If you’ve ever heard elementary pianists play, you probably know what I’m talking about – that unmistakable beginner’s plunk (with which I was plagued myself as a young musician).
For the first several months of my teaching experience, I thought primarily of achieving one thing in the training of my piano students, and that was to get them to read music fluently. As time has moved on, this still remains a very strong goal. However, other things have also risen to the surface of mind, making my mental list of “topmost important things beginners should be taught” grow rapidly. Added to the note-reading fluency have been rhythmic accuracy, adherence to written dynamics, a beautifully correct hand position, a kneading or massaging motion when depressing the keys, and more.
More recently, I have noticed that the results I am seeing in my upper-elementary students leave something to be desired. Granted, they are upper-elementary, and will not, even with their best efforts, play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” the way a professional concert pianist would. This isn’t about absurd goals and utter perfectionism, but about reaching the highest level of excellence possible.
Something I want to see in my beginners (and have seen in some cases) is agility in the hands when moving across the keys. Additionally, students should be taught to play musically and with personal artistic expression, but within the general boundaries of era and style. Too often there is a tendency for the beginners to produce the plunking sound with which we are all familiar, and I surmise that this can have multiple causes.
Two of the causes that I’ve identified are 1.) a lack of understanding about legato (see the previous article, Pianistic Legato for more specifics on this) and 2.) muscle stiffness, which can be much decreased by the implementation of scales into the student’s daily work (one octave is good for beginners). Five-finger exercises have proven very effective in removing the muscular stiffness and developing finger independence, as well.
Depending on the student’s note-reading ability and general teaching philosophies, another solid resource for developing agility and overall maturity on the keyboard and relaxing the hand muscles is The Little Pianist exercises by Carl Czerny.
Finally, consider utilizing the student’s ear.* Most of us learn best by example, so if there is trouble achieving the desired sound, try demonstrating it a few times and then allowing the student to imitate you. With demonstrations, it can be helpful to play the entire passage so that the student can get a better idea of the “big picture,” but then back down to a phrase or two as you work together to reach an accurate imitation.
Every student is going to be different, and there is not a one-size-fits-all cure for developing technique. Analyze the situation – the music, the hands, the student’s overall positioning, past successes and difficulties, general strengths and weaknesses. Articulate to yourself exactly what is missing and then direct the student accordingly.
*For students who have a naturally good ear, demonstration should be used carefully, as “feeding” the points that are already strong can hinder the growth of the weaker areas, especially that of note reading. If your student a) doesn’t have a good ear, or b) is already reading music somewhat fluently, I think demonstration can be one of the most effective and wonderful techniques at a teacher’s disposal. Also, students who struggle with hearing the music need to have their ears trained so that they can reach their maximum potential.
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