In this month’s post, well-known author and regular Pianodao contributor Karen Marshall considers how teachers can continue developing their own journey at the piano …
Disclaimer: It is important that teachers set themselves realistic goals in terms of practice, playing and performing. In life, there are times and seasons. Remember something is better than nothing, start small and do things in stages.
My first memory of the piano was playing at a neighbour who had one in their dining room…
Three little girls composed music for a thunderstorm, spread across the piano. The bass roared, the treble pitter-pattered, and as our final finale we uncontrollably, all I can say is, attacked the keys in unison as hard as we could! Perhaps not the most melodious composition – but it was huge fun. I had found an instrument that was almost like a whole orchestra at my finger tips.
Just a few months later the very same piano (due to a house move) found its way into my home. I can remember just thinking it was the most amazing thing in the world. My own piano!
I had a number of years without piano lessons, where I learnt to play this wonderful sound world by ear. I arrived at my first piano lesson and played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in as many positions I could find. Little did I know that I was playing in seven different keys, with dominant 7th chords and with primary chords I, IV and V. The piano simply was my greatest friend.
Too often as teachers we do so much teaching that we can forget our own beginning stories on the instrument we teach and love. Can our journey become more about travelling with our students than it is about our own musical journey itself?
Do we do far too much teaching and too little piano playing?
I must confess that I have fallen into the trap of not playing and practising the instrument that I deeply love anywhere near enough in the last few years.
So how – and why – is it important to be a ‘practising, playing, performing, piano teacher?’
Here are five pieces of advice to consider:
1. Make playing the piano for pleasure a daily occurrence.
I am saying “playing the piano” here because I think playing and practising are two different things. The priority before practice is to me (and I’m not saying it should be the same for everyone) to simply enjoy playing the instrument to experience joy.
This is because it reminds me of:
- Those very early stages where I fell in love with the piano in the first place….
- The excitement of finding the next piece of music which I wanted to play over and over and over again…
- The music that I aspired to play because I’d loved listening to it at a concert, or simply by a more advanced student playing it at school.
- Or the experience of such beautiful melody or harmony that I feel I’ve ascended to a higher place.
I believe you can so much more successfully communicate to your students a love of the instrument through daily experiencing that feeling yourself.
2. Practice the piano with a self-compassion
What stops us from practising the piano?
I have a friend who confessed last month to developing a ritual of having to clean her whole house before getting to the instrument. Her older self wisely saw that this was simply a way of avoiding the practice. How on earth can this happen with something we love?
I can only speak for myself here, but the older I get, the more aware I become of how much more there is to learn and how much better I feel my playing should be.
A good phrase in life is ‘we all sit our own exam’.
I think many of us (like myself) had teachers who we could refer to as ‘the mistake police’. Our lessons were packed with messages of what we couldn’t do. Paul Harris has written much about this in his Simultaneous Learning material.
If I become negative about practice I am interested in ‘why’, but also I am kind to myself about it. Through going through this process in our own piano ongoing piano journey, we can more authentically teach our students to practice and tackle repertoire.
Some questions to ask ourselves:
- How can I focus on what I have achieved and not on what I haven’t?
- What am I finding difficult in the music I am studying? What is possible?
- How can I come up with a plan to overcome the obstacles?
- What are the different ways to practice?
Some strategies for progress:
- Have a discussion with a mentor on the best way to tackle the piece
- Try breaking practice tasks into much smaller achievable chunks.
- Find easier repertoire by the same composer which is similar in style.
- Find studies or exercises that develop the technique needed for the music being studied. Czerny – even just the 101 Exercises (Faber Music, edited by Christine Brown) – can really help. They are notationally easy and so quick to get under the fingers.
3. Find inspiration
I have recently discovered the blog site The Cross-Eyed Pianist, written by pianist and piano teacher Frances Wilson. Her “40 piece challenge” really caught my eye, along with the most recent “24 prelude challenge”.
Frances returned to the piano in her late 30s after an absence of nearly 15 years, and has subsequently attained Licentiate and Associate performance diplomas.
I find the information on her site about concerts, composers, concert pianists and so much more inspiring. It has fired my intellect but above all my desire to want to explore some of the composers and music she discusses. This is about serious music. I am currently studying Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in A major, I am hoping to have my first prelude learnt for the 24 Prelude challenge within the week!
I’ve also just got Amazon Music. I can connect wherever there is WiFi and listen to endless amazing performances. Not forgetting that I am hoping to attend more concerts, taking students if appropriate and enjoying more live music!
Also one mustn’t forget all the inspiration on this site, Pianodao!
4. Set goals to perform and lead by example
Goals can help us to progress in areas where we need to, which vary for each of us.
I confess to having performance anxiety when performing solo, but am happy to accompany (apart from my own children’s music exams!) or play duets. I want to work on this performance anxiety, so will be performing solo at my students’ yearly concert (if I expect them to perform, so should I).
I am also going to insist that myself and writing partner Heather Hammond play one piano duet before we have our regular Monday writing meeting.
Finally, I am practising for a performance diploma (I’ve taken teaching ones before) which I plan to take in the summer.
I think our students gain much from having an actively performing teacher who can provide first hand advice for delivering a musically inspiring performance.
5. Find a mentor and attend piano lessons
I have a mentor, a wonderful teacher. She supports me in my piano playing but also provides excellent critique for writing projects, career decisions and developing different teaching strategies for particular students. A fine musician, teacher (and I would add, wise and kind person), I always gain much from my time with her.
I have had piano lessons since the age of 7 years – and never stopped. I’ve gained much from my many teachers. There is always superior knowledge and I don’t think you can beat a face to face lesson.
There’s something quite special about a one to one lessons even at 44 years! Life long learning I believe is a very worth while pursuit.
To conclude, I hope that the ideas shared in this article will inspire you, and that you will be able to take small steps forward in your own piano journey! And do feel free to share your own experiences in the comments below. Thanks!
Karen Marshall is the co-writer of Get Set! Piano with Heather Hammond (Bloomsbury), and the compiler of the ABRSM Encore series. She works as a peripatetic and private piano teacher, a classroom music teacher, and music and dyslexia specialist.
Karen will be running a training course on Music and Dyslexia in London on April 6th and 7th 2016 for the British Dyslexia Association. Full details can be found here »