Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Opening eyes and ears (Hannah)

Firstly, apologies for not updating sooner. Secondly, apologies to any non-pianists reading, as this entry covers the more technical side of things! Life here has been as busy as ever, in between moving to a different flat, getting lost in taxis, practicing for a concert and keeping up with the teaching routine!

Now that I have been here a month I feel that I am really beginning to address some of the main issues I have been faced with when teaching the students. I am very fortunate in that both the teachers and students at my school in Gurgaon have been receptive to the many new ideas I have been introducing. They have been willing to cooperate with a different style of teaching, and I have been told that the way I am teaching is completely different to their usual lessons. I was both touched and encouraged when one teacher told me that I am able to ´make the music come alive´.

This really points to the heart of the issue and the problems faced by many students I have taught. There is so much to discuss that I will attempt to split the various topics into sections as far as possible.

´Making music´ vs ´Typewriting´

One teacher drew a particularly helpful parallel to illustrate the way students in the school are taught. She explained that students here are taught the ´grammar´ of the music, i.e. the correct notes, fingering and rhythms, and all the information that can be found on a printed score. However, as with speech, it is not enough to be able to speak grammatically correctly, as without the correct emphasis and phrasing, the words will sound flat and meaningless. It is this meaning which is lost in the music, when played by students who are able to play the correct notes in the correct order, but without any consideration for the shape of phrase or the emphasis of the harmony.

Even taking a simple example such as Fur Elise, which I worked on with a student in the very first week, I showed her just how dramatic the music was, with the many sudden and unexpected changes of harmony that are characteristic of Beethoven. She simply had not yet had her ears opened to many expressive possibilities of the music, as I tried to demonstrate with a harmonic reduction to illustrate the changes of harmony and uses of dissonance and resolution. Three weeks later, and her playing of the piece was already starting to transform, with the left hand much more elegantly shaped as I had shown her. Most of the students play all notes with equal volume regardless of the musical texture, and this can lead to some very confused and cluttered performances, as there is little understanding of the hierarchy of parts and beats within any given bar.

Sightreading and keyboard geography

This is almost a universal weakness (as seen so often with students in the UK too), but perhaps even more so here, where most of students learn their pieces from memory before performing it, and when they do play they almost never look at the score. This unfamiliarity with aspects of the score creates an added problem, where the students are unable to pick up the piece from any given bar when requested, as they struggle to recognise the music from the page and can only play in a memorised sequence from beginning to end. This also hinders effective practice strategies, where it is both effective and necessary in longer works to divide the music into smaller sections to be worked on separately.

The necessity of looking at one´s hands while playing was highlighted to me when I was given a Grade 5 book to sightread by one of the teachers. After I had finished doing so, she asked in amazement how I was able to do so without looking down at my hands. I explained that it was necessary to ´feel´ the notes under one´s fingers, as there isn´t time to glance down to check each note whilst maintaining the continuity of the music.

The more I thought about this, the more I realised that the lack of keyboard ´geography´ (i.e., an instinctive sense of where each note lies on the keyboard and the distance between notes) was a large part of the issue, after working on some sightreading with a student who looked down to find each note, thus preventing him from ever achieving fluency in his reading. The other important principle in sightreading is of course to be always reading ahead in the music, but this cannot be tackled before the student is able to play without looking at their hands, otherwise they will never be able to read ahead and keep their eyes on the music.

I attempted to tackle these problems in two ways, first with the student who kept looking at his hands, I covered his hands with a book so that he was not able to look at them and therefore had to keep his eyes on the music. This led to an improvement in fluency as he was able to find more notes using his spatial memory than he had trusted himself with previously! Similarly, to encourage reading ahead, I covered up each bar once it had been played to prevent students from making the common mistake of ´correcting´ their sightreading, when rhythmic continuity is of greater importance. I also encourage my students to practice passages with their eyes closed, as this will increase awareness of keyboard geography as well as making it more secure, since they are no longer reliant on their sight but can play by touch alone.


Another issue that I find myself frequently addressing is the importance of good fingering. All too often, a lack of fluency or quality of sound is the result of ineffective or worse still, unplanned fingering. Either students do not follow the printed fingering, or they follow the fingering without realising the implications it has for the movement and shape of the hand while playing. This is especially true in scale-playing, where it is essential that the correct fingering is learnt to prevent ´running out of fingers´ at the top, or a horribly awkward improvised fingering that destroys the legato line and rhythmic continuity. I tried to overcome this problem by asking students to play their scales slowly while saying the finger numbers at the same time, a form of multitasking that requires utmost concentration and awareness of which fingers are being used, so that the patterns can be learnt more thoroughly.

Just as important is the issue of the possibility for tone production inherent in each finger. While playing pieces for example, I was met with many students playing important notes with the weaker 4th and 5th fingers when it was both desirable and more convenient to use a stronger finger with a greater capacity to ´sing´. I have frequently found myself pointing out to students that as pianists we are all working to overcome the natural imbalances of strength in the fingers, and encourage them to avoid heavy thumbs whilst trying to weight towards the tops of chords and develop finger independence in order to achieve this balance. I was especially surprised to find an adult student who was unaware that it was not just her who struggled with a weakness in her 5th finger, but that in fact we are all born the same way! These differences were not made so apparent by the light keys of a Clavinova, but I am sure that when faced with a grand piano many of the students would have struggled to produce a sufficient sound using this fingering.


Although few of my students have begun to use the sustain pedal, the ones that do have little idea of how to use it effectively. First of all, some of them raise their heel off the ground so that the foot is suspended in mid-air when it should be resting on the floor, so that the heel can act as a pivot. Additionally, some lift their foot off completely when releasing the pedal so that it makes an unwanted sound upon returning to make contact with the pedal.

Most students do not seem to understand the concept of legato pedalling, and they release the pedal too early so that they are unable to connect the notes. Another problem is over-reliance on pedal, so that finger-legato is not utilised, leading to a disconnected line that makes little musical sense. In fact most students at a more advanced level play in a ´vertical´ fashion from one chord to the next, with little consideration for the musical line of a piece.

Posture and the implications for sound production

Aside from the proven health benefits of adopting a balanced posture whilst sitting, there are many musical implications for the position of the body when sitting at the piano. Far too many of the students sit too close to the piano, which does not allow their arms the freedom to move. Some sit too far away, while others perch precariously on the edge of the stool, not letting their full weight be supported by the stool. This problem is compounded by the fact that none of the stools are adjustable. Since many of the students are very young, I often find that the stools are too low, forcing them to reach up to the notes which means that their wrists hang down and they are unable to use their fingers without ´dropping´ the wrist with each note, creating a heavy and unpleasant sound, since it is the full weight of the forearm which is coming down with each note. I have tried to counteract this by encouraging students to move from the fingers alone using a variety of finger lifting exercises, however, this can never be satisfactorily realised without a correct posture in the first place. I find there is little awareness of the ´correct´ way to sit at the piano or any consideration of its importance, besides for purely aesthetic reasons!

Posture also has a direct impact on fingering as mentioned above, as students sitting too low or too far away play on the very edge of the keys and are reluctant to use the thumb whilst playing, as they let it hang redundantly away from the keyboard and are unprepared to play when they need to use it.

Similarly, for some of the older students the stools are too high and they struggle to make contact with the keys. Coming from a greater height, they put too much arm weight into the note and find it difficult to control the sound from this level, including playing deeper into the keys.

Historical and general awareness

While I recognise that students in the early stages of learning will not have a broad knowledge of musical history, the lack of stylistic awareness does become a problem later on. This is especially true when playing Baroque and Classical music, which is often played too heavily, or Romanticised, and with particular difficulty when interpreting ornaments. There seems to be some confusion on the correct interpretation of different kinds of ornament and their placing (whether before or after the beat).

This narrow range of experience only became apparent to me in a listening class where the students had not heard the sound of a cello before, or could not name a wind instrument. I believe that through exposure to a wider range of classical music, the students will have a greater idea of the variety of sounds that are possible and be encouraged to seek this in their own playing, such is the capacity of the piano to imitate other instruments which has been exploited by many composers. As more students become aware of other instruments they will be encouraged to learn to play them and so facilitate ensemble performance, which is currently sadly neglected. This can be a fun and sociable way to learn music, which has the added benefit of improving sightreading and listening skills, as it is necessary to listen to other members of the group.

Sound and imagination

One thing I have recently been encouraging students to do is to concentrate on listening intently to the quality of sound they produce. This is something that seems not to have been taught before, as quality of sound is distinct from the volume or articulation of the notes. For example, the speed at which the key is depressed as well as the part of the finger used or type of finger used can all affect the sound. Additionally, the type of pedalling used, whether una corda, half-pedal or flutter-pedal can also have a dramatic impact on the sound and open up a wider sound-palette.

Just as a sound cannot be produced before it is imagined, it is sometimes helpful to have a mental picture when approaching a piece in order to achieve a more vivid idea of its character. For example, one student played a piece about a circus in a rather uniform manner. I then asked her to play it like various characters from a circus, and she proceeded to play the piece in a number of contrasting ways, each more interesting than her original ´blank´ interpretation. This was also a useful means of demonstrating that there is not only one way to play a piece, but in fact several different interpretations may be desirable in order to keep the musical imagination alive and avoid staleness, as advocated by Chopin to his pupils.

Above all, the key point here is to encourage more sensitive listening skills. A particularly productive lesson was one where the student worked slowly on 8 bars of Bach, but listened intently to the sound of each note. The outcome after 20 minutes of careful, slow practice was a much greater quality of sound than his original performance, where he moved his fingers but did not listen to the sound he was producing. The more students listen to and evaluate their own playing, the faster they will be able to progress by themselves. Most of the students seem to use their teachers instead of their ears, and act only on the teacher´s instruction. It is up to teachers to encourage students to develop an ability to work independently, and to evaluate their own playing based on a sound they are able to imagine in their heads.

General impressions

As it has previously been commented upon, the students here are much more obedient and concentrated than their UK counterparts. I am impressed by their dedication, with many students coming for lessons twice or even three times in a week. This means that they have the potential to go far with the right instruction, as long as they develop alongside it an ability to question, and a curiosity that will enable them to discover things for themselves. For example, I had one student who frequently looked to me as his teacher for confirmation of approval. He could not tell for himself whether he had played the passage correctly/well, and without this ability to self-criticise he will not be able to progress as efficiently.

It is perhaps because of, rather than in spite of these challenges that the teaching has been so fun and rewarding. I am thrilled by the positive reception I have been getting, and am pleased to be able to make a difference in their musical education, however small. I am interested to know if any of these points reflect anyone else´s experiences? It would be great to hear from you.


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