Scales and arpeggios. Schmitt, Plaidy, Pischna, and Hanon … the list is a daunting one and almost every teacher is familiar with the task of administering this “medicine” to all her students. Those fingers must be strengthened and evenness of tone and velocity are essential. And you have to start in right away with those very first lessons.
Or so most teachers believe.
However, very few teachers are willing to face the sad reality that most students aren’t going to take music lessons for more than three years. Three years seems to be an average after which the student’s interest tends to flag and a myriad of excuses for not practicing or attending lessons will suddenly appear. Most of us who love teaching are perennial optimists and we hope that each of our charges will advance to brilliant levels of performance. But the truth is that this is a chimera. Most will not. Most will stop lessons and never touch a piano again.
I know that discussing this reality with parents will most probably have them wheeling around and heading for the nearest exit. No parent wants to confront the fact that his child is statistically going to fall into that three-year black hole. No parent sees his child as a “norm”. Many are convinced that they are accompanying a new Mozart into my studio.
So I rarely broach this unfortunate fact with parents
But personally I find it heart-breaking and have spent over thirty years working on ways to prevent this utter loss … of time and money and above all, of the opportunity to have music as an integral and wonderful part of each pupil’s life
Over the years, I’ve found I must work carefully around this truncated time-frame as part of my teaching ethos, making sure that those few years I have with each student are filled with as much MUSIC as possible. Which means I take a radical direction away from methods of teaching which encourage far too much technical work and thus stint on time spent actually making music. At the end of those three years, who will ever care if the student can play a hundred tedious Schmitt finger exercises, all the scales in four octaves and raise each finger perfectly independently of the other if they can’t sit down and play a creditable “Fur Elise” or a simple Clementi Sonatina. Or pick up sheet music for a popular song or play a simple Christmas carol.
Many teachers devote as much as half the lesson time to technique. Apart from being an almost complete waste of time, this is a sure way to make the experience of learning to play the piano tedious and boring. Until the student reaches an advanced level and is actually hammering out Beethoven Sonatas, they are never going to have a scale passage much greater than an octave, arpeggios rarely extend the entire length of the keyboard and any tricky passage with odd fingering can be extrapolated from the music and used as an independent exercise.
Find the “exercises” right there in the portions of the music which the student is struggling with and save yourself and your student from useless tedium.
“Play those two bars ten times …. start slowly and as soon as you have two correct repetitions, increase the speed to the next level.” Simple.
But the question then arises. How do you train your students in dexterity and finger strength without technical exercises? To be strong you have to lift weights. Well here we have to honestly consider how strong or dexterous the student has to be to actually play the music. The earlier and simpler pieces do not require finger gymnastics worthy of Rubenstein or Lang Lang. Those pieces can be handled nicely with minimal strength or dexterity. And don’t forget that every time a piece of music is played, those fingers are being exercised.
The first months must be spent in luring the child into enjoying the lessons and that involves making the learning process fun. I intersperse each lesson with a little humor, a few fragments of real concert pieces and a lot of praise for everything learned. And I keep technical work to the minimum.
As the student progresses then the teacher can discreetly sneak extra technical work into the lessons. When a student is actively engaged in making music, it is much easier to add more technical work relatively painlessly. At this point the student wants the music to sound attractive and is invested in putting extra effort into it.
Some Questions for the Teacher
So you don’t offer any technical work for beginning students?
I start with scales from the first day. But I make them fun to learn. And I don’t give them disportionate time or emphasis. With younger students, I start by asking them to watch me play the C scale with the right hand only. I tell them I’m going to trick them, so they should watch carefully. Then I play the scale, being very careful to slip my thumb imperceptibly under the third finger to hit the F. I show them my hand and ask them to count my fingers. Then to count the notes for the octave from C to C.
When the student sees that my five fingers have played eight notes, I explain about the “sneak” finger trick. And that for scales we have to do “finger sneaks”. For some reason the idea of sneaking anything appeals to students of almost any age and when I call out, “Sneak that finger …” they oblige enjoying a little bit of mischief at the idea of playing a trick.
I teach the major and minor harmonic scales in the first year. I introduce contraries when the student is fluent with the two octave scales. And only for the more enthusiastic students. I do not teach arpeggios until much later as they don’t appear in the easier student pieces and I want the students to PLAY those pieces.
I also introduce Hanon which is extremely popular with nearly all my students of all ages. The simplicity of the repeated pattern moving up and down the keyboard doesn’t require reading the notes and even beginners can enjoy the volume of sound and relative ease of speedy playing. Hanon offers a lot of “Bang for the Buck”. Those exercises are not only great fun, they’re terrific for developing velocity and dexterity.
♥ Remember … I am tailoring my beginner’s classes with the aim of having the student move as quickly as possibly into actually playing the piano. I want to engage attention and stem boredom so I can foster enthusiasm and love for music. When a child “falls in love” with his piano, then I can introduce more technical material. Allowing the child to play more melodies with less unnecessary fingerwork at the beginning is the key. And of course I regularly play snippets of the world’s loveliest classics … without of course naming the composer to avoid that knee jerk response to “classical” music. I never had a child who didn’t love the Mozart Fantasia, played with a concert pianist’s flourishes.
What are the best technical books for beginners? For advanced students?
HANON … hands down. For ALL levels. This is my Bible as far as teaching technical work is concerned.
This link will allow a free download of the entire volume. But I would advise purchasing it as a bound volume since it contains virtually every technical exercise a pianist will ever need and can be used for every level of proficiency up to that last rehearsal before mounting the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Part I consists of 20 excellent exercises employing relatively easy patterns which even the beginner can learn by rote. The second group of 18 focuses on much more complex fingerings. For all levels. Not only does it contain those excellent digital workouts, the Hanon also includes all the scales and arpeggios printed with standard fingerings as well as scales in thirds, sixths and octaves. Repeated note exercises are covered as well as a set of trills, including some in thirds … which will probably be encountered only a handful of times in a concert pianist’s entire career. In short, Hanon covers just about every keyboard contingency. It is a classic and armed with just this one volume of piano technique, the serious pianist can indeed merit the title’s guarantee and become a true “virtuoso”.
As a little diversion from the admittedly rather dry Hanon, a teacher can add Carl Czerny’s classic Opus 261, a collection of brief and delightfully melodic exercises. These studies are for the most part relatively easy to play and they are short, which appeals to many beginners. They provide a taste of romantic style music and are so melodic that one can easily forget that they were written as exercises and not mini-concert pieces. Lovely music and popular with almost everyone at every level of skill.
♥ My only caveat here is that if one is going to learn these mini pieces, it might be better to concentrate on the easier Bach, Clementi and Haydn works which in many cases are not much more difficult. But as an “introduction” to these longer classics, the Czerny is excellent.
What would you not recommend?
I don’t really like to advise against any specific style of teaching or teaching materials. But I personally avoid anything which is tedious and repetitive for the younger students. I like to pull supplementary exercises right out of the piece of music the student is actually learning to play. Anything with which the student is struggling is a potential “exercise”. And then mastering that exercise becomes part of learning a real piece of music, rather than merely repeating an isolated fragment with little musical value.
Plaidy, Pischna and Schmitt are other volumes of technical exercises used by piano teachers around the world. Pischna uses difficult key signatures for many of the included studies and these will not be suitable for beginners. Plaidy and Schmitt consist of pages of repetitive exercises containing not a shred of melody and none of the exhilarating momentum of the Hanon. ( Okay I can’t restrain myself here. As a child I remember these horrors with extreme distaste and don’t want to condemn my students to them.)
What is the most important technical skill which all students must learn?
READ THE DAMNED NOTES
Sorry … this is so important that the only way I can stress it is to demand attention. I censored the original expletive since I am a respected ( and happy) piano professor. But I can’t stress this enough. There is no other skill so important as learning those notes. It is the key to learning quickly and enjoying the process.
Jettison the extra technical work and concentrate on the notes. A package of flash cards is essential and should be part of every lesson for the first year or so.
A little parable
In my final year of High School we had a semester in Home Economics which included a sewing class. Each of us was taught to take basic body measurements and choose a commercial Simplicity pattern. We were instructed to select a simple sundress with no sleeves or collar and to purchase the full yardage specified on the pattern envelope. No exceptions. Then we laid out the paper pattern on the fabric strictly according to the template offered in the pattern instruction sheet and we all carefully cut the pieces out.
We followed the exact order of construction given on that sheet and made up our dresses, learning to put in a zipper, make a neck facing, attach a gathered skirt to the bodice and make a neat hem.
Each of thirty girls graduated from that class with a new sundress she’d made herself. A simple dress without collar or cuffs, no french seams, no ruffles, no belt loops, no interfacing …. nothing complicated. A simple dress. And we were all delighted and many of us continued sewing to some degree for the rest of our lives.
One carefully choreographed class which gave a life skill to many young girls
Now had we been inundated with instructions on how to create our own pattern from our body measurements, how to reduce required fabric amount by making our own cutting layouts, how to make collars and cuffs and interfacings and bound button holes and zipper plackets and a myriad of other fine tailoring details, most of us would never have finished the class and virtually none of us would ever have looked at a sewing machine again.
Piano lessons are exactly the same. Get the student to play some music. Attractive and simple music which they can enjoy. Let them feel the pride in creating MUSIC. Then even if they don’t learn more than a few basics, they’ll have music in their lives and chances are pretty high they’ll enjoy it too.
♥ Don’t forget that you will always have a few exceptional students who fall so completely in love with their lessons that they will advance beyond your grandest expectations. Then they will surprise you with their resilience and willingness to work through whatever technical hurdles you toss their way. And some of them will go so far that one day you’ll be astounded … and humbled … by their skill.
You can nurture and give the gift of one of life’s most profound joys. It is a tragedy to do otherwise.
The Happy Piano Professor.