every other week or a few times throughout the summer will allow students some breathing room while maintaining some of the skills learned during the school year.

2) Consider taking fewer lessons of a longer duration. One hour-long lesson in June, July, and August allows us to focus on technical and theory skills that I might not have had time to work on during our regular time slot. This extra time is always well spent, and knowing your teacher expects you to have even a few fun pieces ready to play keeps the brain from going into vacation mode quite so thoroughly.

3) Maintain some kind of practice schedule, even if it is reduced. Of course kids should have time for fun in the summer, but if your kids are like mine, too much freedom is a little overwhelming. Just like math and reading skills, piano playing and music reading must be maintained. Plunking through some old pieces is probably not enough. Younger students in particular will lose note reading skills fairly quickly when not exercising them. Practicing with correct technique and hand position on new pieces is the only way to truly prevent skill loss.

4) Don't expect your student to learn five new or challenging pieces to play for me in the fall. Knowing how bright the kids in my studio are, many of them probably could learn the basics on this many pieces successfully. What most kids can't do is self-monitor details like counting, hand position, phrasing, and technique, and unmonitored learning can actually reinforce errors. It's much harder to unlearn sloppy hand position and technique than it is to teach them correctly in the first place.

If you absolutely can't work even a few lessons into your schedule, try to maintain a practice schedule that includes pieces the student knows well, a few sightreading pieces of their own level, and careful monitoring to prevent sloppy playing. Repetitive practice of old material can get boring (thus my encouragement to take a few lessons during the summer), but it's better than nothing at all.

In the long run, students who don't take summers off completely and use this extra time for fun, laid-back, and stress-free lessons lose less learning, advance instead of regress, and show less frustration when lessons begin in the fall. Everybody wins!