Principles of Piano Teaching:
Introducing a New Piece to a Student
Durban Area, South Africa
Durban Area, South Africa
Citation: Mostert, Mareli. 2021. "Principles of Piano Teaching: Introducing A New Piece To a Student." Accelerando: Belgrade Journal of Music and Dance 6:5
Just as the clean canvas might seem intimidating to the artist, so a new piece of music might seem to a student. But with a few guidelines and some dissecting, they will soon discover its joys. Depending on the level of the student and the piece, each presentation will be different. In this essay the focus will be on the intermediate to early advanced student. Three main points will be discussed: presenting the piece, learning the piece and memorizing the piece. These three points can’t be separated completely because the learning process is part of the practice process which in turn is part of the memorizing process.
Keywords: music, piano teaching, learning process, practice process, memorization
Presenting the piece
Music is an aural experience, so giving the student a sound image of the piece is very important. It is best if the teacher can play the piece to the student. If it is not possible for the teacher to play, then a good reliable recording should be used. After listening to the piece, the student and teacher can discuss a few points to get an understanding about the piece. The teacher should ask questions that will lead the student to the correct answers. It is important that the student has a firm understanding of the character, mood and style of the piece. The title, tempo markings, expression markings and dynamic markings can help the student to understand the piece. As soon as this step is in place, the student can start to explore the various tonal and rhythm patterns and articulation details. (William 1965)
In order to explore the notes, the student must have a theoretical understanding of the piece. The harmonic and melodic patterns in the piece and the relationship between the right and left hand should be examined. In order for the student to be able to do this, the student must have a knowledge of the correct musical vocabulary. Patterns and relationships should be identified and marked. For visual learners, colors can be used. In the case of kinaesthetic learners, activities can be devised that enable them to feel it. These activities can involve playing and writing. Auditory learners should have a clear aural ‘picture’ of these patterns and relationships. Scale passages and arpeggio patterns can be marked according to the respective scale or arpeggio being played. Chords can be marked in a similar way by describing the nature of the chord and its inversion.
While discovering the piece in this way the student is getting ready for practice. The student should mark all the possible problem spots and any difficult sections that will need extra practice or a special technique. It is important that the student do all the discovering and marking on his own to ensure that he has a firm understanding about the melodic and harmonic structure and rhythmical aspects of the piece. The role of the teacher is to lead the student to self-discovery and not to give all the answers. After the student has discovered the musical ideas and patterns, chords, scale and arpeggio passages and the relationship between the right hand and left hand, practicing procedures can be discussed.
Learning the piece
The student should always aim for deliberate, effortful practice. Practicing a few bars, a musical idea, or even just a few notes ensures effective practice and solves bigger problems. It is less time consuming and learning takes place much faster. It should also be mentioned that students should be taught to practice mindful and creative, always striving to accomplish a set goal. The outcome of each practice session should be productive, mindful learning.
The main point is to stick to small sections. Divide the piece into practice units, for example four or eight bars in length. The length of these units will vary, depending on the phrase structure of the piece. The idea of these units is to establish time management skills, goal setting skills and how to use practice sessions effectively. Each unit can be practiced in different ways, while focusing on mindful practice. These units can be used to set short-term goals. The outcome of practicing these smaller sections is faster, effortful learning. Some major practice strategies for practicing these sections will be discussed below.
Major practice strategies
First-off is repetitive practice. Repetitive practice is all about repeating short sections for a specific number of times, while striving for accuracy. Take the problem spot and isolate it, then decide on the amount of repetitions. Repeat the spot for the specified amount of repetitions while focusing on playing it accurate with each repeat. For creative practice purposes, different dynamics and articulations can be added. But at the end of the practice session, the section should be played as written.
Perpetual motion practice is almost the same as repetitive practice, but instead of stopping at the end of the section to start again, the student repeats the section without stopping. Resulting in repeating the section over and over again until playing is automatic. It is important to start a few beats or measures before the problem spot and ending a few beats or measures after the problem spot. This allows for preparation time as well as ensuring that the playing is smooth over the spot. Isolating the breakdown section and practicing it with perpetual motion results in mastering the section in a small amount of time. (Fitch 2017)
For similar but not identical sections, alternation can be used. Once again, isolate the similar sections and play them by alternating between them. Practicing similar sections this way prevents confusion when playing from memory. (Bernstein 1981)
Exaggeration allows the student to feel the motions needed to play a certain section that they are having difficulty with. Dynamics, articulation, voicing, balance and phrasing can all be exaggerated during slow practice. Playing difficult chords with a louder tone creates confidence, while playing a tricky scale passage slowly will solve fingering problems. Exaggeration is mostly done when practicing slowly. As the speed increases, motions will be firmly in place and exaggeration should fall away.
Mental practice is done away from the piano and involves mental hearing (audiation) and feeling (kinesthesia). While listening to a recording of the piece, play it mentally. (Buck 1944) If the student is able to play the piece mentally thorough learning has taken place. Silent playing is also a form of mental practice. Silent playing is done by touching the keys without depressing them and then hearing the sound inside the head. Mental practice also aids in memorizing, it ensures that aural memory as well as visual memory is used. (Westney 2003)
When practicing a new piece it is important to focus on the musical aspects as well. By distributing them it makes it easier for the student to focus on specific aspects. (Lovelock 1965) For example, playing the melody only while focusing on shaping, then the bass only while focusing on shaping. Focusing on forward motion across bar-lines, or only working on balancing and voicing. Phrasing, articulation, pedalling and even dynamics can all be isolated and worked on in separate practice runs. Breaking down the music like this allows for faster learning as the student can concentrate on the matter at hand. (Graham 2017)
There are numerous other practice strategies to use as well, but the ones discussed above are the major ones.
Memorizing the piece
Memorizing is part of the practice process. The majority of memorizing takes place during practicing. Memorization should start before the student starts learning the notes. (Baker-Jordan 2004) Memory consists of two kinds:
The definition of memory is: The linking-up of two or more ideas or things.
There are five types of memory and all five should be incorporated when learning a new piece. The five types of memory are:
Memory is the association of ideas, therefore analytical memory is the most reliable memory. Right from the start analytical memory should be worked on. When the students are preparing the piece by analyzing it, they are incorporating analytical memory. This means that the student has a meaningful understanding of the piece. In order to analyse the music and use analytical memory, the student should of course have a working knowledge of harmony and theory.
Memorization comes through repetition. Not mindless repetition, but repetition of consciously determined musical functions. That is the key to a dependable memory. Mindless repetition only leads to muscle memory. Muscle memory is the most unreliable memory. When memorizing a new piece, employ as many of your muscles and senses as you can. Tools for memorizing (which is part of the note-learning and practice process) include:
Rehearsing new information is a vital part of memorizing. Always rehearse new material immediately after the initial playing. Rehearse by playing from memory several times before moving on to the next section. Always associate new material with previously learned material.
A basic learning/memory plan is essential to ensure that time is used effectively. Here follows a basic plan with lots of opportunities for creativity: