Piano Lesson Format 3: Current Piece

After scales, the next part of my lesson is taken up with the pupil’s most recently-learned piece – his ‘work in progress’. This will generally have been acquired in stages – depending on the difficulty of the piece.

I will ask him to perform the part he has learned and, generally, allow him to play it through without comment or interruption the first time – only commenting if he gets totally ‘stuck’ (or occasionally if a phrase which he is playing incorrectly occurs several times, in which case there seems little point in letting him repeat the mistake). When he has finished playing I will start by praising his efforts (unless I am fairly confident that no effort has been made!) and then point out areas which I feel could be improved.

When a learner plays a piece he is working on, he can often be disappointed with his performance. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard: “You won’t believe this, I played it perfectly at home!” My answer is always the same: “Don’t worry, I do believe you: the same thing used to happen to me!” And that’s the truth; every time I went to my piano lesson, scales and pieces I thought I’d mastered to perfection at home suddenly started falling apart.

There are various reasons for this including a different piano (the effect of this should never be underestimated and I still feel that pianists are at a disadvantage in examinations where they play on the piano provided at the centre rather than their own instrument), different surroundings and the added pressure of having someone sitting next to you and listening critically.

Reassure the Pupil

Unfortunately, there is no ideal solution to this – other than attempting to reassure the pupil and give him a second chance to prove himself (often on the second playing there will be a marked difference as the pupil has become more acclimatised to the ‘new’ environment).

Then I’ll ask him to play the same section (or whole piece) again but this time I’ll correct him. Sometimes – again – to avoid interrupting the flow – if he plays a wrong note (especially when it’s due to misplacing the finger rather than reading the music incorrectly), I’ll point to the correct note on the piano with my pen, so he can quickly change it and carry on. If the mistakes are due to misreading the music or failing to understand the rhythm, I’ll stop him, tell him what’s wrong and advise on correcting it. (I would generally warn him in advance that I plan to do this as unforeseen interruptions can be very annoying to a pianist who is trying hard to concentrate). I usually only work on correcting one thing at a time as most learners would feel overwhelmed by having too much to think about.

I will often circle a wrongly-played note in pencil so the learner remembers to focus his mind on it when he practises at home and I also jot down the bar number in his notebook.

With an incorrect note, it may be a simple case of having misread the music or forgotten the key signature. Or – particularly in the case of fast pieces – it may be that misread finger numbers are causing difficulties reaching the notes. These problems are relatively easy to correct.

Rhythmic Inaccuracies

Rhythmic inaccuracies, on the other hand, can present a much greater challenge to the piano teacher.

With basic pieces the best way is to count out loud, making sure that the number ‘one’ always corresponds with the first beat in the bar. (Assuming you are counting in crotchets), if the first note is a crotchet and the second two are quavers, I would say: “one two and …” Some prefer not to use ‘and’ and instead say nothing for the second quaver (while mentally acknowledging that it is the second half of the crotchet) or lengthen the word ‘two’ effectively adding an extra syllable: “tw-oo” to cover both quavers.

With more complex rhythms, I would start by explaining how they work. For example a dotted crotchet followed by a quaver is one and a half beats. Here I usually write out a mathematical explanation in the pupil’s notebook, showing how a dot after a note means you halve the value of the note, then add that halved value on to the original note value give a final total. The dotted crotchet is generally followed by a quaver (i.e. half a beat). To count it out loud you would say: “one, two” and quickly interrupt the end of the word ‘two” with: “and” so that the “and” almost overlaps the “two”).

If (after a demonstration) someone really can’t get the hang of this, an alternative is just to think of the dotted note as an infinitely long one (those who misjudge it are far more likely to shorten than over-lengthen it), then remember that the quaver is very short which not only means to come off it quickly but to play the next note immediately afterwards. The best way to achieve this is often to ‘plan ahead’ not just one, but the two notes which follow a dotted crotchet. Clearly, this kind of explanation can become very wordy and it’s often easier to demonstrate the rhythm and let the learner copy.

Make Up Words

Alternatively, I sometimes make up words to go with the rhythm as, if a learner can sing the ‘song’ in his head, he often finds it easier to play.

If it’s a particularly rhythmic tune – such as a jazz piece with a series of left hand crotchets – it’s sometimes easier to forget the left hand notes for a while and just pat the leg with an even beat, enabling the pianist to concentrate on – what may be – quite a complex rhythm in the right.

For pupils with a more natural sense of rhythm, sometimes the idea of just getting to the next bar on time will be enough to make them give notes their correct length.

When it comes to practising a piece, I generally advise starting with the ‘new section’ or with the ‘tricky bit’ and play this several times over. Then, rather than starting from the beginning of the piece, I recommend starting a few bars before the ‘tricky bit’, then go back a few more bars and so on until the ‘tricky bit’ has been successfully mastered. Only then should the pianist start playing the piece from the beginning.

Of course, I doubt this happens very often in private practice time– most people (including myself) would much rather start a piece at the beginning and play it through. However, even if my recommendations are not adhered to when a learner plays at home, I can at least help him to follow them during the lesson.

Phrasing, Dynamics and Pedalling

Once the notes and rhythm have been successfully mastered, it’s time to work on things like phrasing (although ideally this should have been mentioned already), dynamics, pedalling and – if it’s a fast piece – speed. I would always discourage
learners from playing a piece at speed in the earlier stages as they are reluctant to slow it down again in order to perfect the finer points which may have been missed.

For the more advanced learner, even when all these elements have come together successfully, there is still plenty of work to be done in getting the right ‘feel’ for the piece. Some pianists will achieve this naturally while others need to have things laid out more clearly and be told that their crescendos are too powerful, that their ritardandos start too late or that their accompaniment is overpowering the melody.

(There is more on teaching pieces in the article Piano Examinations: Pieces).

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