Teaching Fast and Slow

Tortoise-and-hare

Over the last few weeks I have been preparing for what will no doubt be the highlight of my year; directing the Piano Teachers’ Course at Chetham’s International Piano Summer School. This preparation has prompted a reflection on my own teaching, hence the subject of this blog post.

There is often a general perception that piano teachers should ideally spend numerous lessons, over extended periods, slowly cultivating good posture, technique, musicianship and a whole host of other necessary aspects crucial to developing the ‘complete’ pianist. There are those who will only accept beginner students purely because they are then able to build the young pianist’s technique and musicianship from the outset, usually leading to favourable results.

In theory this concept is, of course, sensible and highly advisable. But the reality is often somewhat different. Many teachers tutor ‘transfer’ students, or those who have previously studied elsewhere, and these students may already have their own agendas regarding their goals and pianistic development. This aspect can be difficult to manage and none more so that when building (or, as is so often the case, re-building) a student’s technique.

Technique is generally more easily grasped when studied from a young age; rather like an athlete, movement, muscular development and flexibility is just easier and can quickly become ‘natural’ whilst a student is young. Over the past couple of years, I have worked with several students who had all achieved a certain level of playing when we started working together, but yet needed to be more advanced if they were to attain their desired outcomes. And those ‘outcomes’ were never far away, sometimes leaving just months – or weeks – of lesson time with me, before the exam, audition or musical event. Changing, or drastically improving, technique can take anything from one to three or four years, depending on many variables.

So where to begin with such a pupil? Students come to study with a particular teacher because they believe that they can really help them, but we are, after all, just teachers, as opposed to ‘miracle workers’ (a favourite quote courtesy of a colleague!).

A couple of years ago a young student began studying with me. She was preparing for ABRSM Grade 8, and had already entered for the exam – and there was apparently no turning back or delaying the date. We had just six lessons before the exam date. A talented student, all three pieces were fairly well prepared and sight-reading was comfortably within her grasp, too. After checking these aspects, we turned our attention to the scales and arpeggios. One might have expected this level of player to be fairly competent here, but, to my surprise (and horror), even a two-octave similar motion C major scale eluded her. Fingering and coordination were sorely lacking, making fluency and the necessary speed, challenging.

After assuring this student that she could, in fact, easily play all scales and arpeggios with the right mind-set and practice regime, we embarked on what felt like a six-week romp through Grade 8 technical work: we used the previous syllabus, as opposed to the new 2020-2022 version, where the scales and arpeggio list has been seriously reduced.

Attitude proved an important role in encouraging and instigating accuracy and correct fingering, as, sadly, my student lacked confidence; she had been convinced that she would never be able to play the scales and arpeggios fluently, and, even worse, had fallen into the trap of believing it.

Despite time constraints, we began our work very slowly, and this was the key to our success. Working at these exercises via two octaves at a time, we practised all scale permutations (thirds, sixths, contrary motions, arpeggios, dominant sevenths etc.) in key rotations, and with extremely attentive preparation. Mastering these patterns at a slow tempo sparked a scale and arpeggio ‘curiosity’ (yes, there is such a thing!), which proved a vital part of the ‘motivational’ process.

I maintain that if you give students a reason to practice technical work, it becomes absorbing and completely fascinating. Carefully observing finger positions (on the key), fingering and hand movement coupled with developing relaxed posture and wrist flexibility whilst fostering that all- important deep finger touch, which is a crucial part of honing firmer fingers, allowed my student to concentrate on far more than just the keys and note patterns. Each practice session became a useful technique shaping exercise. And she very quickly understood the importance of what she was learning and the impact it would have on her overall progress.

Painfully slow work was undertaken for some three or four weeks, practising with exceedingly  pedantic, steady tempi using the metronome, one note to every tick, solidifying the fingering and various note patterns, after which we elongated each scale and arpeggio to four octaves. Eventually, towards the exam date, we increased the speed via the metronome, using several different practice tempi – and then, finally, we focused on lightening that heavy touch, revealing even, neat and rhythmical scales and arpeggios. We then varied that touch (legato/staccato) and added dynamic shape and contour. By ‘micro-managing’ each step in this way, we were able to learn all the patterns easily and build finger power, without any sense of fear or panic; increasing speed is relatively simple once the basics are in place, and fingers are working optimally.

My student remarked that it was a rather ‘scientific’ way to approach technical work. Some may balk at such a dry, methodical system, but working slowly for an extended period, even if challenged by a lack of practice time, is usually the best method for success, whether learning technical work or entire recital programmes.

This student obtained a distinction, but, more importantly, she had enjoyed the learning process and had witnessed the benefits of what is normally deemed the most ‘boring’ part of any piano exam.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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