A Piano Teacher’s Manifesto

A Piano Teacher’s Manifesto

A Piano Teacher's Manifesto 2

Originally published some years ago as What Are Piano Lessons For? this is my manifesto on the purpose of piano lessons.  This is a manifesto that emerges from my experience, that reflects my values, and that frames everything about my piano teaching, about my writing for piano teachers, and about my composing for piano students.

1. Piano lessons are for learning how to do cool stuff on the piano.

Cool stuff starts with things like

  • playing familiar melodies,
  • creating glissandi,
  • using the sustain pedal,

and moves on to more sophisticated cool stuff like

  • creating a balance between the melody and accompaniment,
  • voicing two parts within one hand,
  • being able to control tonal variation,
  • learning to recognise and perform any number of patterns (both by sight and by ear),
  • knowing how to make different chords and chord sequences,
  • being able to play a chromatic scale – fast,
  • being able to play scales in contrary motion, or thirds apart, or sixths apart,
  • creating different effects through a range of articulations

and in terms of repertoire includes

  • playing pieces your friends and family enjoy
  • being able to play music that is new to you easily
  • playing music with other musicians
  • playing music with your friends
  • playing music to accompany singers (solo, group, social, amateur, professional)

2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.

This might sound like a repetition of the ‘cool stuff’ idea in point 1, but while ‘cool stuff’ teaches you what you can do on the piano, this second point has a completely different focus – it’s not about performance per se, but about the ability of the student to express themselves freely through the piano. This might manifest as a student composing new music, or as the student creating variations on the music they are learning, or as the student finding their own new music to learn, or as the student playing familiar music without requiring a score. ‘Learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it’ means a developing autonomy, an increasing sense of ownership of the instrument and its role in [your] life.

3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better.

Playing the music composed by others allows students (and performers) to inhabit someone else’s emotional and ideational world, and learning to play the music of others is an even more intimate encounter with the way other people think and feel. Playing music with other people gives an insight into the way they approach interacting with others, how they express themselves, how patient or impatient they are(!), how curious they are, how their minds work in all kinds of ways. Each of these ways of interacting with others can result in deep connection with others, whether they are peers, mentors, or people the student has never met.

4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better.

This happens in many ways, but I want to highlight two.

Music connects directly through to your emotions (even if you are just wandering through a shopping centre, and certainly in a scary movie). But that emotional access is multiplied many times over when you are playing a musical instrument; the music is in your body – your body is making the experience you are hearing, your fingers are finding ways to excite, soothe, enrage or engage. When you take piano lessons you learn about what kinds of emotions you want to express, you learn about the ways you can change your emotional reality, you learn about how your choices impact on the emotional states of others.

The process of learning to perform music (especially on the piano where the performer needs no accompaniment) is a particular kind of discipline that requires a deep acceptance of imperfection while still striving for excellence: no performance is flawless, there will always be new ideas for improvements and change. No one else is to blame for less than wonderful performances, no one else can take credit for performances that shine. The student learns much about themselves in terms of  how they relate to perfection/imperfection, how they face challenges in an emotional sense, how they face challenges in a practical sense, how they work toward long-term/medium-term/short-term goals, and a myriad of other truths about their natural proclivities regarding how to define success and failure. Parents sometimes think thisaspect of piano lessons is so important it alone makes taking piano lessons an imperative.

5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better.

Music is a genuinely direct way of connecting students with other times and other places. It’s quite extraordinary how effective music is in this regard. And while listening to music provides a passive, touristic understanding of the world, actually playing that music means that you are complicit in this wider world – you’ve participated in history, you are experiencing the cultures of other continents and communities.

6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your intellect and your emotions all at the same time.

It has been demonstrated that playing the piano will raise your IQ by around 7 points for as long as you play the instrument (you’ll lose those points if you stop playing for months/years), and the reason for this is that nothing else in this world engages so much of your brain at the same time as playing a musical instrument. We didn’t know this in the past, but advances in neuro-imaging mean that we now do know which parts of the brain are at work when a musician is playing an instrument and, while in many activities in life there is a dedicated region of the brain that processes that activity, it is evident that the whole brain is involved in music. In short, the brain is musical – all of it. And when you play an instrument you are using that whole brain.

7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are. All the points listed above add up to an experience that allows you to express yourself [increasingly] freely, learn about yourself and others as well as about both the world around you and the world beyond your horizons. This will change you. Further, with each new goal that you attain and each new challenge that you conquer, you will find yourself looking at other, non-musical goals and challenges in a different way. This goes far beyond believing in yourself, this goes to knowing that you can achieve what you set out to do.

8. And finally, piano lessons are for joy.

The joy you feel playing the piano, the joy you feel playing better and better each week/month/year, the joy others feel hearing you play, the joy you and others experience playing together. The joy of discovery, the joy of achievement, the joy of the raucous, the joy of the sublime. If piano lessons aren’t for at least some of these joys, then what on earth are they for?





Vendetta is a tango.

I don’t know that I thought about the tango angle in any conscious way, but tango was exactly the right emotional energy I needed the night Vendetta was composed. This was back in the mid-90s when I was juggling piano teaching, various universities studies, writing and producing music theatre, working as an accompanist for a glamorous gospel singer, doing some quite random recording gigs and goodness knows what else – I can’t really remember.

But I do remember – most distinctly – writing Vendetta.

My boyfriend at the time had recently decided he needed a break. A relationship-break kind of break. Kind of. I’m not sure what he wanted exactly, other than the chance to date other young women while still maintaining some kind of relationship with me. Think some kind of Sex and the City storyline from which we are all supposed to draw a moral about What Not To Do In Relationships. Well, we [should] all know what not to do in this case, but I wasn’t quite sure how not to do it, so the night I wrote Vendetta my sort-of boyfriend was on a date with one of my sort-of friends.

That should pretty much be all the teaching note you need.

BUT, in case it’s not, I’ll spell it out: I wrote Vendetta quite intentionally to have something better to remember the night for than simply remembering it as the night my boyfriend went out on a date with someone else. I wrote Vendetta to make the night considerably more worthwhile for me than it was going to be for him.

And it seems that I succeeded in that ambition, which just goes to show young women everywhere that these stories do sometimes have happy endings. [Ah, yes, there’s the moral.]

Oh. No. I didn’t end up with that boyfriend. Goodness me, no. Not that kind of very sad happy ending. No. You don’t want to end up with those boyfriends, girls, trust me. The story of who I ended up with comes many chapters later in the book.

But back to the music: Vendetta is a tango.

These days, with various tv dancing shows aimed squarely at family audiences, many of our students have a bit of an idea as to what tango sounds like and looks like, and there’s really no excuse to not use the internet to get a really good feel for authentic tango, both in the sense of the dance and of the music.

As to the notes: Vendetta is in A minor. Worth keeping in mind when you play the first left hand broken chord: there’s no F sharp! I only mention this because some clips of performances YouTube seems premised on the belief that this piece begins with a B minor chord (with an F sharp) rather than a B diminished one (with an F natural). One of these days I’ll get some recordings of myself playing these pieces up on YouTube or iTunes or SoundCloud, but til that day reading the music accurately will tell you all you need to know.

Pedalling: A warning is in order. Don’t even attempt to learn this piece unless you know how to pedal properly! You’ll have enough else to be preoccupied with without learning to pedal being on your to-do list. And a confession: I’ve shilly-shallyed in my decision-making regarding the pedalling in this piece, and you can find two published editions (the original Pepperbox Jazz 1 – yellow cover – and the Faber Music-published Pepperbox Jazz 2 – deep orange cover) with conflicting pedalling instructions in the opening sections. What it really comes down to is a. your piano and b. your performance venue. If the room has a very dry acoustic, you should pedal more; if the room is very resonant, pedal less. Once you get to bar 19 you should probably start pedalling no matter what the room sounds like, but do use your own judgment! It’s about making a successful performance, not about slavishly following instructions.

Rubato: feel free to stretch the time here and there (it may well help create a kind of wicked charm in your performance!), but always, always maintain the tango character of the piece.

Touch and tone: don’t be too gentle with this piece (see back-story above) – the melody should announce more than coax, and when you pull the dynamic back the mood should still be intense. It is not a love song! Enjoy the part writing (when the right hand has two parts), and work to create separate sounds for each of the parts, even if played in the same hand. This is very challenging for a Grade 5, let alone a Grade 4 student, but working towards this goal will produce a more brilliant performance.

As always with music at this standard of difficulty, change the fingering to suit your own needs – the fingerings indicated might well reflect what worked for my students at the time of publication!

And for those teachers and students who like to know about modulations, rest assured – this piece does not modulate at all, and don’t let an examiner tell you otherwise. It’s A minor from beginning to end.

Any other questions? Please do feel free to ask me anything you like in the comments below…

Key Signature ≠ Key

Key Signature ≠ Key

It’s the 21st Century. We’ve had modulations and chromaticisms, bitonalities and even atonlities, and you’d think that in 2011 we’d have a modicum of sophistication regarding the tonal centres and key relationships we discover in the music we play.

But no, an insistence that the key signature tells us the tonal centre of a piece of music has gone from being an example of anachronism to being a deplorable trend in most major Australian cities (!).

To be fair, we do call those congregations of accidentals at the beginning of each line of music a key signature; that is, this term implies that the accidentals signify a key rather than simply the notes required to be played a tone or semitone higher than the straight note name pitch. But in a post-atonal, neo-modal world it defies experience to assume that an absence of key signature signifies the C Major/A minor duopoly.

Imagine my horror/bemusement/outrage/despair some 10 years ago on seeing a well-respected examination board describe a piece they’d included in their syllabus as being ‘in C’ simply because there were no flats or sharps in the key signature (and precious few in the music itself). If the writer of their teaching notes had played the music through they could surely, surely have been in no doubt that the piece began and ended on a G, and that G was ‘home’ in the way that only  tonic can be.

As egregious as this error was I’ve been noticing a far worse trend in the past twelve months: examiners who mark students wrong when they correctly identify the key of a signature-less piece of music as being other than C Major/A minor.

A teacher in Melbourne told me of a student presenting a Christopher Norton piece that is clearly in F Major (the left hand part consists of a descending F Major scale pattern, for goodness sake, played twice, and then that’s the end of the piece) whose report came back announcing that the student had failed to identify the piece as being in C Major. A teacher in Brisbane told me of a student presenting my piece, Safari, whose report came back saying that the student had incorrectly named the key as E flat minor [you’ll notice there are only 5 flats in the key signature?!].

I’ve also had conversations with examiners who think a piece with one flat cannot be in the Dorian mode, even though the first and last bass notes are G (and G is clearly the home note); examiners who think that music with uniformly altered notes are still in the unaltered major or minor tonality; and examiners who fail to notice that pieces are in the Mixolydian mode.

This is a massive problem for assessment boards, for teachers, and for students who take their studies seriously. Examiners should not be the last to the party in music education, and it’s just embarrassing to think that teachers are having to explain to young students that they shouldn’t waste their emotional energy on the ignorant comments in the General Knowledge section of their piano exam reports.

Composers are going to keep writing music that doesn’t comform to the theory exam expectations; teachers understand this, and put considerable effort into understanding for themselves (and into teaching their students to understand) the way the composer is working.

The difference for the examination boards is that, for their integrity as assessment providers to be maintained, every single one of their examiners has to be up-to-the-moment in their comprehension of contemporary tonal languages. That’s just not the case at the moment.

It’s honestly not all that hard in most contemporary pieces:

  • which note feels like it’s the note the piece started on?
  • which note feels like it’s the note the piece ought to end on?
  • are the answers to these questions the same note? If yes, this is absolutely, without doubt, your tonal centre.
  • Now you know the tonal centre, is the piece in a mode? If yes, figure out which one.
  • If the piece is not in a mode, then just leave your answer at “the tonal centre is X” – that is sufficient for 2011 music assessments.
I’d love to hear more horror stories, but I’d much prefer to hear of examiners who are leading the way in getting it right.
And piano teachers: be confident in your sense of ‘home’ in a piece, and remember to train students to explain why they are convinced the tonal centre is the one they say. Maybe we can educate recalcitrant examiners by stealth.
Standing-Up Music

Standing-Up Music

A question that comes up all the time when I present seminars to piano teachers: what about the students who are too small to reach the pedals/the extremes of the keyboard?

The answer: Standing-Up Music. This is the same music as the normal kind, but you (the teacher) decides when the physical reach of the child requires the music to be ‘standing-up music’.

Move the piano bench away from the piano, and let the child find their own standing-up position that allows them to access the bits of the piano they otherwise could not, and they’re away.

Don’t be concerned too much about posture in this circumstance – the goal here is complete engagement with the instrument, and working towards an ideal sitting posture that the student will use in diploma examinations and the like is a completely inappropriate goal/fixation. Work with the body of the student the way that body is today. Teachers with experience know that once students hit that adolescent growth phase much rebooting of the technique is required – hands grow so fast that students need a while to relearn what an octave feels like, for instance, and that’s just the start of the adjustments. Young beginners will benefit many times more from engaging with the whole instrument than they will in attempting to look like mini-me professional recitalists.

Standing-up positions enable the pedal to be depressed, the extremes of the piano to be played, and comparatively rapid movement around and between those extremes. The kids love it, there’s more practicing going on, and best of all, there’s more exploring going on. And more exploring means the student is falling in love with the piano, and the relationship starts getting serious.

Devices for small children such as pedal extenders or footstools enable even more exploration. But don’t let the absence of equipment disenfranchise your students from using their whole bodies across the whole of the piano. Get rid of the seating, and get into the possibilities!

Safari (AMEB Preliminary, Piano for Leisure)

Safari (AMEB Preliminary, Piano for Leisure)

Quite a few visits to my blog are made by (who I can only assume are) students and teachers who want more information about specific pieces of mine included in examination syllabuses. So I’m setting myself the goal of writing a post about each of these pieces – it might take a while to get there, but one by one I’m determined to work my way through them!

Safari comes from Very Easy Little Peppers, and is a piece written entirely on black notes. There’s a lovely tradition of black-note-only pieces written for students in the first years of study and when writing this piece I deliberately set out to add to that oeuvre.

Many of the most popular piano methods (in 2011, maybe not when you took piano lessons!) start students playing on the black notes (the antithesis to the March of the Middle C Thumbs approach). I have thoroughly enjoyed incorporating into my teaching a wonderful black-note-only improvisation activity for students at the very first lesson, an activity I discovered in the Hal Leonard Piano Student Library method (written in the mid-1990s) – for a start, students simply cannot sound bad improvising on only black notes!!

Starting on black notes has all kinds of other benefits as well, from gaining a sense of the whole geography of the piano right from the outset (not just a few notes clustered around middle C) though to the early development of a healthy hand position.

Safari is not, however, a piece suitable for absolute beginners! The Australian Music Examination Board have listed this piece in the Preliminary Piano for Leisure syllabus (it’s included in the Series 2 book, in fact); students will need to have spent around 150-200 hours playing the piano before they will be anywhere near equipped to handle the technical challenges of this piece.

And the technical challenges are:

  1. Playing legato in one hand while playing staccato in the other.
  2. Moving from one hand position to another in one hand while the other hand remains in its original position.
  3. Creating a soft sound while playing notes in the lower range of the keyboard.
  4. Shifting a melodic line between the hands.
  5. Playing legato on black notes (much more difficult than on white notes, much more difficult than playing tenuto on black notes).

But having said that, this really is a very simple piece. It’s made of only five phrases; the first, third and fifth using exactly the same melodic material, the second and fourth being the same melodic variation of this first phrase. Phrases 1 and 2 have the melody in the right hand while the left hand provides a simple accompaniment, and this idea is reversed in phrases 3 and 4 (left hand has the melody, right hand provides simple accompaniment). Phrase 5 has both hands playing the melody. Very, very simple construction. Easy to hear this shape (once you know it), and thus easy to memorise.

The challenges really are in the execution, as listed above, and teachers will speed up learning by helping students hear what the first phrase melody is. Some teaching suggestions for activities (away from the score!) include:

  1. Play this four-bar melody for the student before they ever see the score. Ask the student to sing the melody, to clap the melody, to notice if you’ve played it wrong! Having a game with this melodic material before the student touches the piano or opens the print music will, in nearly all cases, save weeks of tedium. The goal here is to thoroughly internalise the ‘idea’ of the piece prior to engaging with its exposition in the composition and its execution in performance.
  2. Practice finding each of the black notes according to its ‘flat’ name. Students by this stage will be comfortable with the idea that the top of the three black notes is a flat (B), while the bottom of the three black notes is a sharp (F). Spending some time familiarising the student with the ‘flat’ identities of the black notes will facilitate reading in five flats.
  3. Practice finding the down beats and the off/up beats: can the student clap the first and third beats while you play the first two phrases? Can the student clap the second and fourth beats while you play the second two phases? Practice either way of clapping (on/off the beat) with the final phrase of the piece. Expand beyond this piece – can the student find and clap the off/up beats for other piece in simple quadruple time?! This becomes quite an engaging game.
  4. Finally, explore the difference between the two black-note-five-finger positions in the right hand (E flat bottom note – B flat top note/A flat bottom note – E flat top note). Explore the left hand’s two-note hand position in the first two phrases as compared to the hand position used in the second two. Using the fifth finger on a black note is not easy, so experiment with the student in finding ways to make a good sound with the fifth finger.

At this point it should be a breeze to pop the score in front of the student and have them play through the piece. Well, maybe not the whole piece (depending on the age/developmental phase of the child), but whichever part of the piece you wish to assign should be easily mastered within the week, with the remainder easily learned the week after.

These are a lot of activities to do in a thirty minute lesson, especially if you have other tasks on your teaching agenda! So break it up. Do the singing/clapping activities (suggestions 1 and 3) one week, followed up by the keyboard-based activities (suggestions 2 and 4) the next. You will save an amazing amount of time by thoroughly exploring the ideas (melodic and rhythmic) and the physical realities (keyboard geography and nomenclature, hand position on the black notes, playing black notes with weaker fingers) before you have the student engage with the score. More importantly, the risk of the student disengaging through discouragement is reduced by around 95%.

Now: general knowledge. Many people stumbling onto my blog with a search for “elissa milne safari” or similar have also had the words “general knowledge” as part of their search. So here’s what you need to know:

  1. It’s in E flat minor. No need for a raised 7th because the piece uses the natural minor scale (also known as the Aeolian mode).
  2. It’s in three parts (as already explored above).
  3. Everything else (what does p mean? what does a slur tell you to do?) should be known already. Seriously. If your student doesn’t know this stuff well and truly by this stage then this piece is probably miles beyond them.

Of course, as the composer I’m likely to have some blind spots (of course the music seems somewhat obvious to me!) so if there is anything else you’d like to know please do leave a comment below and I will answer your specific query as quickly as I can.

Finally, the AMEB publication doesn’t show it, but Safari tells a story about an adventure, and students get to choose which kind of adventure they’re going to have! To discover this aspect of the piece you’ll need to pick up a copy of Very Easy Little Peppers. The good news for Australian teachers and students is that this book is now TOTALLY AFFORDABLE (!) thanks to the strong Australian dollar, amongst other things. The book is now the same price is was ten years (less than $15). If your retailer doesn’t have it in stock, or has it in stock at a higher price, just ask for them to order it in specially for you.

All the best with those exams!

Grouch: some teaching notes from the composer

Grouch: some teaching notes from the composer

This post is woefully overdue: Grouch has been on the Trinity Guildhall Grade 3 piano syllabus since 2009 (the syllabus expires at the end of this year, 2011), and YouTube has its share of student performances from around the world!

Grouch is an unusual composition in the Little Peppers series in that so much of the piece is built of a single unaccompanied line (albeit shared between the hands). This means that clarity is especially important, as is tone. With the melodic material cascading from one hand to the other students will need to give particular attention to matching the sound from one hand to the next, and be warned: this is far more challenging than matching tone from one finger to the next!

An additional challenge is that the melody-sharing does not always happen in the same way: the right hand plays a D at the start of bars 1 and 2, but at bar 3 the left hand plays this very same D, which allows (and sets up) the syncopated two-note slur immediately afterward (first in the right, then the left, and then the right hand again).

And then add one more challenge: the groove of this piece is not straight, but swung, so students are aiming to creating a smooth dynamic contour while performing (what is in this case) an angular swing!

Finally, the hands move quickly down an octave, up two octaves, later crossing hands to reach the required extremes; this is a piece that can easily come undone unless it is truly well-learned.

To this end I would recommend that students create a ‘map’ of the music, showing when the hands move, how far, and how quickly! Working with students to visually conceptualise these positional changes away from the keyboard adds another layer of certainty to the student’s grasp of these moves. And note: the student must be the one to make the map! The learning is in the making of the map, not in the reading of it!

The middle section of the piece has new challenges, mostly to do with syncopation. My absolute best suggestion to teachers and students is that students should hear the music before they play it. The music makes complete sense to the ear; the eye will struggle to connect the information on the page to the physical movements and sensations required to produce a performance.

I’ll repeat this advice: listen before you learn. And if you’ve already started learning, then start listening as well!

There is a CD with a recording of me playing Grouch in the Faber-published Guided Tour of the Little Peppers, and Trinity London also have a CD available with recordings of all the pieces in the Grade 3 syllabus.

And students should use the recordings to check that they do have the rhythm right – swing rhythms have been in common usage for the past hundred years, but piano teachers have been rather late to the party. Most piano teachers these days are comfortable teaching swing rhythms, and are completely familiar with the print protocols, but ten years ago this was not the case! So using the recordings can help everyone be certain about what the music really should sound like.

Some words of warning: bar 24 (near the end) has the hands playing an arpeggio in contrary motion! This is actually quite hard to do, as it is not a symmetrical physical experience. Extra practice will be needed to really achieve a spectacular crescendo while executing this slightly tricky passage. And the final bar (bar 26) requires the right hand to cross over the left and to play the very bottom D on the piano (having just been playing two octaves above middle C!). Practice this cross-over many times to ensure the impression the audience is left with is one of complete mastery.

I hope these notes help students preparing for their Grade 3 piano exams, or for any performance of Grouch at recitals, school assemblies, or for family gatherings!

Examination Rules: How Many Hours Practice Does it Take?!

Examination Rules: How Many Hours Practice Does it Take?!

One of my ‘rules’ for a while now has been that students need to do at least 100 hours practice to get from one grade to the next. My assertion is that if you managed a B/merit in your last exam then another 100 hours practice will get you to a B in your next exam. If you want to guarantee a B+ you’ll need to do 120 hours, and if you want to guarantee an A/distinction  you will need 140 hours. Of course, if you only manage 75-80 hours practice you should be only just able to manage a C!! But if you achieved an A/distinction result in your previous exam then 100 hours (or not much more) should deliver you an A result in your next exam too.

I was chatting about this with Samantha Coates (Ms BlitzBooks!) and she was sharing anecdotal evidence she’s been gathering on this idea [that a certain number of hours will get you to the next grade]. Samantha noted that there is no way a Grade 7 student could manage that grade on only 100 hours practice. Bear in mind that 100 hours is equivalent to 20 weeks of 5 hours practice, and I think most piano teachers would agree that that’s not enough, particularly if the student is preparing for the AMEB examination where 4 substantial pieces are prepared with another 2 ‘extra’ pieces, and then many scales and arpeggios as well (besides the sight reading, ear tests and general knowledge requirements).

But what if we were talking about a student who had a much better foundation in the first place? What if our Grade 7 students were able to play through their pieces in the first week? What if lessons didn’t need to be devoted to mastering a myriad of new skills, rehearsing tricky fingerings, writing in reminder accidentals, going over rhythmic stumbling blocks? If students had only a handful of new skills to acquire, and had the experience (and guidance) to grasp what the music was ‘about’ within the first few fortnights, maybe then 6 months of reasonable practice would genuinely be enough?

The way I see it this comes down to two important elements: the kind of foundation the student has in the first place and the kind of teaching/instruction/guidance the student is receiving week by week.

The Foundation

Don’t laugh, but there are teachers who pride themselves on getting their beginner students ready for an exam within the first year of lessons. I think the idea is that being able to help a student rapidly progress to that first exam proves the value of the teacher and the efficacy of the teacher’s approach.

This is usually achieved by means of selecting the easiest pieces in the examination syllabus and spending the best part of the year preparing them (usually via the Lamination Technique discussed in previous posts). So after that first exam students have gained some performance skills and some examination technique skills, but they are unlikely to have mastered terribly many pianistic skills per se. When the next exam rolls around (in the next calendar year) students are already ‘behind’ because they simply haven’t learned all the things expected of a Preliminary (AMEB) or Grade One (ABRSM) student; the new material they are working on poses seemingly endless challenges that are only just mastered in the final three weeks before the examination itself. And then the next year the whole relentless cycle commences again.

If students delay taking this first examination until they genuinely know how to do all the things expected of students at Preliminary (or Grade One) standard then their experience over the next eight or nine years is transformed; instead of spending months puzzling their way through an impenetrable obstacle course of technical, conceptual and notational challenges, students experience music-making from the first to the last lesson of the year, and gain new suites of skills and understandings as the year unfolds.

I’m still not quite sure about this rule, and it is impacted on considerably by the kind of support the student-child receives at home for their pianistic education, but a good rule of thumb for this foundational period of learning prior to taking a graded assessment is that students need about 200 hours of practice from the day of their first lesson through t sitting that first exam. With this amount of solid experience behind them it will be considerably easier to move happily from grade to grade. There’s a bit more to it than this, but this 200-hours-before-the-first-exam is still a good rule.

The Instruction

But not all hours are equal. Mindless practice, or worse – practice with errors of accuracy and technique or absence of vision, is time almost completely without benefit. Appropriate guidance can help students avoid wasting their time, and a really good teacher will save students many hours indeed.

First up is the issue of guiding the student through the repertoire: instead of saying “let’s work on the first two lines this week” a good teacher will introduce the whole piece and isolate areas for that introductory week’s practice – and this introduction will be vastly different from one piece to the next.

An example: A piece of mine, Chase, from Very Easy Little Peppers, is included in the AMEB Preliminary syllabus, and Tess Hill, a wonderful teacher from Western Australia, shared with me her fabulous method of teaching the whole work in two weeks: the first week students are asked to practice the odd-numbered bars, the second week the even-numbered bars, and at the third lesson, some 15 days after the piece was first introduced, the students reintegrate the bars into a complete performance. It works for Chase (brilliantly) because of the way the piece is structured – not every piece will work with this approach by any means! But having an understanding of the structure and demands of a piece allow a teacher to fast-track the learning process and move into the ‘performance’ aspect of the learning much more quickly.

In a Fugue (at the other end of the difficulty spectrum!) you might ask a student to practice the subject wherever it came up in that first week: instead of painstakingly working through 5 or 6 bars of complicated interplay between the hands, with no sense of the structure of the work or which elements of those 5 or 6 bars were most important, the student who has practiced only the various incarnations of the subject will return with a feeling for the way the subject structures the whole fugue, how the hands share the subject, how the subject modulates and modifies while still being ‘the subject’. And how much more interesting to then learn the ‘decorative’ elements, to discover the counter-subjects, to recognise the episodes where no subject is present in any voice, than to muddle through 2-4 bars per week until the three page fugue is (more-or-less) under the fingers (even though it may not yet have penetrated the mind).

Which leads us to the important second point – which is really an offshoot of the first: teachers need to know the repertoire they teach – know it in their heads and know it in their fingers. If you have played through the piece yourself you already know where you’ve been tripped up, where passages didn’t flow naturally, where a modulation took you by surprise, where your expectations were confounded, disappointed or completely blown out of the water. This makes you a much better guide than when you have barely played through the work yourself before assigning it. Students working with teachers who genuinely know the repertoire will find they save at least 5 hours practice, and maybe more like 15 hours, on that work because their teacher has shown them the short-cuts, short-cuts the teacher simply could not have known without knowing the specific repertoire being learned.

So if you are a Grade 7 student needing to learn 6 works for your AMEB exam this could be the difference between 100 hours and 130 hours practice….

Again, there is more to it than simply this (how we run the 30/45/60 minute lesson itself, for instance), but what a difference it does make for our students when we act as experienced guides covering familiar terrain rather than as wide-eyed ingenues enjoying the challenges of the new repertoire as if we are peers of our students rather than their mentors.