Technique

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”.

 

 

Books and Resources: Purrfect Practice

Each year, I am invited to the lovely community of Camden, New South Wales, to perform in honour of my last piano teacher, Dr. Marilyn Meier. As well as a wonderful teacher, Marilyn was a great friend of mine who welcomed me into her family and who became my two-piano partner professionally. She believed in me above all and sang my praises constantly; she was critical and investigative and made me strive for bigger, better things. Even though she is no longer with us, the boost she gave to my career is something I’ll never forget as long as I live. However, this line of thought is a story for another time.

The Amazing Grace Academy of Performing Excellence (AGAPE) is directed by pianist and teacher, Heather Bieman. Heather is a lovely, accommodating woman who fosters a love music in her students and is a kind, caring, knowledgeable mentor to her teaching faculty. It is always a pleasure to attend AGAPE each year and work with students on some beautiful repertoire. I am also very fortunate to meet a number of piano teachers in the area who come along for a chat and who always have a barrage of questions for me. Last year, I conducted a masterclass and was terribly excited because I was hoping to finally meet Jackie Sharp. Jackie is a pianist, pedagogue, and professional teacher, whose YouTube videos and pedagogical research was inspiring a great many private instructors both nationally and internationally. At this point in time, Jackie had been developing her Purrfect Practice Technique Trainer 1 e-book and a lot of interest was generated within the Australian pedagogical community. I didn’t get to meet Jackie on this occasion and discuss her technique trainer, which is a shame, but I did acquire my own copy of the e-book version to use and review for this blog post – I am sure we will get to meet in the future.

I have reviewed many technique books as part of university work/literature studies and, at one stage, as part of a thesis which heavily critiqued certain evolutionary aspects of the etude in everyday piano practice. As with a lot of this research, I obtained books of etudes and finger exercises and spent my days playing through them to assess their value overall (technical and otherwise!). There were always supplementary writings, pictures, and anecdotes to accompany a lot of the studies I practiced which was great help from an analytical standpoint. Purrfect Practice Technique Trainer 1 combines a lot of these similar approaches into one handy reference guide for teacher and student alike. These are the two main areas which were huge deal makers for me:

TECHNOLOGY

If there is one area where Technique Trainer REALLY succeeds, it is with the videos that Jackie uses in conjunction with her book. Jackie, herself a fine pianist, provides links to YouTube videos at the top of each exercise in the book. Once the link is clicked, we are taken to a clip that isn’t just another grainy hand demonstration with no sound (as is common with a lot of example videos given by some shoddy “pedagogues” on YouTube), but we listen as Jackie talks us through the exercise slowly, then, in some cases, with more speed. Her camera angles are more than helpful as we can actually see important movements of the hand, wrist, and fingers, making the illustrations in her book more pertinent. More often than not, many videos have camera angles which are missing the important aspects of hand movement and coordination.

The combination of technology with piano teaching nowadays is, I feel, par for the course. Jackie has more than succeeded with this approach.

RE-INFORCEMENT AND PRE-CHECKLISTS

Technique Trainer 1 encourages students to think before they play, think while they are playing, and think after. Each exercise comes with a checklist of things to be aware of while you play as well as things to think about after you’ve played. Checklists contain markers that focus on areas like strong joints, up-down motions, rotation, etc. These checklists promote positive re-inforcement of technical work as the book progresses. Quite often, Jackie will revisit certain areas of the hand just to keep things in perspective – you don’t just do something once and think you’re a master!

I, and other teachers whom I have spoken with, have found that some students are making an effort to focus better on what they are doing to the point where they will actively engage in a discussion about it afterwards. For me, that’s just another selling point for books like this.

(Let me tell you, getting students to converse on aspects of technique/musicality after they’ve finished is, by far, not the easiest thing in the world)

The format of the exercises is clear and concise. The colours are minimal but bright and contrasting. The book is certainly not exhaustive when placed alongside the likes of Joseffy and Berringer, but then again I don’t think that is Jackie’s aim either. Whereas these two books assume that a fundamental knowledge of piano playing has already been achieved, Jackie takes us right back to a bare bones approach. It is an approach that facilitates gracious piano playing with ease RIGHT from the beginning stages. It is an approach that promotes less tension in the limbs/joints/muscles by fostering carefully considered movements and motions. Finally, it is an approach that promotes musicality – that is the most important aspect about this book.

I don’t believe that this resource should only be in the hands of the beginner – it should be in the hands of every teacher. Jackie’s work is not a regurgitation of bygone pedagogical principles, it is a fresh work that has been made easily accessible to teacher and student. It is very affordable and comes in a studio licensing format or a single copy. It has used the advent of technology in the studio to its advantage and it doesn’t sacrifice musicality EVER for the sake of a dry exercise.

Well done, Jackie! I cannot wait for the other volumes.

5 Stars

Please Visit: http://www.purrfectpractice.com.au