There are so many different ways of constructing a piano lesson, and of course, every teacher has their own approach or method. It will also depend on the student. Are they preparing for an exam? Are they working on improving their technique? Perhaps taking a theory exam? Or just starting to learn? There can be many elements to tackle in one lesson too, and this alone can be challenging for any teacher. What do they focus on first?
It’s interesting just how many teachers prefer to avoid teaching beginners, but surely a good teacher should be able to tackle every level of development and the first stages are regarded by many as the most crucial. Mistakes at the beginning can lead to all kinds of bad habits. Habits that can be hard to eradicate at later stages. The majority of my students are fairly advanced, however, I do teach a few beginners because this elementary stage serves as a useful reminder, providing helpful insights into the learning process, and as teachers we never stop learning.
Beyond the scales, sight-reading, studies and pieces most usually worked on during lessons, is the concept of understanding completely what a teacher implies. How this is reinforced can make the difference between a week of constructive practice or a week of misunderstanding. Working at issues until the proverbial penny drops can be a tireless exercise, but for the student, there is no doubt this is the only way to achieve real progress. Showing or instructing students to do something is quite separate from actually sitting there with them until they can do it with ease. In some cases it can be favourable to work through an entire piece, ‘practising’ with a pupil, but this can take lots of time!
It’s really akin to ‘learning to practice’ during the lesson. I know some will feel this to be a time waster, and certainly if lesson time is at a premium then only a small amount of this type of work can be done. For some students though, it can form a crucial part of the lesson, irrespective of their level. Whether working on a whole piece, page of music or just a few bars, once pupils actually see what is necessary in order to master certain sections of a piece they then have a much greater chance of working through the designated piece alone and consequently getting it right. Structured work such as this can really improve a pupil’s playing too. If technical difficulties can be completely surmounted during the lesson, this can bestow real confidence and motivation.
It’s often necessary to break a piano piece down totally; write in all the fingering, work out a suitable method for keeping time (and staying in time), playing extremely slowly hands separately whilst employing a free hand/wrist/arm action, and deciding on phrasing and the use of sound, all before playing hands together (I’ve written about breaking a work into sections several times on this blog). Technique is generally easier to grasp if practised hands separately to start with, and then worked at bar by bar. This approach requires a very vigilant teacher, one who is not afraid to reinforce detailed work during each lesson, constantly refocusing a pupil’s attention and encouraging them to try again and keep working on passages many times, whilst always illustrating, demonstrating and keeping the student’s interest in order to obtain the desired outcome. After a reasonably short time, pupil’s normally get the feeling for what’s required for success in a particular passage, whether musically of technically. Discipline is crucial as it’s too easy to gloss over difficulties, never really conquering tricky passages, therefore giving the dreaded ‘approximate’ rendition.
The difference practising in a lesson can make to a student is tremendous; it actually enables them to envisage mastering a piece relatively easily. If they can learn via a tried and tested method during the lesson, then the chances are it will be easy to apply this to the rest of the piece. It’s always a better plan to make sure a student has thoroughly assimilated what has been discussed in the lesson, but if this is not worked at meticulously during the lesson time, the discussion will have been in vain. Students do need to work through piano pieces methodically, and for some, providing a ‘plan of action’ is the only way, otherwise progress is not only slow but also very haphazard, frustrating and upsetting; it’s possible to really make a difference to technical and musical grasp by applying a very detailed approach to practising during lesson time.