Written on Saturday, prior to the two Sydney P Plate Piano launches…..
I’m back tonight from Adelaide, where in the early afternoon I presented a launch event for P Plate Piano. The weather was unbelievable, literally howling winds, and rain that seemed to bend around the trees that were left standing (one just outside the venue had split leaving two cars trapped beneath enormous broken branches). So with this unpromising meteorological backdrop a group of around 20 piano teachers gathered to explore P Plate Piano.
The most exciting response came from a clarinet teacher who wanted to know when the same kind of approach was going to be applied to instruments other than the piano! She also pointed out that the activities and the approach of P Plate Piano, while being designed to inspire and enthuse children beginners, would be equally inspirational to adult learners. I honestly had not given adult beginners much thought at all, but this Adelaide teacher is entirely right – P Plate Piano would be an amazing course to use with an adult beginner, full-colour illustrations and large font text notwithstanding.
Another comment was that all this ‘extra’ stuff, the transposing, the playing duets, the improvising, the changing tonalities, the arranging, the experimenting with dynamics, and so on (and on) was just sideways learning, not forward progress.
“My students would rather play hard music badly than easy music well”, was (as I recall) an exact quote. The implication being, I suppose, that one is making forward progress by playing hard music badly, rather than easy music well.
So there are two issues here: firstly, the idea that some ‘progress’ doesn’t move the student ‘forward’ but rather ‘sideways’, and secondly, the notion that degree of difficulty is the only means of assessing ‘forward progress’.
In music education cultures where examinations are the dominant means of creating a curriculum for piano students it is certainly tempting to measure one’s own teaching by the numerical ‘progress’ students are making through the various gradings vis-a-vis time passed. Students, parents and teachers alike talk of ‘skipping grades’ as if this were proof of excellence.
Anything that does not contribute to this kind of progress is then defined as peripheral (‘sideways’), and many teachers consciously avoid activities or assignments which fall into this category (such as improvising, transposing, arranging, ensemble playing, and so forth).
These ‘peripheral’ activities are, of course, all the kinds of things that lead a student to develop excellent musicianship, that stimulate independent learning, that encourage personal engagement with the music. Whereas spending the full academic year learning nothing but four or five pieces is the surest way to bore a piano student to tears and reduce their enthusiasm to a flicker.
To be honest, I’ve reached a point where this kind of thinking leaves me basically speechless. If you are a teacher who genuinely believes that “it’s better to play hard music badly than easy music well”, that engaging the student’s imagination in practice is peripheral, that spending time in the lesson exploring the possibilities of the instrument is a sideways manoeuvre, that encouraging students to perform with others is a time-waster, you are in the wrong game.
Now I appreciate that most piano teachers over the age of 40, and a goodly number of piano teachers under that age as well, were almost certainly taught to play the piano themselves learning no more than six to ten pieces a year, without any encouragement to explore their ideas or their instrument, and with external examinations the only means of measuring achievement. So it’s really no surprise to find teachers today replicating those same learning conditions in their own teaching practice. They are simply passing on the musical culture they inherited.
But that’s not good enough in the 21st century. It wasn’t good enough in the 20th century!
The idea that playing badly is progress of any kind is completely inimical to the teaching of music: a physical skill that’s also an art form and the most direct way that humans communicate emotion and create group experience.
One would think that it’s hard to argue for too long that students should play badly under any circumstances. And yet this afternoon the argument was forcefully put to me that this was, in fact, the path to pianistic progress.
What do you think?!