Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Practice makes EASY!

Hello again,

Once again profuse apologies for not blogging sooner. The electricity in Thevara is very unreliable at the moment and both computers available to us have BOTH experienced hard drive failures again! Anyway, I have managed to get some free time and I am 3 storeys up in a little cafe overlooking MG Road. (For those of you not in India, MG Road stands for Mahatma Ghandi Road. It is the name given to the main road in every large town in India)

Hannah's Blog

I must congratulate Hannah on writing an absolutely superb blog!!! Every single aspect you have talked about is evident in the students in Cochin also. I do not wish to repeat what has already been said as I probably couldn't put it as well as you so I will simply talk of my experiences with some of the students.

With our concert looming up on the 14th of August things are getting VERY hectic. Kids are returning daily for practice advice, tellings off and general questions. Our school runs on a sort of teacher-rotation scheme, so we have had to develop a slightly different approach to teaching.

The notes are generally learnt with principal piano tutor Anthony (the nicest man you will ever meet in your life). He is a very good teacher with a certain amount of stylistic awareness so the notes are not just learnt, they do have some sort of shape. However, the piece is usually lacking in any dynamics / expression / articulation etc. Normally, this is where Simi (principal of the school) would step in and teach them, by singing, how to bring out melody etc. but here lies a problem. The kids know the notes and they know that they want to biring out the melody as Simi SCREAMS it into their ears BUT . . . they just don't know how to do that. This is where Olivia and I have stepped in the most.

After they have a very basic grasp of the notes Olivia takes the students and makes sure they learn the entire piece, but not ignoring the dynamics or articulation. This is an important stage which was previously missed out. Learning a new piece of music should never be just note-bashing. The kids find it far more enjoyable to learn a piece when with dynamics, a sense of shape ete. After all, it's music NOT typewriting.

After they are fairly confident with te piece they are sent to me. For the first few weeks I concentrated heavily on scales, arpeggios etc. This was because EVERY student had very weak scale technique and little or NO knowledge of how to use their hands to their full potential. I used numerous daring, and hopefully innovative techniques in order for them to realise this.


Most students found the concept of weight difficult. Believe it or not, I first had to make them laugh. Experience has taught me, that they find it very difficult to really tell me what they feel if I am a 'Sir' so having a little fool around brings me down a level and they are not afraid too smile. Hooray! A smile! Having said that, due to some pupils being very uptight my techniques have become very animated and I feel some of the pupils look at me while thinking "There's the crazy guy from England who shouts and screams and makles me hit pianos and actually likes the sound etc. etc." Whatever, they now feel comfortable enough to try totally new approaches

OK, back to the point. By making them lean on the piano, use visualisation techniques, give cute names (for the younger kids) like 'Tigers paw' most of them now realise that using your body weight is much easier than stabbing at notes. Once they have grasped this I can then move onto staccato technuiques, effective thumb-under techniques, arpeggio playing etc. LIke myself, most of them hate scales and arpeggios so . . . I have taught them how to makle up their own games using rhythm, volume, tone, the WHOLE piano to make them more interesting while still getting the benefit of scale playing. It works! But still some students are scared of this as they feel they will get tld off by their other teachers for messing around. I have told Simi and Anthony about this and I have called it 'Effective Scale Practice while exploring your sound world'. This sounds very pianistic and Simi likes it. Awesome!

This may sound like am over-complicating scales but once they have this idea of weight, everything else, albeit with a little guidance, starts to fall into place. I tell them it's called 'playing the piano' NOT 'working the piano' or 'studying the piano'. The idea is to make it as EASY as possible. Practice makes easy! I show them numerous examples of myself concentrating INTENTLY and really playing HARD and another example of the same piece but with the easiest movements possible concentrating totally on my sound. The latter is always far more enjoyable to listen to AND watch! Hopefully this is hitting home.

I'll stop there for teachniques! Back to my original train of thought. After they have a new set of established ways of playing and thinking about piano music I can then show them how to apply these techniques to create different legatos, staccatos, crescendos and rallentandos.

Here was the missing link! They knew the notes and they knew what they needed to do with them they just didn't know how. Hopefully the HOURS of practice they put in will now be far more effective and rewarding! The results are promising already but it is still early days!


As I have said previously, Hannah has really addressed a lot of the same issues I was set to write about but there is one aspect I have found to be very common in Kerala and in the UK too for that matter. The subject of practice. They just don't know how to do it!

Most of them will zip all the way through a piece and 'hope for the best' when they get to tricky parts. I do believe they have never been told about 'isolated practice'. Olivia and I have taken to drawing huge circles around certain points and only allowing them to play these sections, we've been tempted to rip out bars and just let the pupils take them home!!!! Drastic, but it really affects there playing. Some of the pieces are 90% beautiful with maybe just 2 bars that always go wrong. I am very glad to say, that a lot of the students are isolating their practice so hopefully this way of practicing will be carried on by them and the teachers after we leave.


A breakdown of work done with Mithali 'the schools top student'. . .

The innocence of Indian 18 yr olds . . .

. . . and wearing the Doti (the truth)

Until next time,

Peace and Love from India (yes I know . . . Cheesy)

Neil x

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