Tighten Up!

September 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hanon example of studies

Image via Wikipedia

One of my students was asking about an exercise written by a certain French pedagogue, Charles-Louis Hanon. Pianists have played Hanon exercises for 150 years. Teachers assign them automatically, without much soul-searching. They have passed into the realm of unexamined truths: everyone else plays them, they must be good.

Problem is, piano exercises are like penicillin. They can be wonder drugs or useless wastes of time or downright harmful. You only want to prescribe them as needed and only after careful diagnosis.

Watch out! Piano exercises can be hazardous to your health. Use only under supervision and only as directed. Do not attempt to operate machinery like a piano while under the influence of this stuff.

My student asked about one of these gems in her lesson book and I said, “For you, for now, no. It will just make you tighten up”.

To my surprise she started singing, “We’re gonna tighten up. Let’s do the tighten up. Everyone can do it now so get to it”.

I think Archie Bell and the Drells had a different idea about “tight” than I do.  What do you think?  Here they are with the Hanon theme song.

The Truth About Piano Lessons

August 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Wide angle photo of the action of a Kawai UST-...

Learning the piano involves learning to control 88 complicated little levers with 10 little fingers. And 2 feet.

Here is an excellent article by a piano teacher in Massachusetts, Karen Berger, from  her blog Musical Resources. It has been reprinted and circulated all around the world. Anyone thinking about piano lessons for themselves or a child will profit from reading this. She is aiming mostly at parents and describes the many benefits of learning the piano. But she also tells the truth about how hard it can be to practice, how hard it is to get a child to practice, how frustrating the whole process can be and how long it can reasonably take.

I’m not sure I would have the nerve to lay out the truth in quite this fashion. I’m more a  gradually-turn-down-the-thumbscrews kind of person. But otherwise we are entirely together on the costs and benefits of piano study. We even read the same scientific journals.

It is a long, hard road, mastering the piano, but worthy of every effort.

Whatever Are Piano Lessons For?

August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

Piano Lessons

This question was posed to me by a parent many years ago and I have been trying to answer it ever since. Is it just my imagination, or does studying music actually improve your life? Do you get smarter, live longer, will you be better adjusted or happier if you play the piano?

This fall, families everywhere will be wondering whether to stretch the calendar and the budget to include piano lessons. Many parents recognize the need for arts study to counterbalance the academic emphasis in most schools. But when it is time to get in the car and write the checks, it is easy to wonder whether it is worth it all.

Don’t get me wrong, music for me is first, last and always its own reward. But I have noticed that pianists tend to be quite bright. Do they start out that way or does piano study somehow help things along?

Our friends The Scientists have recently set aside their investigations into pathology to study how we learn and how to improve it.  The next time I have to justify piano lessons, I will have some real answers instead of just  opinions.  I will be posting a whole slew of articles on the benefits of music study. Here’s one to start off the fall piano lesson season:

How Music Training Primes Nervous System and Boosts Learning    A review of many research papers on the effects of music study reveals music study improves listening, speech processing, attention, memory, vocabulary, reading. So anecdotal evidence that piano students do better in school is supported by some real data. Children with dyslexia, in particular, benefit from music study because it strengthens brain function in areas that in which they are weak.

Beethoven, Czerny, Leschetizky, Raab, Lehmann, Me.

August 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven when composing t...

Beethoven, Ludwig. Student of Haydn

This is my piano playing and teaching family tree. These are my musical  begats. Pianists have something in common with mathematicians and magicians, namely that we study in an apprentice system. This is mine.

The interesting thing about my lineage is that it is, after Beethoven, both a teaching and a performing lineage. Musicians usually are either one or the other. But this is a long string of virtuoso pianists who also  knew and loved teaching.

Everyone knows Beethoven. He isn’t famous as a teacher, but as a performer and composer.  He did, however, teach, because he had to pay the bills just like the rest of us. He was irascible  and inpatient, but he could really play the piano and anyone with eyes and ears lucky enough to study with him would have learned plenty. His most successful student was Carl Czerny.

Czerny is known primarily for his prolific production of etudes. He wrote symphonies and string quartets and other works, but it is for his  etudes that pianists know him. There are so many of them, and each one has so many notes, that it is hard to imagine how he even got them down on paper. They are ingenious if not terribly profound explorations of all the nooks and crannies of piano technique, particularly the virtuoso skills of rapid passages, arpeggios, thirds, etc. He clearly loved writing these hundreds of pieces: they are suffused with a manic joy. If you are having a bad day, take 2 Czernys at top speed and leave melancholy behind.

Czerny taught Liszt. Liszt was the first pianist to acquire rock-star status, in fact he more or less invented the role of super star. But he’s not in my direct lineage so he doesn’t get his picture in this story.

Theodore Leschetizky. His teaching emphasized beautiful, dynamic tone and personal artistry.

Czerny also taught Theodore Leschetizky  who became one of the most eminent piano teachers in history, teaching first at the St. Petersburg Conservatory for three years and then for the rest of his life in Vienna. Just about any pianist who could get to Vienna during those years(1878-1914)  studied with him. His students were  not just piano virtuosos but highly individual artists. He taught Schnabel, Paderewski, Moiseiwitsch, Hambourg, and many others, including Alexander Raab. He also had a habit of marrying his students, a practice we piano teachers discourage today, even though Leschetizky tried it 4 times.

Alexander Raab

Alexander Raab graduated from the Vienna Conservatory, when Johannes Brahms was on the faculty as well as  Leschetizky. After graduation he concertized in Europe and accompanied violinist Jan Kubelik before immigrating to the United States in about 1915. After the First World War, the United States welcomed so many musical immigrants that it was hard to make a living in performance. Raab took a position at the Chicago Musical College and  found that he enjoyed teaching more than performing. He later settled  in Berkeley, happily slaving over a studio of pianists from all over.

My teacher, Don Lehmann, was in despair about his playing and had quit the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and gone home in a funk when family friends recommended he go see Alexander Raab in Berkeley. Raab agreed to accept him on one condition: No Practicing. Raab knew that to re-train Lehmann’s technique he must not  make a single unsupervised error.  (if you’ve read this blog, you’ll recognize a theme of mine: practicing isn’t always the answer).  Lehmann ended up studying with him nearly every evening for  the last several years of Raab’s life. It was a case of a  teacher pouring everything he could into a promising young pupil.  So, every night they went through music together until Lehmann’s approach to the keyboard was fluent, powerful and easy. And what a beautiful tone! In the process he, too learned to love teaching and learned how to teach that marvelous technique and sound. Plus he accumulated a fund of family stories about Raab’s fellow-pianists, people like Mischa Levitsky, Bela Bartok, Artur Schnabel, etc. He is a direct link to the pianists of the last century and their gargantuan playing.

And then there’s me. But there is not only me. There are many fine pianists and teachers in the Portland area who have studied with Don Lehmann and inherited his spirit, his meticulous training and his insistence on the highest standards of teaching and playing. I’m just the one with the blog.

You CAN improve without practicing much.

August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

piano practice

Burning the midnight oil.

I have a number of students who don’t practice. Yet they continue to improve at the piano.

Yeah, right, you say. It’s a semantic problem: no practice must mean putting in several hours a week.

Wrong. Their idea of no practice is NO PRACTICE. I know they are reporting the truth, because they are often out of the country when the no practice occurs. Hard to practice when you are working in a hospital around the clock in Africa.

They come to their lessons religiously and work hard when they are here. And they continue to improve. Some are rank beginners, some are playing the Chopin Ballades.

I’ve never had a rational explanation for this phenomenon, but my teacher shocked me when he told me about it.  When I began teaching, he said, “Don’t worry too much about practice. If they come to their lessons every week, they will get better”. I didn’t really believe him until I  heard it with my own ears. But it is hard to convince anyone else that this happens. It seems at least self-serving, or maybe delusional.

But  science is coming to my rescue.  Here is a little article that describes a similar phenomenon in auditory perception.

I think the best summary of the findings was by one of the authors, Beverly Wright: “Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain”. Less pain and more gain is what all musicians are looking for.

Which group do you think did best on the sound discrimination task in the study? You have a choice between 1 group who practiced listening for 20 minutes every day and then spent 20 minutes just passively listening to the sounds while they did something else. The other group spent twice as long but only practiced every day.

After a week, it was test time. The winners were not the heavy practicers but the ones who spent just 20 minutes “working” and another 20 minutes fooling around with puzzles with the relevant sounds piped into their ears.

This is like my students who leave for Africa after their lesson and come back in two weeks playing noticeably improved.

“It’s as though once you get your system revved up by practicing a particular skill, the brain acts as though you are still engaged in the task when you are not, and learning still takes place,” according to Wright.

Now, if you read the  research article you will find some ifs, ands and buts, especially if you are trying to extrapolate to Chopin. For example, the researchers found no difference in the heavy practicers and the light ones when they delayed fooling around with puzzles phase more than a few minutes. This doesn’t exactly correlate with the trip to Africa.

Still, science is taking some steps to clarify what exactly improves  learning. Does more work always mean more progress?  My students’ improvements are not just a  fantasy. They really do get better. The lessons keep the connections going, their brains keep learning something about piano playing even away from the piano and my teacher was right: I don’t have to worry too much about students’ practicing.

Write Your Own Music, Make It Look Great

August 15, 2011 Comments Off on Write Your Own Music, Make It Look Great

Digital Sheet Music

Composition software is the what we call it and putting notes in the right place is what it does. In the good old days we wrote music out by hand. This meant that beginning readers, who really needed clarity and precision, got neither. And forget about kids and their big fat pencils writing music: it takes forever.

There are lots of programs available, for every budget. For my needs in the studio, I use PrintMusic from Finale. At about $100.00 it isn’t the cheapest available program, nor the most expensive. The full Finale with everything on top runs about $600.00.

For kids you can download Finale Notepad for free. The Sibelius family of composition software has a similar range of products.

My current favorite  is Noteflight. It is cloud composition software and the free version is terrific. It is designed for music teachers and their students so it is easy to use, easy to share, easy to love.

Coming soon on this blog: Collaborative Composition via Noteflight.


August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Still from the "Piano Lessons" music...

One way to get the kids to practice

Other parents gripe about getting their kids to practice the piano. We have enough problems getting dinner on the table and homework done. Are piano lessons going to add one more struggle to our family life?

Boy, I hope not. I would hate to see music turn into misery. The point of music study is to move beyond all that.

In many families, piano lesson peace is as elusive as peace in the Middle East. Teachers insist on a certain amount of practice and demand  well-prepared lessons each week. When there are syllabus exams looming or recitals scheduled, pressure mounts. Student performance is critical to a teacher’s professional standing and self-respect.  The only way to get kids to do more work at home is to get parents more involved. Kids get harassed  about practicing at home, and again at their lessons. Parents feel caught between the teacher and the kids.

I’m a parent, too.  I never liked being the both the enforcer, cheer leader AND the auxiliary teacher with my kids.  I thought keeping them fed and rested and delivered to lessons on time and the bills paid with a smile was the end of my involvement. Mostly what I did about practicing was say, “Gee, that was great! Do it again!” Or, “WHEN you finish  practicing THEN you can play video games until your eyeballs drop out of your head”.

I wasn’t very good at teaching my own kids.  They needed to learn this stuff from someone else. And I  didn’t want some teacher’s demands adding more conflict to our family. We have had plenty of that, thank you very much. Why pay for it when you can get it for free?

As a teacher, the 3-way antagonism has never worked for me. I take a more moderate position on practicing. Home practice is good. More is better. Conflict around practicing that threatens family peace is not good. More conflict, even if it results in more piano playing, is really not good.  And quitting the piano because of practice conflicts is very bad.

Every family is different. It’s possible for parents to encourage, insist, and help with piano practice. But not all parents want or can do this. Not all children accept parental help gracefully. Parental help is the last thing many children want.

Teachers can also have a helpful, non-adversarial role in piano practice. Learning how to practice is really the whole point of piano lessons: how do you learn with the brain and body and time you have. It won’t happen well if the teacher just requires it. It needs to be carefully taught.

Peace. Music. Learning. Isn’t that enough?

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