Teacher As Guide Update

About two weeks ago I wrote about a ‘post-exam’ lesson I had given to a student who had sat her Grade 5 exam only a few days earlier. In her 40 minute lesson we worked through six new pieces that she was to start working on, ranging from a ‘hard’ Grade 3 piece through to middle-of-the-road Grade 5 standard pieces.

The next scheduled lesson was abandoned due to a sporting injury (a not uncommon occurrence amongst piano students who also maintain a sporting program alongside their instrumental studies!), so the two-week break between lessons really only allowed the student about 7 or 8 days to get any practice done. But even so, she returned having spent about 6 hours in practice since her last lesson.

The Diversion 4 by Richard Rodney Bennett was fluid and basically flawless, but a little too slow. This week my student is focussing on creating balance within the right hand part, which consists of both melody and accompaniment elements through most of the piece. She will also be refining the ends of phrases to be more relaxed, giving more time to the comma indications in her performance. We both expect that next week her performance will be just right.

The Allegro in A Major by W.F. Bach was also mostly well-learned, but not secure enough for a performance at speed. We spent a little time looking at the harmonic shapes formed in the B section (which has flicked into the tonic minor) as a way of fast-tracking pattern recognition – which in turn will see focus more quickly settle on the technical issues, rather than on pattern-learning. This also should be a stunning performance next week. Although not from memory!

The Grove by Lutoslawski was fabulous. Great diminuendo from the opening forte of the introduction through to the start of the ‘tune’ in bar 5, perfect accents and sudden changes in dynamic throughout the rest of the piece, including a magnificently controlled pp at the end. But again, one week’s practice hadn’t allowed the student to get it up to speed: that’s the assignment for the week ahead.

My own Mister Bumble from More Little Peppers provided one of those moments I get from time to time when teaching from a book I’ve been involved in producing: I realised that some fingering in the left hand in line 2 would have been helpful for this student. She had made an assumption about the required fingering based on a similar (but different) pattern in the first line, resulting in an awkward thumb-on-black-note moment, and this was soon corrected. The major issue to be worked on was clarity of tone, taking the melodic line in a convincing dramatic arc from one finger to the next.

Für Elise was great fun to hear played: my student had been fiddling around with the piece in an easy arrangement some months ago (and unbeknown to me!) and so the week had been spent discovering the details that had been omitted from the easier version, and the performance I heard started at the beginning and finished at the end – the perfect way for a teacher to hear this piece!! Of course, there are issues in that first episode, with the demisemiquavers being crazy fast for students (at this standard) to manage, so we spend a few minutes strategising in regard to those bars. But then we got to the fun stuff….

I teach Für Elise as a baby rondo, and we began to explore how rondo form differed from the other dominant classical structure, sonata (or first movement) form. This student has learned many a sonatina movement in the past, and is familiar with the idea of an exposition, a development and a recapitulation, and we’ve had many a good laugh reflecting on how this is the form any writer of essays needs to master (say two interesting but contrasting things, break the interesting things down in some unexpected but logical ways, say the two interesting but contrasting things again, this time with the second thing seeming like the natural conclusion to the first thing, and add a pithy sentence to show you’ve finished). But we’ve never done a rondo-like structure before.

A rondo is nothing like an essay, I began. If you were to write an essay in rondo form you’d be marked down viciously, and your teacher might even suggest you see a counsellor, I continued (with scant regard for the reputation of teachers of essay writing). A rondo is more like a – , and I had to pause because I’d never thought to create an analogy for rondo form prior to this moment. It’s like a – a Quentin Tarantino film!, I triumphantly announced, then, realising my student is only just 15 years of age, and is unlikely to have legally viewed Pulp Fiction (which is what I was really thinking of), adding, or any of those time-shifting movies that have been all the rage over the past 15 or so years (her entire lifetime, we both reflected). Of course, it’s not just movies that have been doing time-shifting: Seinfeld did an inspired backwards episode, where the same sequence of events would not have been anywhere near as funny if the tale had been told chronologically, and the entire premise of How I Met Your Mother is telling a story through the prism of a more present context.

A rondo-form, I continued, is where you see a scene not knowing anything about the characters or the context – it’s entertaining enough, but not particularly substantial on its own. Then you get a scene from six months earlier, and you realise there are fascinating implications about the first scene (now that you’ve seen the second) and when you get to see the first scene again (with these new insights) it is even more entertaining. Next you get a scene from three weeks after the first scene, and the first scene suddenly has a whole new set of meaning (and the second scene has brand new implications as well), so when you see the  first scene a third time it now means something entirely other than what it meant the first time you saw it. That’s how you need to practice Für Elise.

I love an analogy that works. [Well, we’ll see next week how well it works in (literal) practice!]

Finally, Knight Rupert by Robert Schumann. “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one”, my student remarked before playing it. But clearly she had. Great energy, and a good understanding of the dramatic structure of the work. Now we just need to get increased clarity in the fingerwork in the middle section, especially the phrase in D flat Major.

Well, you’d think that would be plenty. She’s just sat Grade 5, and she has 6 new pieces she’s working on. But I suspected it wasn’t quite enough. “I would like at least one more new piece”, she confided. So this week she will be choosing between (or maybe working on all of) the following: Haydn’s Finale from Sonata in D (Hob XVI: 37), Heller’s Study in A flat Major (Opus 47, No.23), and Chaconne from “Musicalischer Parnassus” by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer. Each one of them is within her technical capacity, but each of them requires her to achieve something new at the piano.

I can hardly wait to find out what she’s been working on!

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