Piano Lesson Format 4:
New and Old Pieces
Depending what stage the ‘piece in progress’ is at, I might also give the pupil a new piece to work on.
With the John W. Schaum series of books, this generally just means turning over to the next page – although I do skip a couple of pieces in The Red Book, such as The Escalator (which I replace with the teaching of a C major scale) and The Goofy Gopher which is very similar to Steady Eddie and doesn’t have a particularly interesting tune.
At other times, the new piece may be one from the exam book, or a Christmas carols book or any another piece chosen by myself or the learner.
When looking at a new piece, the pupil should always be reminded to consider the key signature and time signature before starting to play. He should also be made aware of any other important considerations such as a ‘jazz feel’ to the piece typified by uneven quavers. Then he should be reminded to play slowly and carefully.
Sometimes, I’ll ask a pupil to start with the left hand, while I play the right or I may ask him to start with the right. Occasionally, I’ll ask him to try both hands together straight away to emulate the sight-reading tests in exams. If it’s a long piece I may ask him to work on a few lines separate hands only, and then slowly join them together. Then we’ll proceed in short sections through the piece, with the speed of progress depending on the learner’s aptitude and practice habits.
The crucial point is to remember that when acquiring a new piece, slow accuracy is always preferable to a hasty ‘rough outline’. This is not quite the same as sight-reading (particularly in an exam situation), when slow accuracy may be deemed hesitant while a hasty outline may give the impression that the pianist understands the overall aims of the composer.
With the less able learners, phrasing, dynamics, accents and pedalling are elements to consider once the notes and rhythm have been successfully mastered. However, there is no compromising or ‘sorting it out later’ when it comes to fingering. Generally pianists should follow the fingering guidelines written on the piece as this will enable them to play the piece with the greatest degree of fluency. Any deviation from this should always be a conscious decision made for a particular reason (rather than just ignoring or neglecting to follow the given fingering) – for example if the stretch between certain fingers is insufficient or if a pianist has one particularly stiff or weak finger. In this case, the revised fingering should be noted on the score and consistently followed.
I also encourage all pupils to pay attention to staccato markings straight away as I think it’s difficult to change the articulation once the piece has been learned.
Beginners may feel overloaded if they are given too many aspects to think about at once but more experienced pianists may well be able to follow such things as phrasing and dynamic details from the outset.
Again depending on time constraints, I may ask the pupil to: “play me one of your old pieces”. Many beginners love doing this – especially when they can proudly say: “I can’t believe I struggled with this one – it’s easy!”
Among the most popular choices in The Green Book are Oscar the Octopus, Old Macdonald, Monkey Business and Lightning Ranger, while Red Book favourites include: Swinging Along, Bells are Ringing and The Snake Dance. Obviously, there is a tendency among some to choose the easy option, although I rarely object to this. I think it’s important for a learner to be able to ‘show off’ something he can enjoy playing without too much effort.
If a pupil starts an old piece and then rejects it saying: “No, I’ve forgotten it” or “This one’s too hard”, I’ll encourage him to keep trying with a promise to help whenever he gets stuck.
Although there is little ‘progress’ taking place in this part of the lesson I feel it is crucial to include it whenever possible. It’s not much fun learning an instrument unless you sometimes have the chance to play at least one piece without difficulty.
(For more on teaching pieces see the article Piano Examinations: Pieces).