a. Types of Teachers¶
Teaching piano is a difficult profession because practically everything you try to do contradicts something else that should be done. If you teach reading, the student may end up unable to memorize. If you teach slow, accurate play, the student may not acquire sufficient technique in any reasonable amount of time. If you push them too fast, they may forget all about relaxation. If you concentrate on technique, the student might lose track of musical playing. You need to devise a system that successfully navigates through all these types of contradictory requirements and still satisfies the individual wishes and needs of each student. There was no standard text book until this book was written, and starting teachers had to invent their own teaching systems with very little guidance. Teaching piano is a Herculean task that is not for the faint of heart.
Historically, teachers generally fell into at least three categories: teachers for beginners, intermediate students, and advanced students. The most successful approach involved a group of teachers composed of all three categories; the teachers were coordinated in such a way that their teachings were mutually compatible, and the appropriate students were passed on to the appropriate teachers. Without such coordination, many teachers of advanced students often refused to take students from certain teachers because the latter “do not teach the proper fundamentals”. This should not happen if the fundamentals are standardized. The last thing an advanced teacher wanted was a student who was initially taught all the “wrong” methods. Thus, standardization using a textbook, such as this one, will solve such problems.
b. Teaching Youngsters, Parental Involvement, Mental Play, Absolute Pitch¶
Children should be tested for their readiness to take piano lessons at ages between 2 and 8. The first lessons for beginners, especially children under 7 years old, should be brief, 10 to 15 minutes. Increase the lesson time only as their attention time span and stamina increase. If more time is necessary, divide the lesson into sessions with breaks in between (“cookie time”, etc.). The same rules apply to practice times at home. You can teach a lot in 10 min.; it is better to give 15 min. lessons every other day (3 days/wk) than to give hour long lessons every week. This principle applies at any age, although the lesson times and time between lessons will increase with age and skill level.
It is important for youngsters to listen to recordings. They can listen to, and play, Chopin at any age. They should also listen to recordings of their own playing; otherwise, they may not understand why you are criticizing their mistakes. Do not feed them music just because it is classical or it was written by Bach. Play what you and the youngsters enjoy.
Youngsters develop in spurts, both physically and mentally, and they can only learn what they are mature enough to learn. Therefore, part of the teaching must consist of a constant testing of their level of readiness: pitch, rhythm, absolute pitch, reading, finger control on the keyboard, attention span, interest in music, which instrument is best?, understanding musical concepts, communications ability, intelligence, etc. On the other hand, most youngsters are ready for many more things than most adults realize and once they are ready, the sky is the limit. Therefore, it is also a mistake to assume that all kids must be treated as kids all the time. They can be surprisingly advanced in many respects and treating them as kids only holds them back (for example, by letting them listen only to “kiddie music”) and deprives them of the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Kiddie music exists only in the minds of adults, and generally does more harm than good.
Brain development and physical development can proceed at very different rates. The brain is generally way ahead of the physical. Because of this physical lag, too many parents assume that the brain development is also slow. It is important to test the brain and support its development and not let the physical development slow brain development. This is especially important because the brain can accelerate physical development. Language, logic, and music, as well as visual stimuli, are most important for brain development.
For at least the first 2 years of lessons (longer for youngsters) teachers must insist that the parents participate in the teaching/learning process. The parents’ first job is to understand the methods that the teacher is teaching. Since so many practice methods and recital preparation procedures are counter-intuitive, the parents must be familiar with them so that they can not only help to guide the students, but also avoid negating the teacher’s instructions. Unless the parents participate in the lessons, they will fall behind after a few lessons and can actually become a hindrance to the child’s development. The parents must participate in deciding how long the students practice each day, since they are most familiar with all the time demands on the students. The parents also know the students’ ultimate objectives best – are the lessons for casual playing, or for advancing to much higher levels? What types of music do the students eventually want to play? Beginning students always need help at home in working out the optimum routine for daily practice as well as keeping track of weekly assignments. Once the lessons start, it is surprising how often the teachers need the parents’ help – where and how to buy sheet music, how often to tune the piano, or when to upgrade to a better piano, etc. The teachers and parents need to agree on how fast the students are expected to learn and to work towards attaining that learning rate. The parents need to be informed of the students’ strengths and weaknesses so as to be able to match their expectations and plans with what is or is not achievable. Most importantly, it is the parents’ job to evaluate the teacher and to make proper decisions on switching teachers at the appropriate time.
This book should serve as a textbook for both the student and the parents. This will save the teacher a lot of time and the teacher can then concentrate on demonstrating technique and teaching music. Parents need to read this book so that they do not interfere with the teacher’s teaching methods.
Students need a lot of help from their parents, and the kinds of help change with age. When young, the students need constant help with daily practice routines: are they practicing correctly and following the teacher’s instructions? It is most important at this stage to establish correct practice habits. The parents must make sure that during practice, the students make it a habit to play through mistakes instead of backtracking, which will create a stuttering habit and makes the student mistake-prone during performances. Most youngsters will not understand the teacher’s instructions given hurriedly during their lessons; the parents can more readily understand them. As the students advance, they need feedback on whether they are playing musically, whether their tempo and rhythm are accurate or if they need to use the metronome, and whether they should stop practicing and start listening to recordings.
Mental development is the main reason for letting youngsters listen to classics – the “Mozart Effect”. The reasoning goes something like this. Assume that the average parent has average intelligence; then there is a 50% chance that the child is smarter than the parents. That is, the parents cannot compete on the same intellectual level as their baby! So, how do parents teach music to babies whose musical brain can quickly develop to much higher levels than their parents’? By letting them listen to the great classics! Let them talk to, and learn directly, from Mozart, Chopin, etc. Music is a universal language; unlike the crazy adult languages that we speak, music is inborn, so babies can communicate in music long before they can say “dada”. Therefore, classical music can stimulate a baby’s brain long before the parents can communicate with the baby even on the most basic levels. And these communications are conducted at the levels of the genius composers, something few parents can hope to match!
How to teach your child: Here, we consider musical and brain development. Brain development is important long before birth. Thus the mother must strive for a stress-free environment and balanced diet, with no smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, etc. After birth, there is general agreement that breast feeding is best. A side benefit is that breast feeding is a form of birth control – while breast feeding, women usually do not get pregnant (up to 4 years!). Some women with small breasts fear that they will not produce enough milk, but this fear is unfounded. All women have the same number of mammary glands; the difference in breast size is caused only by the variation in the amount of fat stored in the breasts. The important factor in breast feeding is regular feeding, equally with both breasts – any interruption can stop milk production in that breast. Babies do best in a “normal” environment; the baby room does not need to be extra quiet while the baby is sleeping (this will create fussy sleepers that can’t get enough sleep if there is any noise); in fact there is some argument for maintaining some noise in the baby room in order to nurture stronger sleeping habits. Babies should be acclimated to normal temperature swings – no need to cover them with extra blankets or clothe them in more clothes than adults. Babies can use any amount of stimulation you can give them; the main ones are auditory, visual, taste, smell, touch-pressure, and touch-temperature. Thus carrying a baby around is very good for sensory stimulation to develop the brain; touch the baby everywhere and supply lots of visual and auditory stimuli. Feed foods with as many different smells and tastes as soon as possible. There are reports that the baby has more brain cells at birth than adults, though the brain volume is only one quarter of adult size. Stimulation causes some cells to grow and lack of stimuli causes others to atrophy and disappear.
For teaching babies, the most important step is constant testing to see what they are ready to learn. Not all babies will become pianists, although at this stage, they can be guided towards practically any talent, and parents are best equipped to mold their children into careers in which the parents have expertise. Babies can hear right after birth. Many hospitals routinely screen babies immediately after birth in order to identify hearing impaired babies who will need special treatments immediately. Because hearing impaired babies do not receive sound stimuli, their brain development will be retarded; this is another evidence that music helps brain development. For babies, the memory of external sounds in the brain is initially empty. Thus any sound heard at that stage is special, and all subsequent sounds are referenced to those initial sounds. In addition, babies (of most species, not only humans) use sound to identify and bond to the parents (usually the mother). Of all the sound characteristics that the baby uses for this identification, absolute pitch is probably a major characteristic. These considerations explain why almost every youngster can readily pick up absolute pitch (AP). Some parents expose babies to music before birth to accelerate the babies’ development, but I wonder if this will help AP, because the sound velocity in amniotic fluid is different from that in air with a resultant change in apparent frequency. Therefore, this practice might confuse the AP, if it works at all. For implanting AP, the electronic piano is better than an acoustic because it is always in tune.
Practically every world class musician, athlete, etc., had parents who taught them at an early age; thus “prodigies” are created, not born, and parents exert greater control over “prodigy” production than teachers or brain power. Test the child for hearing, rhythm (clapping hands), pitch (singing), motor control, attention span, what interests them, etc. As soon as they are ready (walking, speech, music, art, math, etc.), they must be taught. Teaching babies and adults is different. Adults must be taught; in young children, you only have to awaken the concept in their brains, and provide a supportive environment as their brains take off in that direction. They can quickly advance so far that you can’t teach them any more.
Good examples are Mental Play (MP) and AP. Awaken MP by letting them listen to
music and asking if they can sing it back to you. Let them get the idea that
there is music in their head, not only the music coming in through the ears.
Make sure that they listen to music in perfect tune, then teach them the scale
C, D, E, ..., not do re mi, which should come later), then test them
in the C4 octave. At this age, learning AP is automatic and almost
instantaneous; when you teach them
C4, they will recognize that no other
C4, because they have no other memory to confuse them. This is why
it is so critical to teach them as soon as they are ready. Then teach them the
higher and lower notes – the concept of relative pitch, such as octaves; then
2-note intervals (child has to identify both notes), then 3 note chords or any
3 random notes played simultaneously – all the way up to 10 notes, if
possible. These musical lessons can be taught between the ages of 2 and 8.
MP should be taught from the very beginning in order to train the students to play music in their minds all the time. If this is done at the correct pitch, youngsters will acquire AP after only a few lessons with little effort. Support their MP by providing lots of good music to listen to, and train them to recognize compositions by name and composer. Singing or a simple musical toy (in tune) is a good way to teach pitch, rhythm, and motor control. As soon as they start piano lessons, MP is further developed by memorizing and creating a memorized repertoire. Be prepared to support them if they immediately start composing – provide ways to record their music or teach them dictation.
Long before their first piano lesson, you can show them pictures of enlarged music notes (tadpoles!) and familiarize them with the music staff, where the notes go, and where to find them on the piano. This will simplify the teacher’s task of teaching them how to read music. If you are not a pianist, you can take piano lessons at the same time as your child; this is one of the best ways to get them started. This is a good time to identify those students who have little idea of pitch and to devise programs to help them. Advanced students automatically develop MP skills because MP is so necessary; however, if they are taught from the beginning, it will speed their learning rates for everything else. If MP is not taught, the students may not even realize that they are doing it, and not develop it properly. Moreover, because they are not aware of what they are doing, they will tend to neglect MP as they get older and their brains get bombarded with other pressing matters. As they neglect the MP, they will lose their AP and their ability to perform with ease. For older students and adults who want to learn MP and AP, see 12. Learning Relative Pitch and Absolute Pitch (Sight Singing, Composing) above.
Most importantly, remember that each child has strengths and weaknesses. It is the parents’ job to find the strengths and support them, and the strengths will not always point towards a pianist career. They must be tested in sports, literature, science, art, etc., because each child is an individual. Don’t be disappointed if the tests indicate that the child is not yet ready most of the time – that is normal. However, a basic piano education, following a knowledge based, project management type of method used in this book, will benefit children no matter what career they choose.
Parents must balance the physical and mental developments of their children. Because learning piano can be so fast, those olden days – when dedicated pianists had insufficient time for sports and other activities – are over. Techies and artists don’t have to turn into wimps. There is this disturbing tendency to classify each youngster as brainy or brawny, creating a wall or even antagonism between art and physical activity, science, etc. Actually, they all follow eerily similar principles. As an example, the rules for learning golf and piano are so similar that this book can be turned into a golf manual with just a few changes. The Greeks had it right a long time ago – mental and physical development must proceed in parallel – today, we can do even more because our knowledge base is much larger and our information infrastructure has exploded. If the parents do not provide proper guidance, some youngsters will devote all their time in one direction, neglecting everything else, developing psychological problems, and wasting precious time. Health and injury is another issue. Those music players with earphones can damage the ears so that you begin to lose hearing and suffer maddening tinnitus before age 40. Parents must educate their children to turn the volume down on those earphones, especially if they are listening to genres of music that are often played extremely loud.
c. Memorizing, Reading, Theory¶
The teacher must choose, at an early stage, whether the student should be taught to play from memory or learn to read music. This choice is necessitated by the fact that the details of the teaching program and how the teacher interacts with the students depend on it. The Suzuki violin method emphasizes playing from memory at the expense of reading, especially for youngsters, and this is the best approach for piano also. It is easier to practice reading after you can play reasonably well, just as babies learn to speak before they learn to read. The abilities to speak and to make music are natural evolutionary traits that we all have; reading is something that was added later as a consequence of our civilization. Learning to speak is simply a process of memorizing all the sounds and logical constructs of each language. Therefore, reading is more “advanced” and less “natural”, and therefore cannot logically precede memory. For example, there are many musical concepts in memory (from listening to recordings) that can never be written down, such as color, playing with authority and confidence, etc. This is why memory must be taught from the very beginning.
However, reading should not be totally neglected in the beginning. It is only a matter of priority. Since music notation is simpler than any alphabet, young children can learn to read music long before they can learn to read books. Thus reading should be taught from the very beginning, but only enough to read music for learning a piece and memorizing it. Reading should be encouraged as long as it does not interfere with playing from memory and there should be no pressure to develop advanced reading skills. This means that, once a piece is memorized, the music score should not be used for daily practice. However, the teacher must make sure that this lack of emphasis on reading does not result in a poor reader who automatically memorizes everything and can’t read. There is a tendency in most beginners to become either good readers (and poor memorizers) or vice versa, because when you become good at one, you need less of the other. By monitoring the student carefully, a parent or teacher can prevent the student from becoming a poor reader or a poor memorizer. Parental help is often necessary for this monitoring to succeed because the teacher is not always there when the student is practicing. In fact, many parents unwittingly create poor memorizers or poor readers by helping their children out instead of letting them practice their weaker skills. Because becoming a poor reader or memorizer happens over a long period of time, usually many years, there is ample time to detect the trend and correct it. Just like talent, prodigy, or genius, readers and memorizers are not born, they are created.
Reading music is an indispensable teaching tool for teachers; the teacher’s job
can be made easier if the student can be taught to read. Teachers who emphasize
reading are certainly justified because of the enormous amount of information
that is contained in even the simplest printed music, and practically every
beginning student will miss a large fraction of that information. Even advanced
pianists often return to the music score to make sure that they haven’t missed
anything. Clearly, the best program is one based on memory, but with enough
reading training so that the student does not become a poor reader. Especially
for beginners, it does not pay to embark upon an intensive reading program just
to be able to read (because the fingers can’t play them anyway), although the
initial slow reading speed can be awfully frustrating to both teacher and
student. It is actually beneficial to allow the student to struggle through
this slow reading stage.
A major learning trick in piano pedagogy is to learn
several skills simultaneously, especially because many of them take a long time
to learn. Thus memorizing, reading, theory, etc., can all be learned
simultaneously, saving you a lot of time in the long run. Trying to learn one
of these skills quickly at the expense of the others often leads to learning
You can never teach too much music theory (solfege): notation, dictation, absolute pitch, rhythm, etc. Learning music theory helps the students to acquire technique, memorize, understand the structure of the composition, and perform it correctly. It will also help with improvisation and composition. Statistically, the majority of successful piano students will end up composing music. The only problem with solfege lessons is that many teachers teach it inefficiently, wasting a lot of the students’ time. Modern music (pop, jazz, etc.) nowadays uses very advanced musical concepts and music theory is helpful for understanding chord progressions, music structure and improvisation. Therefore, there are advantages to learning both classical and modern music. Modern music provides contemporary theory and helps develop rhythm and performance skills, and also appeals to a wider audience.
d. Some Elements of Piano Lessons and Performance Skills¶
The piano lesson should not be a routine in which the student plays the lesson piece and the teacher assigns a new piece. It is the teacher’s job, when starting a new piece, to go through it in segments, examining the fingerings, analyzing the music, and basically bringing the student up to speed during the lesson, at least HS or in segments. After the technical problems are solved, the job shifts into playing it musically – examining the musical content, bringing out the expression, the attributes of the composer (Mozart is different from Chopin, etc.), the color, etc. A good teacher can save the students a tremendous amount of time by demonstrating all the necessary elements of technique. It should not be left to the student to try to find these out by trial and error. Because of these requirements, lessons beyond beginner level can become quite intense and time consuming. Scales should be taught thumb-under for beginners but, within a year, they should be taught thumb-over also. Although most exercises such as Hanon are now considered unhelpful, it is very important to be able to play scales and arpeggios (in all transpositions) well; this will require many years of hard work.
Practicing 30 minutes every 2 or 3 days is the absolute minimum necessary to make any progress. Half an hour every day is adequate for significant progress for youngsters. As they get older, they will need progressively more time. These are minimum practice times; more time will be needed for faster progress. If the practice methods are efficient and the students are making good progress, the question of how much practice time is enough becomes meaningless – there is so much music and enjoyment that there is never enough time.
The best way to motivate students to practice, and the best way to teach the art of making music, is to hold recitals. When the students must perform, all the teacher’s instructions, the necessary practice time, etc., take on an entirely new meaning and urgency. The students will become self-motivated. It is a mistake to teach piano without any program of performance. There are numerous possibilities for such programs and experienced teachers will be able to design an appropriate one for each student at every level. Formal recitals and music competitions are full of pitfalls and must be approached with care and a lot of planning. However, teachers can organize informal recitals using much less stressful formats, with tremendous benefits to the students.
Although recitals and competitions are important, it is even more important to avoid their pitfalls. The main pitfall is that recitals can be self-defeating because the stress, nervousness, extra effort and time, and sense of failure after even small mistakes, can do more harm than good in molding the performance capability/psychology of the student at any age. Therefore teachers must have a clearly defined program or approach to teaching the art of performing in addition to the art of playing. The preparatory methods for recitals discussed in section 14 above should be part of this program. Popular, or “fun” music is especially useful for performance training. Above all, the program must be designed to produce a rewarding atmosphere of accomplishment and not a competitive one where anything short of miraculous perfection, playing the most difficult pieces the student can manage, is a failure. In competitions, students must be taught early on that judging is frequently imperfect or unfair; that it is not the winning, but the participatory process, that is most important for its pedagogical value. Given the same piece of music to play, a relaxed and less nervous student will perform better, and develop a better attitude towards performing. Students must understand that it is the process, not the winning, that is the final objective of having competitions. One of the most important components of this objective is to cultivate the ability to enjoy the experience instead of becoming nervous. One of the worst pitfalls of most competitions is the emphasis on the most difficult material that the student can play. The correct emphasis should be on the music, not the acrobatics.
Of course we must aim to win competitions and play flawless recitals. But there are stressful and less stressful approaches to these objectives. It is the teacher’s job to teach stress control. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers today totally ignore performance stress control or worse, parents and teachers frequently pretend that there is no such thing as nervousness even when they themselves are nervous. This can have the effect of creating a permanent problem with nervousness. See section 15 above for discussions on controlling nervousness.
It is important to first teach a student all about nervousness and stress and not to shove them out on a stage to perform with no preparation in the vain hope that they will somehow learn to perform on their own. Such action is quite analogous to throwing a person into the middle of a deep lake to teach them how to swim; that person can end up with a lifelong fear of water. Playing for the teacher at every lesson is a good start, but is woefully insufficient preparation. Thus the teacher should design a “performance training” routine in which the student is gradually introduced to performances. This training must start with the first piano lessons. Various skills, such as recovering from blackouts, preventing blackouts, covering mistakes, sensing mistakes before they occur, snippet playing, starting from arbitrary places in a piece, choice of pieces to perform, audience communication, etc., should be taught. Above all, they must learn mental play. We saw that HS practice, slow play, and “playing cold” are the important components of preparation. Most students will not know which “finished” pieces they can perform satisfactorily until they actually play them in recitals several times; therefore, even among finished pieces, every student will have a “performable” and a “questionable” repertoire. One of the best ways to train for performances is to record the student’s finished pieces and produce an album of finished repertoire that is periodically updated as the student advances. This should be done from the very beginning of lessons so as to cultivate the skill as early as possible. The first mistake most pianists make is to think that “I am still a beginner, so my playing is not worth recording”. Once you buy that argument in the beginning, you will end up following it the rest of your life because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. That argument is false because music is supreme – easy compositions, played musically, is as good as it gets; Horowitz cannot play “chopsticks” any better than a well-taught beginner.
Without performance training, even good performers will not perform to their best ability, and the majority of students will end up thinking that piano performance as a kind of hell that is associated with music or piano. Once that attitude is ingrained in youth, they will carry it into adulthood. The truth should be the exact opposite. Performance should be the final goal, the final reward for all the hard work. It is the demonstration of the ability to sway an audience, the ability to convey the grandest designs of the greatest musical geniuses that every lived. Secure mental play is the single most effective method for reducing stage fright.
One way to introduce students to performing at recitals is to hold mock recitals among the students themselves and to have them discuss their fears, difficulties, weaknesses, and strengths to get them all acquainted with the main issues. How do you play mentally? Do you do it all the time? Do you use photographic memory or keyboard memory, or mostly music memory? Does it happen automatically or do you do it at certain times? Students will understand the issues better when they can actually feel them and then discuss them openly with their peers. Any nervousness they might feel becomes less scary when they realize that everyone experiences the same things, that nervousness is perfectly natural, and that there are various ways to combat them or even take advantage of them. In particular, once they go through the entire process from start to finish of a mock recital, the whole procedure becomes much less mysterious and frightening. Students must be taught that learning to enjoy performing is part of the art of piano. That “art of performing” also requires study and practice, just like finger technique. In a group of students, there is always one that is good at performing. The others can learn by watching and discussing how these good ones cope with each issue. Then there are students who just freeze on a stage – these need special help, such as learning very simple pieces to perform, or given several chances to perform in one recital, or perform with a group or in duets.
Another way to introduce students to performances and at the same time have some fun is to schedule an informal recital in which the students play a game of “who can play fastest”. In this game, every student plays the same piece, but the amount of practice time is limited, say, to three weeks. Note that in this ruse, the hidden agenda is to teach the students how to enjoy giving recitals, not to teach them how to play fast. The students themselves vote for the winner. At first, the teacher gives no instructions; students must choose their own practice methods. After the first recital, the teacher holds a group lesson in which the students discuss their practice methods and the teacher adds any useful information. Of course, clarity, accuracy, and music must be considered in choosing a winner. Music can be made to sound faster by playing more slowly but more accurately. There will be wide differences in the practice methods and achievements of the various students and, in this way, they will learn from each other and will understand the basic teachings better. While the students are participating in a “contest”, it is the teacher’s job to ensure that it is a fun experience, a way to experience the joy of performing, a way to completely forget about nervousness. Mistakes evoke laughter, they are not to be frowned upon. And refreshments might be served afterwards. The teacher must not forget to intersperse instructions for learning to perform, together with the “contest” skills.
Once the students are taught the basics of performance, how should recitals be organized? They should be designed to strengthen performance capability. One of the hardest things to do is to perform the same composition several times on the same day or on successive days. Therefore, such repeat performances provide the best training for strengthening the performance capability. For teachers or schools with a sufficient number of students, the following is a good scheme to use. Group the students into beginner, intermediate, and advanced. On Friday, hold a recital of the beginners, with their parents and friends as audience. Beginners should participate in recitals from their first year of lessons, as early as 4 or 5 years of age. At the end of this recital, the advanced students also play, which makes it really worthwhile for the audience to attend. On Saturday, the intermediate students play, with their parents and friends as audience; again, the advanced students play at the end. On Sunday, the advanced students hold their recital, with their parents/friends as the audience; some special guests might be invited. In this way, the advanced students get to perform the same piece three days in a row. The Sunday recital of the advanced students should be recorded and copied onto CD’s, as they make excellent souvenirs. If this type of recital is held twice a year, each advanced student will have six recitals under their belt every year. If these students are also entered into competitions (typically involving an audition, a final, and, if they win, a winner’s concert), they will have adequate performance training (at least 9 performances a year). Since most pieces are not “secure” until they are performed 3 times, this recital scheme will also serve to make the recital piece “secure” so that it can now be included in the “performable” repertoire, after just one weekend of recitals.
Teachers should be willing to communicate with other teachers, exchange ideas, and learn from each other. There is nothing as potentially damaging to a student as a teacher whose teaching methods are inflexible and frozen in time. In this information age, there is no such thing as secret methods of teaching piano, and the success of the teacher depends on open communications. An important topic of communication is the exchange of students. Most students can benefit greatly by having been taught by more than one teacher. Teachers of beginners should pass their students to higher level teachers as soon as they are ready. Of course, most teachers will try to keep their best students and to teach as many students as they can. One way to solve this problem is for teachers to form groups consisting of teachers with different specialties so that the group forms a complete school. This also helps the teachers because it will make it much easier for them to find students. For students looking for good teachers, it is clear from these considerations that it is best to look for groups of teachers rather than teachers who operate individually. Teachers can also benefit by banding together and sharing students and costs of facilities.
Starting teachers often have difficulty finding their first students. Joining a group of teachers is a good way to get started. Also many established teachers often have to turn away students because of a lack of time, especially if the teacher has a good reputation in that local area. Those teachers are good sources of students. One way to increase the pool of potential students is to offer to go to the students’ homes to teach. For at least the first few years when a new teacher starts to teach, this might be a good approach for increasing the potential student pool.
e. Why the Greatest Pianists Could Not Teach¶
Very few of the greatest pianists were good teachers. This is eminently natural because artists train all their lives to be artists, not teachers. I experienced an analogous situation as a graduate physics student at Cornell University where I took courses taught by professors who specialized in teaching, and where I also attended weekly lectures by famous physicists including Nobel Prize winners. Some of those renowned physicists could certainly present exciting lectures that attracted great interest, but I learned most of the skills needed to find a job as a physicist from the teaching professors, not the Nobel laureates. This difference in teaching ability between teaching and practicing scientists pales in comparison with the chasm that exists in the arts world because of the nature of the scientific discipline (see 2. Scientific Approach to Piano Practice). Learning and teaching are an integral part of being a scientist. By contrast, the greatest pianists were either reluctantly, or by economic necessity, pushed into teaching for which they received no meaningful training. Thus there are plenty of reasons why the great performers were not good teachers.
Unfortunately, we have historically looked to the famous artists for guidance, under the rationale that if they can do it, they should be able to show us how. Typical historical accounts reveal that, if you were to ask a famous pianist how to play a certain passage, s/he will sit at the piano and play it out because the language of the pianist is spoken by the hands and the piano, not the mouth. That same great artist may have little idea about how the fingers are moving or how they are manipulating the piano keys. In order to move the hands in the proper way, you must learn to control thousands of muscles and nerves, and then train the hands to execute those motions. There are two extremes among the ways to acquire technique. One extreme is the analytical one, in which every motion, every muscle and every physiological information is analyzed. The other extreme is the artist’s approach, in which the person simply imagines a certain musical output and the body responds in different ways until the desired result is obtained. This artist’s approach can not only be a quick shortcut, but can also yield unexpected results that may exceed the original idea. It also has the advantage that a “genius” without analytical training can be successful. The disadvantage is that there is no assurance of success. Technique acquired in this way cannot be taught analytically, except by saying that “you must feel the music this way” in order to play it. Unfortunately, for those who do not know how to do it yet, this kind of instruction is of little help, except as a demonstration that it can be done. Also, even knowing the practice methods isn’t enough. You need the correct explanation of why they work. This requirement is often outside the expertise of the artist or piano teacher. Thus there is a fundamental impediment to proper development of piano teaching tools: artists and piano teachers do not have the training to develop such tools; on the other hand, scientists and engineers who may have such training have insufficient piano experience to research piano methods.
The old masters were geniuses, of course, and had some remarkable insights and inventiveness as well as intuitive feel of mathematics and physics which they applied to their piano playing. Therefore, it is incorrect to conclude that they had no analytical approaches to technique; practically every analytical solution to piano practice that we know of today was re-invented many times by these geniuses or at least used by them. It is therefore unbelievable that no one ever thought of documenting these ideas in a systematic way. It is even more amazing that there does not seem to have been even a general realization by both teachers and students that practice methods were the key to acquiring technique. A few good teachers have always known that talent is more created than born (Olson). The main difficulty seems to have been the inability of the artist approach to identify the correct theoretical basis (explanation) for why these practice methods work. Without a sound theoretical explanation or basis, even a correct method can be misused, misunderstood, changed, or degraded by different teachers so that it may not always work and be viewed as unreliable or useless. These historical facts prevented any orderly development of piano teaching methods. Thus the understanding, or the explanation of why a method works, is at least as important as the method itself. This situation was aggravated by emphasis on “talent” as the road to success. This was a convenient ruse for successful pianists who got more credit than they deserved and at the same time were freed from the responsibility for their inability to teach the “less talented”. And, of course, the “talent” label contributed to their economic success.
In addition, piano teachers tended to be poor communicators in the sense that they tended not to share teaching ideas. Only at large conservatories was there any significant mixing of ideas so that the quality of teaching at conservatories was better than elsewhere. However, the problems of the preceding paragraph prevented any truly systematic developments of teaching methods even at these organizations. An additional factor was the stratification of piano learning into beginners and advanced students. Conservatories generally accepted only advanced students; yet, without conservatory type teaching, few students attained the advanced levels necessary to be accepted. This gave piano learning a reputation as something far more difficult than it really was. The bottleneck created by a lack of good teaching methods was historically attributed to lack of “talent”. When all these historical facts are assembled, it is easy to understand why the great masters could not teach, and why even dedicated piano teachers did not have all the tools they needed.
Although I started writing this book as just a compilation of some remarkably effective teaching tools, it has evolved into a project that solves many of the historical deficiencies responsible for the difficulties of acquiring technique. Fate has suddenly turned the future of piano into a wide, open future with limitless possibilities. We are entering a brave, new, exciting era that can finally be enjoyed by everyone because we are unlocking the secrets of how to be a “genius”. Example: Mozart was fabled to have the ability to speak sentences backwards. If you have any MP skills, that is easy. Simply write “kiss me” in your mind and read it backwards! Practice with two- word sentences, then longer ones. You will quickly discover that you don’t need to be a genius to do what he did, and you can demonstrate to your friends that you are as good as Mozart.