In The Studio

In The Studio: Why is technical work always left till the “last minute”? – Part One

The short answer: because the majority of students just, plain and simple, don’t like it.

The long answer: it is difficult to be objective in this area of pedagogy, mainly because I love technical work. I love studies – I love Hanon – I love scales and arpeggios. Every time I convey this to a student, I get “you’re crazy” or “wow, what is wrong with you?” which, normally, then encourages  bouts of laughter before moving on to something else. There is something immensely satisfying about seeing your hands glide up a piano or swiftly taking an arpeggio at break-neck speed without fault. The majority of my students, however, just don’t see it this way (with the exception of one or two), and even when I present a masterclass, a top question that is always asked is “how can I get them to practice technical work?”

It really does come down to HOW you teach it and not WHY you teach it. We all know that the concept of technical work consists of the building blocks for successful pianism. So, why then, are there so many famous pianists (past and present) who lay claim to NEVER utilising a scale or an arpeggio in their practice? Why are there so many pianists who believe that it is the repertoire itself which provides all the technical work they need? It is because they have found ways of making technique work for THEM and not the other way around. Many of them DID start with scales and arpeggios when they were younger and later evolved into pianists who started deciphering, unraveling, and using the technical challenges in their repertoire to their advantage.

While I appreciate this, I am not an exponent of using JUST repertoire to teach technique (even though I can see the advantages), instead, I believe in a combination of all things from collections of exercises, scales, and repertoire. My aim as a teacher is to always try my best to provide pathways to solutions regarding current physiological hurdles (tension, posture, injury) and technical inadequacy. In discovering various methods of teaching technique (of which there are thousands), there are some core fundamentals I like to teach my students aside from the usual “scales and arpeggio manual” – first and foremost, I like them to become investigators. To me, this is the most important skill I can give to any of my students. Without it, technique is a pointless and, dare I say it, obsolete journey.

The concept of the ‘mistake’, why it happens, and when student needs to become investigator:

“When a car crash happens, the impact is NOT the mistake. The mistake happens before hand. When someone is illegally talking on their mobile phone while driving, someone has run a red light, or a driver misses a “Give Way” sign, THAT is what we need to be looking at. Anything that happens afterwards is the RESULT of the mistake.”

This is how I explain mistakes to my older pupils. The point is that so many people believe the crash itself to be the mistake when it isn’t. If this were the case, there would be no need for Crime Scene Investigators, Traffic Control, or forensic teams to rush to the scene of the resulting accident. These people are required to investigate the circumstances leading up to the crash in order to determine WHY it has happened. These “accidents” in music happen the same way.

By encouraging students to become investigators, we open up the doors for a “critical thinking” or “self-directed” approach to analysis of their playing and of their technique. For example (and one that I see a lot of) is the Dominant 7th of F. The keys which need to be played are C-E-G-Bb with the fingering of 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 ascending and 4-3-2-1, 4-3-2-1, descending. It is when the arpeggio descends that I tend to see a banging 4th finger (akin to hearing the triplet accented sound in three note arpeggios) it also when I have heard many a piano teacher say “stop banging that 4th finger” which, unfortunately, puts all of the focus on the fourth finger. The banging fourth finger is the RESULT of a mistake that happens previously. There are a tonne of reasons for this: incorrect hand position, inability to touch and release with correct weight, lazy or late movement of the wrist, lack of rotation, incorrect direction – the “where am I going to?” effect, flat fingers and inflexible forearm, shoulder and tension across the scapular, hunching and poor posture. This is precisely the moment where teacher needs to be encouraging student to investigate more thoroughly. One of the most popular “old wives” techniques of getting rid of this 4th finger accent is asking a student to count in 5 when playing the four note arpeggios (similarly, count in 4 when playing three note arpeggios), but, as successful as this can be, it alone is not going to fix the problem if it happens to be rooted in tension and poor posture.

I have seen many exciting outcomes with technique by teaching my students to investigate why something is going wrong, or, what is happening in the lead up to the “car crash”. Teaching technique can be a struggle, mostly because it isn’t fully understood by the student (and sometimes, too, by the teacher!). Furthermore, an analytical framework is often just left up to the teacher, when understanding mistakes should be encouraged between student and teacher. This stepping stone is paramount in all aspects of technique, from the physical to the mental.

In part two: questions to guide a student through the investigative process, methods for exciting technical work approaches such as books, games, resources, and personal studio tools. And also…why technique really DOES tend to be left till the “last minute”.



In the Studio: When a Student Presents You a Challenge…

At this very moment, treasured Australian composer, pianist, and educator, Elissa Milne, is talking to American piano teachers about the 40 Piece Challenge at the MTNA conference in San Antonio.

For those not in the know, the 40 Piece Challenge has become somewhat of a curio in modern Australian pedagogy. The objective is clear – learn 40 pieces (or more!). They can be of any style, any speed, from any period, etc. and do not have to stay strictly in the grade the student is currently studying. I have had multiple successes with the challenge in my studio; I’ve seen it inspire and push even the most stubborn student, and I’ve seen my best students take off running to exciting new levels of pianism. It’s a wonderful initiative with many a success story attached to it. You only need to look at prominent online pedagogy blogs to read similar success stories which are being shared from studios across the world.

It is this 40 piece challenge concept that has had me thinking lately: we are always presenting our students with various goals, challenges, and tasks, but rarely are they setting them for us. Many a teacher will chime in with “but the challenge is in the teaching!” or “they are teaching us as we teach them”, and while these adages are true, rarely do I see evidence from colleagues of them having a ‘tangible’ challenge, like the 40 Piece Challenge, set to them by one of their pupils.  One teacher (herself, a renowned Australian pianist) has recently told me of how she always learns the pieces her students are learning. It doesn’t matter what grade – from a Bach Prelude to a Chopin Scherzo – she will learn it along with them. This intrigues me as it is something I’ve never really considered before: would I better understand what I was teaching if I learned it alongside my student? Is there time to do this along with my own repertoire?

Well, I’m going to try!

I have two students who are hard working, disciplined kids, who show great promise with their piano playing. They share a love of all styles of music, have both completed the 40 Piece Challenge, and had a great time doing it. One of them, a grade 6 student, is working through the 24 Etudes Op. 636 (Preliminary School of Finger Dexterity) and my AMUSA student is working through the 40 Etudes Op. 299 (the famed School of Velocity) – both by Carl Czerny. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided that it would be “fun” for myself to learn the Czerny studies alongside them. As I have mentioned in another blog post, I did indeed learn all 40 of the Op. 299 studies at the con – but, well, let’s just say it has been a while *cough*

Each study will be uploaded onto my YouTube channel. I will post the video links here on the blog as well. It will also be a good reference point for them as they are learning. We have decided to call it “The Czerny Journey” – which they think is hilarious and completely ridiculous.

As for the 40 Piece Challenge, I urge you to give it a go (even if just for yourself) and also encourage your students to set you a challenge as well! I was pleasantly surprised at how they leaped at the opportunity. I’m excited…

For more information concerning the 40 Piece Challenge:

For more information concerning Elisa Milne, follow her fantastic blog here: