September 19, 2011 § 1 Comment
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.
August 19, 2011 § 1 Comment
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.
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 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.
August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments
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.
August 15, 2011 Comments Off on Write Your Own Music, Make It Look Great
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.
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.
- NoteFlight: Compose on Your Computer (wired.com)
- Print Your Own Blank Sheet Music (freetech4teachers.com)
August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
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 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?
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.
Peace. Music. Learning. Isn’t that enough?