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I have a very effective cure for hiccups – given to me by my husband. Firstly, give the child a small glass of water which he should hold in his left hand. Ask him to extend his right arm upwards and outwards to the right of him. Then, as he slowly sips the water from the glass brought to his lips by his left hand, he should carefully examine the thumb of his right. (You can encourage him to concentrate on this by pointing out specific details of the thumb – the colour of the skin, the length of the fingernail, any lines, creases, blemishes etc.). Children are delighted and amazed by this ‘magic’ cure for their hiccups – which to date has never failed me.
Other problems include fidgety hands which move unnecessarily around the keyboard between playing notes. Many children also play flat-fingered; some rest their wrists on the edge of the piano, while others let their fingers fly around in the air (as I mention in the article on Position and Posture).
Many tend to bang notes, while others don’t press firmly enough (those who practise on electronic keyboards are often guilty of this).
I also teach a few who over-hold notes – or don’t thoroughly release them, so that no sound is heard the second time they’re pressed.
Much more serious physical problems include broken arms or wrists. I’ve taught children with one arm covered in plaster by devoting lessons to one-handed scales or aural practice, so, this is far from wasted time.
With teenage girls and women, an increasingly common hindrance is long/false fingernails. Obviously, I explain to them why these are far from ideal when playing the piano (pianists really need to feel the notes with their finger tips). However, to many, fashion and appearance is paramount and – although I have occasionally persuaded some to shorten nails prior to an exam – on the whole they insist on keeping them long (and immaculately polished) most of the time. The result is a slightly irritating noise when their nails hit the keys and also a tendency to slide off the notes.
With older people hand-related issues include stiffness, a reduction in flexibility (when playing arpeggios, for example) and some shakiness. Unfortunately, no words of advice can solve these problems but I like to think piano-playing will do more good than harm.
The same is true of brain-related or memory problems: it is often said that playing an instrument is one of the best forms of mental exercise and may help to keep your brain ‘young’.
Older people generally lose confidence about their ability to remember things, but very often their concern is over-exaggerated. For example, they are shocked and distressed when they pick up a piece they’d mastered six months ago and find they ‘can no longer play it’ – feeling that this must be due to age-related memory loss. I reassure them that they will be able to ‘learn’ it again (and more quickly than they did the first time) – but not without some effort – and that children and teenagers often experience exactly the same ‘memory loss problem’. (In most cases, a piece that has been thoroughly learned – perhaps for an exam – although apparently ‘totally forgotten’ at some point, is generally ‘picked up’ again to a reasonable standard within three or four attempts).
Problems which should be easier to solve are minor sight and hearing difficulties. However, some older sufferers deny they have either. One of my more senior pupils – whom I taught several years ago – claimed to have good hearing (although I had to raise my voice to talk to him) and said he didn’t need glasses, yet I know he struggled to see the notes clearly. I advised him to buy a book which I knew had large notation but even with this he was unable to make out the finger numbers so I had to overwrite them more clearly.
Even those who do have glasses – but ones which are intended for occasional usage only – can be inconsistent in wearing them. I encourage them to decide whether or not they need glasses for piano-playing and to stick with that decision – otherwise the eyes have to re-adjust every time they see the music.
Some learners are totally unaware that they may need glasses. I’m often surprised that a sight problem hasn’t been detected by themselves, their parents or teachers, and it is only when I point out that they’re moving their face ridiculously near to the sheet music and seem to be squinting, that they agree an eye test might me a good idea. (Although, in some cases, parents have told me that the optician has given a verdict of ‘perfect vision’ and that moving closer to the music is just a habit when the child is struggling to work out the notes; some do the same when reading unfamiliar words in books).
Having myself been a short-sighted child who wore glasses, followed by contact lenses and then (following laser surgery) neither – I am now frustrated by the onset of presbyopia (age-related long-sight). I struggle to play the piano wearing reading glasses as I find I become disorientated when my eyes move from the score down to my hands.
Some adults find bifocals or varifocals help with this, while one lady I teach rejected both and instead wears ‘piano glasses’ which are designed so that her optimum vision is somewhere between the score and her hands. An alternative to this could be wearing one contact lens (so the pianist focuses through one eye for the score and the other for your hands). The majority of adults will suffer from presbyopia at some point in their lives and each need to find the solution which suits them best.
Personally, I think I prefer to leave my eyes alone and instead, change the size of the score. The simple way to do this, of course is to photocopy the music – although in some cases this means you end up with far too many sheets or with pages too big to fit on your stand. It is, however, possible to purchase some scores in large print and, for those with severe sight difficulties, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) offers a transcription service.
However, I’d say the majority of learners’ problems aren’t physical – they are more to do with personality, lifestyle and emotions.
It’s hard to say which of the two extremes of personality presents more problems – lack of confidence on the one hand, or cockiness on the other. The former is common to both children and adults and they often behave in a similar manner – either hesitating for far too long before playing a note, or taking their hands abruptly off the piano in horror when they hit a wrong one.
With hesitant ones I say: “just go for it … try to play a note on the beat even if it’s the wrong one.” (This is generally when I’m confident that it will, in fact, be the right one as I’ve watched the finger hovering above the note for some considerable time).
When pupils suddenly take their hands off, I ask them to try very hard not to keep doing this as it wastes time – particularly for those who find it difficult to relocate their hand position. Sometimes I demonstrate a piece myself, deliberately playing several wrong notes to reassure a pupil that this is far from ‘the end of the world’ – even experienced pianists hit wrong notes occasionally and as long as they carry on playing, they are generally ‘forgiven’ and, in fact, listeners don’t always even notice. Of course, I add that, yes it is very important to play the right notes but in the real world this won’t always happen and the main thing is to get over it quickly and be even more determined to play correctly the next time.
With some children, extreme shyness can interfere with the learning process. As I mentioned earlier, I was an exceptionally shy child myself so I can totally relate to the (these days, rare) ones who avoid answering questions. Sometimes I used to be over-anxious about giving a wrong answer, but more often my habitual response of: “I don’t know” (or ‘dunno’) was merely a desire to say as few words as possible. I was slightly better with ‘yes/no’ questions and would happily respond to mathematical quizzing where the answer was just a number, but anything requiring a lengthy explanation was just too scary.
So, I avoid putting a shy child through the ordeal of giving long answers, (as would be required with questions such as: “how do you know where to place your hands to start this piece?” – something I regularly ask the more confident ones). This would mean several wasted – and awkward minutes – while I sat waiting for an answer which may never come. Instead, I try to encourage him (in reality the shy ones are more often ‘her’) to ‘have a go’ (for example at working out a note using mnemonics) and if she’s wrong, rather than say: “no” – I’ll say: “Have another go”.
With the quieter pupils it’s often harder to identify problems. For example, if a child persists in playing wrong notes and doesn’t appear to be taking your advice or to be practising hard during the week, it’s easy to assume that sheer laziness is to blame. However, it may be that the child is having difficulty understanding something, without your being aware of it – yet not ‘brave’ enough to ask the right questions.
I taught one child who appeared to be listening to my explanations on reading music and always assured me he was practising regularly at home; (as he was the honest type I couldn’t help but believe him) yet he made a lot of mistakes in his pieces. I’m ashamed to say it was some time before I realised that – although he was reading the notes correctly, he had trouble locating them on the piano. A more vocal child would have been able to put his problem into words, but this poor boy just struggled on.
That’s why it’s so important to keep encouraging your pupils to communicate: the more accurately a learner can explain his difficulties, the more you can find ways to help him. As a teacher, you should always welcome the challenge of how to solve problems … some of which you may never have imagined existing in the first place.
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