Developing Fluency

Supporting Teachers • Promoting Learning

“I begin every lesson by having the pupil play the whole movement through without any interruption (no going back if you make mistake, as in practising). So we start with the experience of performance – and then turn to the details.”

Fanny Waterman: International Piano, Sept/Oct 2010

I vividly recall how, as a student at the Royal College of Music, my harpsichord teacher would ask me to play a piece, only appearing to listen to the first few bars. Indeed, he often seemed quite distracted, checking the room humidity, rifling through the paperwork on his desk, pacing up and down, and generally appearing to have other things on his mind.

Once I reached the end of the piece, however, he would invariably have the most perceptive comments to make about my performance – before turning back to the first page and looking at the piece in more detail.

My own approach as a teacher is not dissimilar (including my tendency to fidget!). I’ve always felt that if a student has practised a piece, I rather owe it to them to listen to what they’ve achieved and develop an overview of their progress before interrupting and interjecting with comments or suggestions for improvement.

I am perhaps unusual in this though; often when I have observed other teachers they have seemed ill-at-ease simply enjoying their student’s playing.

I once heard OFSTED’s Chief HMI for Music (at the time) say that one of the biggest problems observed by inspectors visiting music lessons in schools was that pupils rarely played a piece in its entirety, so neither working on structural awareness and pacing of the composition in their lessons, nor fluency in performing.

It is too easy to get so bogged down in the detail that we fail to observe the big picture, and no longer see the wood through the trees. And I’m sure there are still more clichés to describe this common problem!

Whether practising or teaching, let’s be more careful to develop fluency, without sacrificing accuracy in the process. In doing so we are more likely also to develop fluency in our appreciation of great art – and that’s a tremendous goal!

How often when you are practising do you play pieces all the way through, simply observing the music without criticism? Teachers – do you make it your habit to listen to pieces in full before commenting?

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

9 thoughts on “Developing Fluency”

  1. I let my students play through their pieces if they can. If they struggle I sometimes play along pianissimo on the other piano to support them finding the right harmonies. I was very lucky as a child my grandmother had a large collection of repertoire and I would spend hours sight reading through whole sonatas and suites. It is a shame students rarely get to do this as it makes you into a very good sight reader and you get an idea of the structure of whole pieces.

    1. Yes, a lot has changed of course, but a pity that few players can experience the adventure of digging into repertoire that way… thanks for the comment!

  2. So true…. As an adult I have had three teachers and they all did this…..sometimes with a longer piece we’d just work on one part of it though, but I always play that section through first. And credit to my teachers they have all been attentive and quiet during my playing, then worked through where I can improve in more detail in the rest of the lesson. I also have a very tolerant husband, and after supper I always play through ‘as in a performance’ whatever I have been practising that day…ready or not….you are so right it helps me gain an overview of the structure and flow of the piece even if I’ve been breaking it up into smaller chunks in practice.

  3. I always allow the student to play their pieces right through. Apart from anything it gives them the chance to show off and enjoy what they have achieved. If there are mistakes in the playing, I always as them to play that section again….it may still money have been a slip or momentary lapse. Surely piano playing is about the overall performance.

  4. Yes, once they can play their piece, or a section of it, all through (more or less) I like to hear it. It takes time to develop the mental stamina to be able to play a whole piece, or programme, without “brain failure”, like running a marathon, and if you only practice or play chunks, you can never develop the structural understanding, and the mental and physical strength to perform the whole work with any kind of cohesiveness. I learned this partly from my Grade 8 (back in those days it was a Back Prelude and Fugue, an ENTIRE classical sonata, and a romantic piece, thankfully only three pages) and then years and years later when I did my diploma. I learned the programme over maybe 12 months, but it was longer than that before I could play all through without running out of steam.
    What is true for a teenager doing Grade 8, and a housewife/mother/part-time office worker doing LTCL twenty years later, is equally true for a young student doing the early grades.

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