Thursday, January 24, 2013

The innards of a lesson

I thought it might be interesting for any pianists out there if I posted a description in a little more detail of what I worked on in a piano lesson -- and also as a record for myself!

At my most recent lesson, this is what we did:

We talked about my ongoing issues with playing scales fast, and then my teacher asked me to play the trill exercise that I've been practicing every day for this past year (it's one he still does himself, I believe). After observing what I was doing, he suggested another exercise that's difficult to describe, but involves holding down each finger on a note and tapping each adjacent key with the next finger, allowing the other fingers on that side to move as a relaxed unit. So you would hold a C, for example, with the thumb, and then play the D with the index finger, keeping the other fingers close and relaxed. Then hold down index finger on D, play the C with the thumb. Then hold down D with the index finger, play E with middle finger, and so on.

Then I played the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 Preludio. I had a memory lapse in the middle and so stopped to pull out the music and started back at the beginning; after saying that it was coming along, my teacher observed that I was attacking melody notes with flat fingers -- kind of smacking them down -- creating a harsh sound. Also that I wasn't keeping a steady tempo, and that in the final section of the piece, where there are big chords that require a lot of leaping around with the left hand, that I was short-changing the rhythm. He turned on the metronome and we worked with that for a bit. Final observation was that a tricky octave run in the left hand was suddenly loud, though not marked to be, which was jarring.

At my last lesson, he had told me to start learning Brahms Op. 79 No. 1, one of the Rhapsodies, so I played the first page or so (haltingly). He suggested that in working on this, I should count carefully, and in terms of physically playing it, should not hold onto the chords after they sound, allowing the pedal to do so, because otherwise it's impossible to play it at the proper tempo.

We then moved to Brahms Op. 117 No. 2, the beautiful B flat minor Intermezzo. I played it all the way through, and then we started talking about something interesting: moving at the keyboard. He asked me to move as I played so that my torso was directly in front of where the melody was being played -- and mentioned a sort of "rule of nose," that your nose should be over the melody note. I tried doing this, and it did feel more organic and like I was more connected with what I was playing, so I'm going to try to do this with everything and see what happens.

My teacher mentioned that there are pianists who don't think you should move, and then others who move very subtly so it's not that dramatic. So there are different schools of thought on this. I know from my experience playing the cello that moving while you play is essential, especially in chamber music if you want to stay together. But in addition, it connects you with your instrument and you become more of a unit with it. This is always harder to do with the piano because, well, you aren't actually holding the thing.

We finished up with Bach, the C minor prelude and fugue from WTC I. I played them both all the way through (from memory). In the prelude (and I kind of knew I was doing this), he commented that my sound at the end was more strident than it was at the beginning -- and I don't remember what else, but I do know that I played it again, and it was better the second time. Then on the fugue, he said something like, "It was certainly lively!" though that wasn't entirely a compliment! And we ended shortly after that when the next student arrived.

What always surprises me is how much we cover in an hour. When I'm teaching, I'm doing well if we even get partway through two short pieces, yet in what I've just described, we worked on technical exercises and four different pieces, yet it didn't feel rushed. Anyone out there reading, what's your experience? How much stuff do you play at your lessons?


Ernie said...

Hi Harriet, I'm a random stranger who's enjoyed following your blog. I was initially attracted to your blog as, like yourself, I'd hoped one day to play the entire wtc. I still do, though have serious doubts over book 2, and my ability at memorizing music is not what it once was.

I don't have lessons these days, though I probably should! I just don't have time to commit to doing the practice to justify anything regular. I often think about preparing a few of them and then seeing a teacher one every few months or so just to keep myself on the right track. One of these days...

In my younger days of learning, when it was about preparing for exams, concerts and competitions, I had my lessons before school. An hour was scheduled, but it usually went for 90 - my first class on those days was music, so the lateness was justified. That seemed like a good amount of time and we were able to cover technical work, 4 or 5 pieces, then various other bits that were needed for exams.

Another teacher and many grades later, I would have lessons that went for 2 hours or so that I had about once a month. Time was quite fluid and flexible - he was a retiree, I was studying as an undergraduate at the uni down the road and would have finished classes for the day. With no students coming in after and with me not in a rush to go anywhere afterwards , I don't think we ever felt pressured to get through too much. Not that we always covered everything, but what we did cover was always done thoroughly.

Harriet said...

Ernie, thanks for the comment! Sometimes I wonder if anyone is reading this stuff.

My lessons are on a weekday morning, not too early, and if no one is after me, sometimes we run over a few minutes. But I think an hour is sufficient; more than that and it's too much for me to think about. One thing I appreciate is that he has me play a lot, often all the way through each piece several times. I remember so many frustrating lessons in the past with other teachers where I would play a few measures and then the teacher would start talking and never stop. This way, I can apply what we've discussed immediately and get further feedback right away.

Anonymous said...

HI Harriet, I visit your blog occasionally and I am always so impressed with the fact that you really do seem to love the process of practice, and also your story, actually to be very honest - it kind of scares me (I'm about half way through my undergraduate degree in music... I wonder what happens next...)

Still, I love that you have this mature but kind of young (as in like, new discovery, like a baby being fascinated with just learning how to say nonsensical words over and over again, with different articulations)love for music.

And I love that everything is so simple when you write about the music - it's just about the music, not the stupid egotistical world of making it as a musician, not the dichotomy of teacher vs. concert pianist/competition winner/guy who makes money from performing or being respected (living in a university and having several degrees tagged next to your name) - it's about the music, and making it sound good.

Thanks for writing, I like your blog

Harriet said...

Thank you, Rebecca!

Anonymous said...

I wanted to write about this as well... as far as my lessons go - normally they are 1.5-2 hours, my teacher has the tendency to go over-time and he gives it to university students and high school leavers. I happen to fit the former category. Sometimes we just focus on one piece of music and a few scales.

My teacher and I often talk about historically informed practice, music history and it's context, practice, teaching and general music matters... so that's what tends to burn a bit of our time. He also has the tendency to spend a lot of time pulling the repertoire apart.

Awesome to hear that you are teaching more nowadays - keep us updated on your adventures in this arena!