Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Piano progress

I thought I'd report on how things are going with the piano after about a half a year of lessons with my current teacher. It's been my best lesson experience ever, and I want to explain why.

The overwhelming benefit is that he has patiently gone back to the beginning and is teaching me the basic motor skills needed to play the piano. This is something no piano teacher I've had has done. The others have just let me slug out the notes without much discussion of how to do it. All I remember my first teacher, with whom I started when I was 9 years old, mentioning by way of instruction on technique was to curve my fingers, keep my hands still, and lift my fingers high, plus practice with the metronome to get pieces up to tempo. Now, granted, I wasn't the most diligent practicer back then, but I probably did more than a lot of kids, and I really had some native talent, but I learned nothing about how to produce and control the sound that came out of the instrument or even really listen to it, except in the simplest way. Subsequent teachers were pretty much the same.

These lessons, however, have been very different. I don't know how this all would have fallen out had I been the sort of student who insisted on playing only advanced repertoire or my favorite pieces, or who quibbled about what my teacher was asking me to do, but it all has made sense, and he somehow inspires trust, so I've gone with it and have done, or tried to do, everything he has suggested. I think it sounds better. It definitely feels better.

As far as repertoire goes, my sense is that it has been chosen to build certain skills. I've not found it boring or limiting -- the pieces, though short, are all masterworks in the piano literature. After all those years of flailing around with pieces that were much too difficult, I appreciate being given music that I can realistically get my hands around, and in an organized fashion. At the same time, the challenges are such that I would have had a very hard time figuring them out on my own.

Another facet has been experiencing a way of teaching that is both demanding and respectful. I've had a few teachers who were "nice" (like that first one) but who never asked for much more than just playing all the right notes. Most of the others (and this is both piano and cello) were demanding, all right, but in that unfortunately typical teacher way of making the student feel stupid -- acting as though the answers were so obvious that only an idiot would miss them. I've certainly had a lot of moments with my current teacher of feeling stupid, but I never feel I can't ask questions or that he pretends to have all the answers and I'm just being obtuse.

I'm probably not your average adult piano student, given the intensity of my musical background. But my aesthetic sense of the piano is pretty crude. I am now learning how to listen more acutely to other people's playing as well as my own -- what is a beautiful sound, and why? What makes something expressive? It's great to be able to discuss these things every week with someone who has definite opinions.

I have occasionally pondered whether I would have benefited from this type of teaching if I had had it earlier in my life. Aside from the fact that it's a moot point because there's no time machine -- and also, even if there were, it's not so easy to find such teaching, so I kind of lucked out here -- I think I may not have been ready for it, or at least not as receptive to it as I am now. For one thing, I am a mature adult and so have more patience and perspective. For another, because I have experienced the frustration of trying to do things my way in the past, the help I am getting now is a much-appreciated lifeline. Also, and this is key, it hasn't been until the past few years that I have firmly established the habit of practicing every day and of sticking with it for the long haul no matter what.

So those are my notes from the bench.

6 comments:

Fairevergreen said...

I don't remember ever having a piano teacher that taught me anything about how to hit the keys either. My first (actually, not that I think about it, my only) teacher said pretty much what your teacher said.

In the years since I've given up lessons, I know my technique has regressed significantly.

I give you credit for going back to lessons. I'm not sure I want to commit to that discipline. I guess I'll keep flailing away for my own amusement, at least for now.

Harriet said...

Thanks for commenting. There is a fairly high level of commitment (time and $$) involved in taking lessons, plus a certain amount of crazy obsession. I do think that teachers who both know what they're doing and know how to teach it are rarer than they should be. Finding one is like finding a really good doctor. Now that I have, it would be very hard to quit!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I checked your blog today. I had remembered something you had posted elsewhere about your approach to learning pieces and It was like a mental homecoming to me and I knew I wanted to read more of what you wish to share.

Started with an excellent but rigid instructor. In some regards I could never outgrow her and in others I have. After a long break I am searching for a new instructor, someone like you have found, someone who will start at the beginning.

I was nearly fifty before I could even read a note. Some of the basics were skipped and some of the basics skipped over me since I was busy learning the new language of music. Now I want to go back and thoroughly saturate myself with every aspect, variation and range of each note and each movement.

So glad to have checked your blog today as I was searching the ads again last night for a new instructor. The two that seemed promising were described to reflect much of what you are appreciating about your new instructor. That is promising.

Thank you for sharing your experience. I'll be checking through your blog bit by bit.
....a7yr

Harriet said...

7yr -- thanks for reading and commenting. You might want to visit/register at Piano World (see link in sidebar) and post a query on the Piano Teachers forum if there are any adult-friendly teachers in your area. They are not that easy to find. My previous teacher (last year) was "adult friendly" but treated me more like I was a mentally handicapped child, even though I have three music degrees. She never once suggested practicing a scale!

Coloured Silence said...

My teacher taught me how to hit the keys and he started me from the beginning when I was at the time playing at an intermediate level. My musical background is not as intensive as yours Harriet (I'm only 21 and I'm a music major/undergraduate). I had been through quite a few teachers before my current one and I've started teaching now... I think the problem with technique is that it is difficult to teach to young children. You need to keep them entertained and they need to have an awareness.

Anyway just my two cents. I enjoy reading your blog. You're an interesting person.

Harriet said...

Thanks for commenting, Coloured Silence. I like this point in your teaching philosophy (from your blog), and hope you don't mind my pasting it here:


Not all students want to be professional musicians when they grow up but they still deserve to be treated with seriousness so that they could be performing to the best of their abilities, regardless of their end goal. They might change their minds later in life, they might choose to be professional musicians, whatever their choices are in life, I never want to be that bad teacher who didn’t give a toss. I never want to be that teacher who decided to lower my standards because of their present vision.