A few thoughts on demonstration

Interviews with great pianists are always interesting (this I know first hand, after speaking to forty concert pianists in my series Classical Conversations), but one particularly fascinating interview popped into my timeline recently; Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin spoke to Frederic Gaussin about his life and work. You can read the complete interview here. Detailed, in-depth and searingly honest, Kissin reveals his love for poetry, various composers, and admiration for his teacher Anna Kantor. Amongst many comments about her teaching, Kissin makes this statement:

‘Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools.’

And it got me thinking; do we rely too much on demonstration during piano lessons? Just how easy is it to verbalise all instruction? Surely, showing students is far more productive? But Mrs. Kantor makes a very valid point, of course, by demonstrating we are subconsciously influencing our pupils’ interpretations.

After writing many articles on piano playing and providing written ‘lessons’ on piano works for various magazines, I’m aware just how tricky it can be to teach via speech or written ‘speech’ at least. Finding the right expressions, phrases or words isn’t easy, and can be  quite cumbersome. Lessons provide the opportunity to really show how to do it. But then, teaching young, very gifted students (such as those who would have frequented Anna Kantor’s class) is quite different from working with those wanting to pass a few exams, play for pleasure or even take a diploma.

Nevertheless, I decided to give this concept a chance. I asked a student to  participate in  my experiment, and I  conducted a thirty minute lesson without touching the keyboard. We worked on a few scales, arpeggios, and a Grade 7 exam piece.

Teaching scales might seem easy without demonstrating, but at the start of the lesson my student wasn’t moving as flexibly as she might, and rather than show the necessary finger movement in slow motion (as I normally would) followed by the rotational hand/wrist motion needed between notes and/or groups of notes, I’m left trying to describe it, which takes twice as long (and isn’t really as effective). Testing knowledge of keys/key signatures and pin pointing fingering is simple, but we then talk about accentuation and touch, which posses a few problems for the ‘verbalist’ (i.e. me!). I end up singing where accents might be placed or at least practised, and using my voice to show how to work in various rhythms in order to strengthen fingers, especially those in the left hand.

On discussing finger staccato, I’m left demonstrating again, but in the air! Having said this, my student understands immediately, and doesn’t appear bothered by my lack of participation.

Arpeggios prove equally awkward, but I manage to show the swivel movement required for security, again, in the air, which works to a degree. One element which comes to light as a result of not touching the piano, is the importance of listening, especially with regard to coordination. We all know the benefits of listening carefully to our playing (or a student’s playing), but whilst explaining how to practice when aiming for complete unison between hands, I calmly talk the student through the usual practice techniques which, for me at least, demand more concentration than usual (it’s definitely an added challenge to describe as opposed to demonstrate). If I had been showing in the normal way (i.e. playing myself), I perhaps wouldn’t have been so attentive in terms of totally focused on my student’s efforts.

As we move on to the exam piece, technical aspects are becoming less difficult to explain (you can certainly get used to this way of teaching fairly quickly) but what is rather arduous, is to verbalise the required sound. Talking about tone, variations of tone and a rich or Cantabile sound, doesn’t seem to quite work with a Grade 7 pupil, and I’m accustomed to either illustrating wrist movement, finger motion or necessary arm-weight, or helping students with their movements whilst they play in order to change or vary the tone. Many facets of interpretation can be talked about or ‘described’ with ease, but teaching any kind of voicing, variation in texture, phrasing or colouring seems to be more effective when demonstrated.

As the lesson ended, my pupil said she had still learnt a lot via this method, but I’m not sure this is the case, especially with regard to alleviating tension, which is still best illustrated (in my opinion).

I know from my own piano lessons, that by hearing piano sonority and aspects of interpretation from my teachers, I carried their playing in my mind, and used it as a  beacon for what I was trying to achieve (this could be cited as ‘copying’, of course, but the majority of pupils do need guidance up to a certain point).

Another positive aspect of demonstration is inspiration. Talking about playing, practising and discussing interpretation can provide plenty of food for thought, but if a passage or a section of a work is played reasonably well by the teacher, this can help the student to overcome various difficulties purely by watching and observing.

I enjoyed the experiment and have complete admiration for Mrs. Kantor’s style of teaching, but I’ll be sticking to a healthy mix of demonstration and verbalization in future.

Demonstrating at a recent workshop at Yamaha Music London, with piano enthusiast, Roger Toye.

Working with Roger Toye, at a recent workshop (at Yamaha Music London).

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

Image: Elena Cobb

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3 thoughts on “A few thoughts on demonstration

  1. Interesting article. One of my previous teachers used to demonstrate all the time and I would be almost bodily shoved off the piano stool to enable her to “show” me “how to play” certain passages or practise an aspect of technique. (As it turned out, she was really trying to make me play like her which is why I moved to another teacher.) I try not to demonstrate too much in my own teaching, preferring to encourage students to use their imagination to arrive at the soundworld and interpretation they want in their pieces (these are grade 4-7 level students). I certainly don’t want them to sound like teacher – that just boosts the teacher’s ego! I want them to take ownership of their music and create their own personal sound for each piece (and teaching the same piece to several students is really interesting as each arrives at a different and very personal version of it). Of course, as you say, some aspects of technique in particular cannot be explained verbally alone and some demonstration is necessary.

  2. That sounds like a super difficult experiment! But I do try to be careful with demonstrating, and do it as minimally as I feel possible. I’ve met piano teachers in the past who spend half the lesson playing the piano, and while everyone has their own methods, I don’t find that type of lesson as valuable for the student. So like you said, there are some things that probably need to be demonstrated for clarity, but it’s good not to rely on it too heavily!

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