Piano Pedagogy

Perspectives – The ‘classical musician image’ – and the falsities associated with it.

“Daniel, you need to read and read and read. You need to consume books on music, composers, interpretation, teachers, treatises, journal articles”

This was what was said to me upon graduating from my first undergraduate music degree. It is a statement that I followed with an almost religious obsession, consuming tonnes of books and pedogogical knowledge. You know what, though?

It’s a load of garbage. I probably use less than 50% of that knowledge base. As someone who constantly reads and researches, I only do so regarding what I love and what is pertinent to making me a better educated pianist and pedagogue. I developed the crucial skill of reading what is necessary and disregarding what isn’t.

I always hesitate to write on perspectives such as the above. The reason is because everyone leads their own musical life differently; it’s so inherently personal that it seems trite to say ‘this is how you become a great musician’.

The above statement has stayed fresh in my head over a decade later. I’ve thought about it and how to come up with some sort of retort. I was annoyed that it had stayed with me for so long, niggling at me to no end! This niggling took a huge turning point when I had a clean out of my cupboards.

THE CLEANOUT:

Last year, I made a huge personal decision: ‘I am not the sum total of my university qualifications’. I opened my old cupboard which housed hundreds of undergraduate assignments, postgraduate course work, and a few theses…

and I threw them all out.

I had a few friends who objected to this. Ultimately, it was a really good decision and one that illuminated a possible response to that teacher from many years ago. This response has to do with the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Guillame du Fay. (Please note, this is just a personal perspective of my own journey, however universal it may seem!)

I can tell you nothing about Schoenberg or Du Fay other than:

1) Schoenberg made some pretty crazy sounding music (based on my cursory knowledge of serialism and having performed a few of the Klavierstucke)

2) Guillaume du Fay was some guy who wrote some things (legitimately, I cannot tell you a single thing about this person off the top of my head)

Here is the thing: I wrote two undergraduate essays on both composers (2000 words each paper!). Not only that, but I achieved a distinction for both. So, why can’t I remember anything about either of these people?

It’s simple: I am not interested. I don’t believe I would have been interested then. I did it because that was what was required. It was at this point that I realised that you do NOT have to be an authority on all aspects of classical music in order to be a fantastic or WORTHY classical musician.

Since then, I have wasted no time in espousing this ideal to much criticism. Some replies I get are as follows:

  1. “Oh, Daniel! How do you expect to get a well rounded musical insight when you teach?” – the same way a lot of other pedagogues gain their musical insight: by reading about things when it matters. Researching what is necessary is a skill all on its own. Researching what is NOT necessary is a worthless mission.
  2. “How do you impart musicological knowledge to your students?” – in the same manner that a student will say “I don’t want to learn that piece”, I see no point in teaching anything detailed about Schoenberg unless my students are performing a work by him (or a contemporary). I advise on what to read and I teach what is needed. Anything beyond that is encouraged but not required. This is the same as when I am doing my own research.
  3. “Aren’t you grateful for being exposed to such composers, even if you did not like them? Don’t your students feel the same?” – firstly, I wanted a music degree and aimed to have music as my career. This isn’t the same as a student in year 9 who comes to their lesson after school, after soccer, after a movie date with friends, to sit and learn piano. Personally, yes, I am grateful to have been exposed to these composers. It further strengthens my obvious informed (?) disregard of them in my own musical life.
  4. “Do you think this skews your own teaching and performing?” – absolutely not. I have never told a student they couldn’t learn a piece because I don’t know anything about the composers or the style. In fact, I try and expose my students to as many varying styles and composers as is possible at their particular level. To do otherwise would be totally unrealistic (and stupid!) in today’s world. As for my performing, I am at the level in my life where I mostly perform what I like to, not what I have to. This may sound arrogant, but I am not totally dismissive of a composer like Schoenberg (I have performed his works before), it just isn’t my go-to when choosing a program (I have written an article of my journey with Modern Music down below)

There are more, but the answer to them is mostly in the same vein.

EXPECTATION VS. REALITY:

There is an almost unspoken expectation that if you are choosing a specialist area then you are required to know every corner of it. While this may be helpful in some jobs, unless you’re in the area of musicology, it is totally impossible to have a detailed knowledge on all composers over a 300-400 year period. Universities now, more than ever, are pushing for all musicians to be experienced in multiple areas. For example, we had a lecturer who used to say “as a pianist, you now have to be a jazz pianist, a church pianist, a wedding pianist, a popular style pianist. You need to be versatile” – and, yes, they are correct, but only in one aspect.

VERSATILITY:

Modern musicians do need to be versatile. They need to adapt to many musical situations and take on roles such as repititeur and accompanist. Telling a pianist that they need to be experienced in all areas of music in order to be a success is not only grossly misleading, but is merely a form of blind optimism. It is the age old saying of ‘you can’t be all things to all people’. How about training pianists to be good pianists, regardless? Secondly, universities are demanding versatiliy in their musicians but then have separate strands for Jazz studies? Jazz aural? Jazz theory? Even then, you are asked to choose your ‘strand major’. Hardly versatile by any stretch…

What universities should say is: “we are going to expose you to everything, you would be well advised to follow your strengths and interests”. I once met an amazing classical pianist who could play a Mozart, Haydn, or Clementi sonata so well that it was life changing. I was then in a recital by the same pianist when he tried to thump through a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody with a horrendous outcome (it was cringey…). After the recital, I asked what the hell had happened. The answer was simple “I can’t stand Liszt”.

So, what’s the point? Why do that? Why program it?

IMAGE:

The issue here is image. Specifically, the classical musician image. You only need to attend a classical piano competition to see the push for pianists to be able to play all styles, speeds, and periods at an exceptionally high level. I understand this, especially considering how large the classical piano ouvre is. However, there are a few things that need to be considered from a purely subjective level:

– you only like what you like. Most good piano teachers understand this with their pupils. Students are, for the most part, brutally honest. They will tell you if they don’t want to learn something.

– you are not a lesser musician because you choose Hummel over Beethoven, or Haydn over Clementi. Similarly, if you like Miles Davis over Zez Confrey, or Noszkowski over Nickelback, you shouldn’t be subject to criticism.

– Versatility does not denote experience, professionalism, or success. Further, it brings to light the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ for many musicians. For example, I simply adore Angela Hewitt’s Bach playing. It’s stunning and has cemented her as an authority on the master. Does this mean that everything she performs is of a similar excellence? Does her devoted mastery of Bach mean that she is poised to play any composer with a similar excellence? No. Personally, her Beethoven is less than ideal for my ear and her Chopin is so languid that it often lacks control for the sake of over-sentimentalism.

This all being said, this is a personal approach that is almost always condemned. The world does accommodate, still, for those who love to perform only Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Being able to perform a rendition of ‘Hot and Cold’ by Katy Perry in a church service on an old pipe organ does not mean you’re versatile nor is it necessary to be ‘well rounded’. If you’re renowned for your improvisatory piano stylings in a Jazz bar, does that mean you are inherently better at extemporising Bach? No.

Do what you love. Play what you love. That’s what puts the butts on seats. And for teachers, listen to your students. Don’t force them to play something they don’t want to.

By the way: Guillaume du Fay was a Franco-Flemish composer of the renaissance – thanks, Google.

D

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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”.

 

 

Rarity Wednesday: “Chopin” from Lanterne Magique Op. 66 no. 2 – Benjamin Godard

As explained in an earlier post, Rarity Wednesday is just a brief little post that comes out mid-week with the idea of presenting a rarely heard/performed piece for your consideration. I appreciate that not every piece will be to the liking of all, but it is hoped that, regardless, it encourages further research. The Romantic period is a mind-blowingly excellent example of a period of time that produced such treasures of the unknown! Benjamin Godard, relatively famous for a small amount of works, fits into this category with the majority of his compositions hidden from the limelight.

Chopin’ op. 66 no. 2 from Lanternes Magiques – Benjamin Godard

Aside from the many transcriptions of the Berceuse from the opera, Jocelyn, French composer Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) had an enormous output which remains, unfortunately, untouched. His life was a short one, dying from tuberculosis at 45, with many works (including large symphonies and no less than 8 operas) absent from the modern concert program. Although originally a violinist, Godard left a sizeable amount of piano music which includes Mazurkas, Waltzes, Etudes, and Character Pieces. None of the works are daringly virtuosic like other pianist/composers of the time; they are more comfortably placed beside the highly stylised piano music of Moritz Moszkowski. The piece we are looking at today comes from the collection of pieces divided into five books called Lanterne Magique (The Magic Lantern) Op. 50, 55, 66, 110, 115. Each opus number contains a handful of character pieces either based on dances from foreign lands, scherzi, nocturnes, programmatic pieces,or characterisations of composers. Incidentally, the most famous piece across all of the collections is the piece Chopin Op. 66 No. 2

The Polish style is alive and well in Godard's waltz!

The Polish style is alive and well in Godard’s waltz!

The piece is a perfect homage to the Polish composer Frederic Chopin. One only needs to look at the score to see direct rhythmic and harmonic quotes from a handful of Chopin’s waltzes, Mazurkas, the Nocturne Op. 32/1, and the Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66. It isn’t above a grade 7-8 AMEB standard, and thanks to John Thompson’s Modern Piano Method, gets some coverage with student pianists. Chromaticism abounds with a few twists and turns for the student:

A few little tricks and turns in these mysterious and nostalgic chromatic runs.

A few little twists and turns in these mysterious and nostalgic chromatic runs.

We have melodies which are interchangeable between left and right hands (reminiscent of a certain “Grande Valse Brilliant”) and an overall harmonic flavour that is very much in line with the style of the Polish master. The piece wouldn’t be complete without a sweeping, ascending run of chromatics and then an arpeggio cascade to finish:

A beautiful and unexpected turn of harmony reminiscent of the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1

A beautiful and unexpected turn of harmony reminiscent of the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1

A pastiche of Grand Valse Brillante and Impromptu all woven into a new and beautiful soundscape

A pastiche of ‘Chopinesque’ Valse and Impromptu all woven into a new soundscape

A delicious blend of Fantasie Impromptu and Nocturne with the previous left hand melody now in the right

A salon blend of Impromptu and Nocturne with the previous left hand melody now in the right

A sweeping

A sweeping “drawing room” finish!

I’ve been wanting to teach this piece as a “regular” with my advanced students for many years now. I thought about it the other day and immediately raced to grab it from the shelf for a play-thru. Here is the best recording I could find on YouTube: The score is readily available on IMSLP (links provided below) http://imslp.org/wiki/Lanterne_magique_III,_Op.66_(Godard,_Benjamin) Enjoy! Dan xo