Piano Teaching

Practising at homePlaying for other peopleEnsemble playing - Posture and Technique
Some effective teaching methodsAbout my books

In my opinion the most effective way to teach students is to adjust one’s method for each student. When one teaches students from the age of 5 to the age of 70 and above, it is indeed impossible to teach them according to a fixed plan.

Practising at home

Those who can manage an hour’s concentrated practice every day, covering the pieces and etudes which are set during the lesson, will be much more successful in their efforts than students who are working adults, and who generally don’t have the time to practice sufficiently between lessons.
If parents complain that their children don’t practise enough, it is worth finding out the underlying reasons: the pieces may be too dull or too difficult; the children may be too busy with other activities (like school, sports or other courses). They might also just be going through a period where they dislike playing the piano at home even though they might still like to attend their piano lessons. But applying pressure will never help the students in these circumstances. Rather, the teacher should actually encourage the students by practising with them during the lesson.

I always remember the example of my own daughter, who went to her horse riding lessons regularly, but she could never “practise” riding a horse, because she didn’t own a horse. Moreover there was hardly enough time to look after a horse - but she never wanted to miss one single riding lesson.
I am not suggesting that children should not practise at home. Perhaps one should avoid using the word “practice”. It is probably a better idea to encourage the children by referring to practice as “playing” the piano.
I had the following agreement with my own children for many years: they would both play and practise the pieces given to them at their lessons at least three times a week.

Of course it is more interesting for the teacher as well if the student is prepared for the lesson. But it is important for the teacher to be understanding and sympathetic at those times when students are not motivated to practise the piano. The very fact that students use their piano lesson time to play their instrument, should in itself be considered a positive thing and one way of sustaining the student’s interest in music.

Sometimes it is very useful to set new objectives rather than to just give up…

Playing for other people

In order to play for other people with confidence and security, it is very important to learn about how to go on with the performance, despite the occasional mistake. Every musician in an orchestra learns this right from the start. But soloists, (in this case pianists in particular) seem to suffer a lot. Once a mistake is made, the student pianist does not seem to know how to go on. Often they even lose their place on the written score and they may even take their hands off the keys. In extreme cases the performance breaks down totally and the perform-ance simply stops.
I often try to condition my students for performance situations by asking them to play their pieces all the way through, but I might sit in a different chair than I normally do, or I might accompany them on another instrument or sing while they play.
Whereas some students really enjoy performing for others and practise hard to achieve this end, many students simply like to play for the sheer enjoyment of the music. Not everybody wants to perform for others!

Therefore once a year I organise a little concert for the students. For me it is very important that everybody plays voluntarily and I am surprised by how many people like to attend such concerts.

At times, students practise short pieces so effectively, that they are able to play them faultlessly, which is hardly the only aim of such informal concerts. The important thing to remember is that playing for other people means ignoring the mistakes and pretending that nothing has happened. In such cases one needs to improvise and cheat!

Ensemble Playing

This skill should be introduced from the very beginning. For very young pianists I wrote an anthology of pieces called Animals in my Garden. For many pupils this seems to be their favourite book in the early days. These pieces can be played independently as well as with a partner. The first few pieces move by step-wise motion and only in the five finger position. Both partners deal with the same level of difficulty, so this book is ideal for two beginners. It even allows for a third pianist to play a simple accompaniment.

The book 16 Piano Pieces for 4 Hands is very similar. It caters for all ages and by the end of the book one is equipped to play basic pieces by the great classical composers such as Haydn, Schubert, Schumann and Mozart. Unfortunately there is not a great deal of piano literature which allows for beginners to accompany other instrumentalists.

Posture and Technique

One of the important pre-requisites for good technique is good posture, and this is a very individualistic thing. The pianist Glenn Gould had a very small chair made to meet his individual needs. He played sitting on this tiny chair whereas Arthur Rubinstein preferred sitting quite high up. So it’s fine to sit just as you want, but you have to be relaxed, and not tense.

But what does “good technique” actually mean and when do you have to start developing this?
I don’t actually introduce etudes in the first few lessons. Sometimes I include them after a whole year of piano tuition. The decisive factors here are the size and shape of the hands, the age of the students and the level of trust they have in my advice. Many students are hardly convinced by the necessity of developing good posture which also involves hand and fingers and it is only much later that they can see how necessary etudes are in mastering specific technical difficulties.

However a lot of adult beginners don’t want to practice etudes and especially those troublesome trills and embellishments.
Students don’t mind practising these exercises during the lesson and I use such exercises as “warm-ups” at the start of the lesson.

After perfecting and playing various etudes properly and from memory in C major, I make students transpose the etudes into other keys, generally depending on the keys of other pieces being learnt at the same time. If they are learning a piece in a minor key however, I make them play the etude in the relative major key.

Playing the exercises in minor keys would be too complicated, because the harmonic minor scale would have to be explained. The 7th note in the minor scale might sound very nice in their pieces but may not necessarily sound so good when used in an etude.

For more advice, see the preface of my book Finger Games.

Some effective teaching methods

Reading music – Fingering – Pulse - Rhythm

Those who want to be able to read music from the start should choose music albums which start the left hand specifically in the bass clef and not in the treble clef!
Sometimes keyboard-teaching-books offer no explanation on how to play the left hand. This often accounts for much disappointment amongst beginners who are generally anxious to play with both hands.

Most beginners have much difficulty in reading music! The problem affects adults as well as children, and has nothing to do with whether the student is highly intelligent or a slow learner. I remember one of my past students who had even skipped a school year, and yet could only read music after being taught for almost five years. So when note reading presents a huge challenge, then there is nothing wrong with writing in the letter names under the notes (a, b, c etc). The time will come when the student will finally get to know the notes without this aid.

One however should not learn to read music by following the fingering first! It is only rarely of use to write down the fingering under the notes where the fingers have been put anyway. Normally fingering provides a clue that the five finger position has been abandoned and that the fingers will be changing positions.
During my lessons I hardly use the metronome. Most students are under great pressure and start to play as if they are positioned on a starting-block ready to run a race and waiting for the starting signal. As long as the piece is not really well known I take special care to count the long notes and let the students strike the keys until they familiarize themselves with where the next note is.
Very often I let them count the shortest note lengths. It is generally easier to count the quaver pulses where there are crotchets and quavers in the same bar.

About my books

As most teachers know, books for beginners usually teach the note called middle C (c’) first. It is generally accepted that this is the easiest way to become acquainted with C as the centre of our tonal system. My Guide for Beginners at the Piano starts in the same way, but with one exception: students don’t have to share middle C with both thumbs. There is no evidence at all to suggest that sharing middle C with both thumbs is a helpful method or approach. On the contrary: I have never been able to justify the use of two fingers on the one key. This is especially difficult for adults, because of the relatively larger size of their thumbs. So in my books, I have the two thumbs sitting next to each other. The left thumb plays C, the right plays the D next to it. This position is especially suitable for the English Folksongs, because the right hand can very easily reach the “A” note, which makes it possible to play many more tunes with comfort.