Australian Piano Pedagogy

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: http://40piecechallenge.com.au/

For more information concerning Elisa Milne, follow her fantastic blog here: https://elissamilne.wordpress.com/

Perspectives: You Don’t Need To Be A Doctor To Understand Your Hand, But You Shouldn’t Be A Piano Teacher If You Don’t!

Many years ago, I had an expensive anatomically correct medical model of a human hand that was a regular feature on top of my piano at my studio. It was quite a unique model in the sense that the skin could be removed to see the muscles and the intricate vein systems underneath along with blood flow indicators and numerical signposts. I no longer display this model in my studio due to a complaint from a parent that it “horrified” her child no end! It looks very similar to this:

...it isn't really that scary!

…it isn’t really that scary!

I named him Frank and I purchased him when I was a first year Conservatorium student. My aim was to better understand what I was working with; what each muscle did; where blood moved and how tension collected and released. I still own Frank but he only gets brought out for my older students – which is a shame. I know that medical models can be horrifying or, “gory and unnecessary” (words used by the aforementioned parent), but they are a wonderful thing to see and touch; they can be purchased for all the organs and limbs of the human body and quite often adorn the shelves in many private doctor surgeries across the world. Mine has the removable parts just like the one in the above picture and my older students derive great pleasure (I suspect it is actually closer to morbid curiosity in some cases) out of putting it back together while following all the little number marks. Part of me wants to rebel and place Frank back atop his rightful throne, but sometimes it is just easier to leave him in the cupboard. On one hand (pun intended), I’d like nothing more than to share something with my students so that they, too, understand how the fingers function. However, on the other, it is difficult to talk a parent down from a ledge once their child has been frightened. Frank was displayed atop my piano with only the best of intentions. I guess now, looking back on it, I should’ve considered that (medical or not) this model had the potential to negatively imprint itself deep into the over-active imagination of a 6 year old.

I wondered for years after if my approach to demonstrating what the hand was really “all about” was a good one with my students. Was it too far? For small children, possibly, but for teenagers, adults, and especially teachers, definitely not. Understanding the hand is something that seems to be only taken seriously by few teachers (at least in my experience), when, in reality, ALL teachers of the piano should hold some sort of anatomical and physiological knowledge of the limb. I feel that regardless of other pedagogues of the Late-Classical and Early Romantic periods, the best person to start with for this brief blog, is Carl Czerny.

Czerny: A True Clinician of the Human Hand

Czerny: A True Clinician of the Human Hand

Czerny can be either a blessing or a curse to every pianist, this is mostly due to the divided academic discourse over the benefit of his piano studies. Many piano students the world over know of (and fear) the rigorous technical demands in the two infamous collections of etudes The School of Velocity Op. 299 and The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740. It is quite often speculated as to how he amassed the hundreds of etudes in his oeuvre, the implication that the sheer volume may mean they are of no merit. On the contrary…

There is a tonne of anecdotal and historical evidence surrounding Czerny. Whether it be letters to and from pupils, pianists, and royalty, Czerny’s methods of teaching were well known. Perhaps the best and most insightful account was that during a piano lesson, he could sit beside a student, instantly recognise a problem in their hand, and have an etude on the technical issue written for them before the lesson ended. Such feats of pedagogy (unique for their time) added to his already sealed reputation as an exceptional pianist and teacher of some of Europe’s brightest pupils. These historical accounts have led to many recent editors to label him a “clinician of the hand”.

But what exactly is a clinician of the hand? What do they do?

A hand clinician nowadays comes under the medical banner of an Orthopaedic Hand Surgeon. These specialists treat many injuries concerning joints, muscles, and types of damage to the limb. Often times they work alongside Rheumatologists concerning some conditions like bone spurs, RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), and arthritis; they also work alongside neurosurgeons concerning disorders such as dystonia and, in some cases, muscular dystrophy. Is it correct to place Czerny alongside these medical practitioners? The answer is no. Czerny was no more a doctor than he was a dentist! What is meant by “clinician of the hand” in Czerny’s case is that he understood how the hand worked, what to do with it, and what not to do. He understood how the thumb moved, how the fingers moved, how to change hand positions to create different sounds and effects, and how the arm and wrist worked in conjunction with tone, touch, and technique.

Czerny was no doubt aware of injuries at the keyboard (pianist/teachers like Kalkbrenner had a reputation for torturing their students with maliciously large amounts of repetitions which were restricted to finger movements instead of utilising other movements from the wrist backward up the arm) and, there is also no doubt that he understood tension and release, especially from the wrist and forearm. Czerny was astonished at the freedom that the young Franz Liszt displayed when he visited for his lessons. Czerny recounts how, regardless of Liszt’s whimsical whole body movements, his high fingers and flexible wrist, the playing was nothing short of astonishing; so much so, that Czerny taught him for nothing. The “finger school” of the baroque harpsichordists was still very much a commonly taught pedagogical method in Europe in the early 1800’s. Czerny used a unique blend of Beethoven’s long phrased “legato which breathed” and this “finger school” within his lessons, which eventually incorporated some further use of the wrist. The correspondence between Beethoven and Czerny (especially concerning the interpretation of Beethoven’s newly published music) gives great insight into Czerny as interpreter, transcriber, and pianist. Beethoven entrusted Czerny with performances, even after scolding him for taking excessive liberties via “adding things” to the original music (wonder where Liszt got it from, hmmm?) – they are wonderful to read.

Although Czerny missed the first publication of Gray’s Anatomy by 1 year, it is possible that he would’ve been well aware of the first few volumes of the most influential medical text of the time, the Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery by Jean Baptiste Marc Bourgery:

Please note: this book is NOT for the squeamish. Seriously.

Please note: this book is NOT for the squeamish. Seriously.

But would he have bothered to read it? While it is hypothetical that Czerny knew the preliminary volumes of this book (the entire collection was not published during his life), it is also equally hypothetical that he did not. The lithographs and illustrations (impeccably drawn by artist, Nicolas Henri Jacob) set the benchmark for all medical imagery and surgical procedures for many years after. This unbelievably large text book (yes, you could easily use it as a weapon should you ever face a home intruder!) is now published in its entirety to be purchased by serious collectors, academics, or just for those who have a keen interest in the human body. As for Czerny knowing the book (or knowing similar anatomy guides of the time), it bears mention that his observations on the human hand and its capabilities did not just come down to luck. When looking across the vast expanse of Czerny’s compositions, especially the etudes, those with a keen eye can see that he knew how to immediately, and successfully, solve a problem with beginner pianists, right through to the most competent of virtuosi. As someone who completed all 40 of the Op. 299 studies over the course of three years, I can attest to great results. These results improved the more I practiced them and, along with Op. 740,  I still consider them to be a valuable tool for myself and my students. Carl Czerny, regardless of the hatred that many pianists have for his etudes and his sometimes bland, “salonesque” harmonic framework, is still quite often referred to as the forefather of modern piano technique – for very good reason…

I am happy to say I, too, am a part of this tree (my teacher was a student of Arrau!)

I am happy to say I, too, am a part of this tree (my teacher was a student of Arrau!)

I’m just going to blurt this out: I do not believe you can be a successful piano teacher without even a cursory, anatomical knowledge of the hand. In fact, it’s quite absurd to consider anything otherwise. There is no need to begin a degree in medicine nor is there cause for several hours of reading the most dense orthopaedic text books at your local library: Google is your friend. There are also many concise books (including Gray’s Anatomy) that are just as beneficial for understanding the mechanics of the hand. Anyone can pick up Malwine Bree’s treatise on Leschetizky’s methods of teaching, and they can flick through to all of the drawings and pictures of his hand demonstrating how to correctly take chords, but are they REALLY understanding? Are they really understanding Wieck and his focus on the wrist as a reliever of tension? Do they understand the dialogue between the techniques of Matthay and Breithaupt whilst having no knowledge of weight and muscular movement in and around the hand? Finally, do they know and understand what is under their own skin? In a lot of cases, probably not. Reading book after book of pedagogical practices/ideologies is wonderful, but it isn’t the full picture. Just like a mechanic has to lift the bonnet of the car to better understand the problem, we have to lift the layers of skin off our limbs to understand how the machine works underneath (please, don’t take me literally!). This isn’t a direct stab at ALL piano teachers, it is aimed to bring forth the idea that maybe taking a closer, anatomical look could really open some doors and expand thought, creativity, and progression of technique.

Finally, I have to say, if I didn’t understand about the inner workings of the hand at an anatomical level (sometimes, also at a mental level!), I couldn’t ethically teach someone the piano. I mean, when a student comes and says that their 4th and 5th fingers have trouble playing the broken double thirds in Op. 299 no. 11, I don’t want to be a teacher who throws an exercise at them saying “practice this slowly, it will eventually happen” (I would just like to point out that I do know MANY teachers like this), I want to be the teacher who says “Well! Here is WHY they are doing that and here are some ways we may be able to fix it” and make sure they understand how their hands respond to such challenges.

As for the 6 year old who was scared of Frank, she is now 14. She still tells me, on a regular occasion, that should she ever see Frank again, she will most likely set him on fire for ruining her childhood with nightmares. She’s also currently having some trouble with Op. 299 no. 5 of Czerny.

There’s a twisted sort of irony there…somewhere.