Teacher As Guide: A Case Study

I’ve been writing and speaking about the responsibility of the piano teacher to be a guide for the student in terms of each specific new piece of repertoire, the importance for piano teachers to take this role seriously. Students gain enormous value from good guidance both in terms of enjoyment and sense of accomplishment as well as saving the student a lot of wasted practice time.

This last week a student of mine had a ‘post-exam lesson’ – that first lesson after the exam where new repertoire is assigned, and the piano teacher spends more time playing the piano than the student does.

Even though my student had just passed Grade 5 Trinity Guildhall (with distinction, as it turned out) her first new assignment was Diversion 4 by Richard Rodney Bennett (a piece considerably easier than Grade 5!).

Before she played it through I talked about the style of the piece: it’s clearly a 20th century work, but very lyrical, which works against expectations (of piano teachers at least) that 20th century composition is either aggressive, random, or jazz. I talked about the tonality of the piece, the jazz-inflected chords, the give-and-take of the tempo, and pointed out the major technical challenge of the work (voicing firstly the melody and accompaniment in the right hand at the start, and then the legato 3rds in bars 11 and 14) I said that this piece reminded me of Ravel, in a 2nd half of the 20th-century + much-easier kind of way.

This discussion took about 3 minutes, and then I played the piece through. My student then asked about the comma signs above some barlines, and we discussed how the tempo ‘breathes’ when this sign appears. She then played through the first two lines and we agreed she knew exactly what to do.

Next: Allegro in A Major by W.F.Bach, again easier than a Grade 5 standard. I started by talking about how William Frederick was the son of Johann Sebastian, and brother of Carl Philip Emmanuel, Johann Christian and the other 17 offspring. We talked about how J.S. Bach’s compositions are the essence of the Baroque, how his compositions came late in the Baroque period, and how by the time W.F. Bach was a young adult the Classical period was gearing up in a very serious fashion. We then examined how the Allegro in A Major is an interesting blend of classical organisation (ternary form, a key change in the B section) and Baroque expression (the piece is in two voices only for much of the work).

Then my student gave the A section a quick run through, and with no problems manifesting we moved on to the third new assignment. But not before I noted that this was the first in a series of 3 pieces I wanted her to learn in the key of A Major (we’d start the second next week) followed by two pieces in F sharp minor.

Mister Bumble is a piece I wrote for my Grade 4 students back in the days when some examination board or other asked Grade 4 students to perform the F sharp major scale. Mister Bumble, these days available in More Little Peppers published by Faber Music, is currently on the AMEB syllabus at Grade 2 (thanks Glen Riddle!) and to my amazement many students select and master it for their examinations at this level. But from a reading point of view it really is a tad too advanced for Grade 2 (even the AMEB incarnation of Grade 2), with E sharp in the key signature and the use of double sharps rendering it beyond normal Grade 2 standards. The tempo also makes it far harder than Grade 2, but the notes lie very nicely under the hand.

Since it’s the reading that is the most challenging part of this piece I didn’t give my student any prepping prior to asking her to play it through, and she managed just fine, until we got to the double sharps – and it turns out she has never met a double sharp before playing through Mister Bumble. Now, I could have sworn we’d covered double sharps in some form or other, but it doesn’t really matter what I go about swearing – if my student responds to a musical symbol by saying “what on earth is that?” then I certainly haven’t been very successful in engaging her interest with the double sharp until this point!

Next: Knight Rupert, the perennial Robert Schumann favourite. This is fabulous, I began, but there are a couple of super-boring lines in the second section – they are the contrast to the highly dramatic contours of the first section! Here’s the technical challenge in the first section, I went on while circling the thirds with their quick-shifting fingering changes, and in the second section it’s still fingering that is the challenge but here it’s about coordinating two hands with non-symmetrical changes.

And finally, from Lutoslawksi’s Album for the Young, The Grove. This piece, written for students in 1948/49, lies well under the hands even though the harmonic twists and turns do surprise! All we bothered to talk about in regard to this piece was that the left hand is notated throughout (until the final bars) in the treble clef. My student laughed and said “I might not have noticed that, and thought that’s how it was supposed to sound!”. She agreed that it looked like a simple proposition to read, so she didn’t even play it through.

At this point she told me she’d been working on Für Elise, but that she’d only just realised she’d been working on an arrangement. The new book I’d given her last week had the full version, and she was keen to work on the piece the way Beethoven wrote it.

Six new pieces assigned. A thrilled and excited student heading off to discover new music. The lesson took exactly 40 minutes and included a debrief of her experience in her just-sat Grade 5 examination. None of the pieces is beyond her ability to read, some of the pieces include new skills or skills we have not focussed on before, and all of the pieces will give my student new insight into the history of music and how to write for the piano.

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