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How (not) to Learn a Piece of Music

It seems that once upon a time in the not so distant past a general consensus amongst piano teachers existed as to how a student should go about Learning a Piece of Music.

The score of the new work would be placed on the music stand of the piano with the student instructed to play the first line/first four bars with the right hand only. Once this phrase was reproduced with more or less accurate pitches and less or less rhythmic accuracy the teacher would ask the student to perform the same exercise with the left hand. And then the student would be sent home to ‘get it right’, maybe with the suggestion that they try hands together before they return.

A particularly able student might be assigned two lines.

But week by week the student and the teacher would piece together the notes, the fingerings, the counting, and then the coordination of each line, finally stringing these lines together into a whole sequence of learned lines, with the practice that then ensued erasing the joins between each separately mastered phrase. This was mostly an act of muscle memory, in the end.

Next, articulation would then be added to the mix, and finally dynamics.

Well, not quite finally, because the last chapter of this version of How to Learn a Piece of Music involved the use of the metronome, with the student working notch by notch up to the desired tempo, hopefully in time for the piano exam.

And I add that final phrase ‘hopefully in time for the piano exam’ because this process was so painstaking that students struggled to go through it more than four or five times per annum, so every piece ever learned was for the purposes of a exam assessing how well the student could play.

When I run seminars with piano teachers I ask who was taught this way, and the response varies from 80% to 100%. This method of learning a piece was sometimes supplemented with physical punishment during the lesson if mistakes were made (seminar response of between 40% and 65%).

I think we can assume that in 2010 rulers are no longer being rapped over the knuckles of error-prone pupils, but I’m not at all confident that things have changed so much in the line-by-line, separate-hands-first-for-a-week, articulation-and-dynamics-come-later sense.

The approach to learning I’ve outlined above is what I call The Lamination Technique, with the music being approached as a sequence of tasks to be mastered one at a time before adding a new aspect to the performance. This thinking involves a hierarchy, with pitch accuracy being the most important aspect of the performance, followed by rhythmic accuracy, followed by coordination, articulation, dynamics, tempo, phrase-shaping (well, you’d be lucky if you had enough time to finesse that all that much), stylistic awareness (if your teacher knew what that referred to, or that it mattered), and anything and everything else really doesn’t make it onto the importance radar.

This hierarchy is entrenched in the thinking of piano teachers and piano students alike – which is why there are so many failures of performances that are note-perfect. The students are not learning to communicate, not learning to have an opinion, not learning to tell a story: they are learning notes in sequence and hoping like hell they don’t forget them.

When I describe this manner of learning a piece of music, this way that most of us were brought up with, I can’t imagine why anyone would take this approach. And yet I know, anecdotally, that this is still how many piano lessons are conducted around the world today. Especially (and horrifyingly) with students approaching their very first piano exams.

Why?!

Mostly I think this is because we teach the way we were taught – evidenced by still solid sales of piano methods from many, many decades ago, for instance. But it’s a little more nuanced than that (but only a little).

Piano teachers working in [what I term] examination cultures find themselves pressured by parents to enter their children for assessments at the first available opportunity. If a teacher accepts that this is just the way it is then students will be working towards exams that are far beyond their skill set: learning separate hands a line at a time is the only way in the world they will ever learn the required material! Once a teacher is committed to this path the main challenge lies in keeping the student motivated through the months that it will take to master the piece of music. So we find lots of articles about how to motivate students, how to keep them engaged, how to get them to practice; from which one might conclude that the practice itself is so dull there is little internal motivation to get the job done.

Implicit in this is the idea that students work best when they are attempting music that is barely within their ability to play. And then, as every suburban piano teacher knows, students turn up to lessons with sheet music they are dying to learn, and it seems churlish to say no simply because it will take all year to master the three page pop song/four page Für Elise/five page Minute Waltz.

And yet…..

Students taught this way simply don’t keep on playing the piano after lessons stop. The percentage of students who never touch the piano again is staggering – approaching 100% unless the student has embarked upon a career in music (performer, teacher) in their adult life, or unless the student has excellent playing-by-ear or playing-by-sight skills (neither of which can be acquired through the learning process I describe in this blog post).

With such a successful formula for ensuring students do not play the piano ever again surely the teachers who adhere to it are committed to a life-long aversion to the keyboard in their students?

5 thoughts on “How (not) to Learn a Piece of Music

  1. OK I am open to new ideas! How do I learn how to teach a different way from the way that I was taught? What are you offering for this dilema which the music teaching world is in? I agree with what you are saying by the way.

    • Hi Linda! I’ve started outlining ways to make a change! The next post in the blog, Leaving Laminating Behind: Step 1 – The Skill Set (http://wp.me/pCFoq-7B) is a start, and I’m planning on writing more on this over the next few months. My sister has just had a baby so I’m kind of on blog-leave while I’m spending extra time with her over the next couple of weeks.

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