The purpose of having piano lessons is quite straightforward (one would think): one wishes to learn to play the piano, and by taking lessons one assumes that one will learn to do so.
The thing is that ‘playing the piano’ can mean so very many different things.
I have often made the joke that when an adult student starts with me they tell that they want to learn to play the piano, but what they really mean is that they want to learn to play “Piano Man”. And in this there is a big clue. What each person intends when they say that they want to learn to play the piano is highly dependent on the music they know and the music they have seen being made.
So, by ‘playing the piano’ do we mean being able to play a Chopin Nocturne?
Do we mean being able to play keyboard in a pop/rock group?
Do we mean accompanying other instrumentalists or vocalists?
Do we mean playing for a song service in a religious setting?
Do we mean mastering Cage’s prepared piano works? Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues? Bartok’s Mikrokosmos? Beethoven’s Sonatas?
Do we mean playing along with our children as we sing nursery rhymes and songs?
Do we mean improvising with a jazz trio?
Do we mean playing the national anthem while a group of people sing along?
Do we mean jamming with friends at school?
The way piano teachers traditionally teach we do very little to prepare our students for most of the ways in which they intend to ‘play the piano’. One argument is that by teaching our students to play the traditional repertoire (basically from Bach to Debussy) we give them technical skills that can then be transposed into other settings once the student has reached a certain level of advanced competence.
The lived reality is that many students wish to be ‘playing the piano’ in the contexts they envisage long before this advanced level of competence is attained. Worse, exclusively classical training simply does not teach skills which will later need to be acquired (reading a chord chart and improvisation, to name but two) for a large number of ‘playing the piano’ contexts.
The challenge is that students (of whatever age) generally don’t have the breadth of knowledge to be able to walk into a lesson and clearly explain their goals. Even if they could, those goals would be subject to change as the student’s studies proceded and as the student’s life experiences broadened.
So what’s a responsible teacher to do?
Firstly, be honest with ourselves about what we are teaching, and what we are simply leaving to chance. I might be able to play from a chord chart, but can any of my students? I might be able to play by ear and how to accompany congregational singing, but do my students know how to do these things? Performing this kind of an audit of our students’ skill sets as compared to our own can be very revealing about our teaching practice, and the assumptions and habits that underpin our day-to-day teaching.
Secondly, talk to our students about how the piano figures in their (non-practicing) everyday lives. Has a flute-playing friend asked them to perform an accompaniment with them at a school concert? Have they been asked to accompany singing at church? Has their elderly relative asked them to perform a mini-concert at a nursing home? Are they working on their own music in GarageBand? Understanding how our students are already incorporating their existing piano skills into their lives can highlight areas in which we can better help our students become ‘piano players’.
Then look at the difference between our first audit of what we are actually teaching (and the kinds of pianistic performance it assumes) and our second audit of how playing the piano actually figures in our students lives. Progress should be measured by real-life competence, not simply by numbers of examinations taken or the degree of difficulty of repertoire.
We might be observing pleasing development, but a student who longs to be the one accompanying the school song at assembly has cold comfort in being able to play a Bach Invention. And if a student’s goal is to play “Piano Man”, we can teach Clementi and contrary motion scales til the cows come home, and our student will still not feel as if they are making headway.
Through this little article so far you may have noticed that many of the ways suggested that ‘play the piano’ often means ‘playing the piano with other people’, as compared to ‘playing the piano by myself’.
This is the other vital part of the equation. Many students have no interest in solo performance, now or ever. Their desire to play the piano is primarily about making music with others. This kind of piano playing has recently acquired the tag ‘collaborative piano’ – a good description! And at universities and conservatoria courses are provided to develop these ‘collaborative’ skills.
But for the private piano teacher there is no well-trod path, no pedagogical template for introducing these collaborative skills to students who are still in the first years of learning to play the piano.
Some examination boards provide for ensemble assessments, duet and trio examinations, even some accompanying exams. But assessments do not a curriculum make.
It is high time that we, the piano teaching profession, abandon behaving as if our primary responsibility is to train every student to be the closest thing to a concert pianist that their aptitude and effort will allow.