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Another problem with crushed notes – or other ornaments – is that pupils become stressed over playing them exactly right. Some have a tendency to play the ornament and then go back and play it again, hoping it will ‘work’ better. I equate this to verbal stuttering as it’s similarly habit-forming. Pupils often don’t realise they are doing this but when I tell them not to ‘stutter’ on their crushed notes, most are able to stop.

FINGERING, I explain, should be logical – in other words if the score recommends using a right hand thumb on a C, you should presume that the right hand 2 plays D and 3 plays E – unless it says otherwise – or unless you have a good reason for not doing so (if, for example, the notes are going up in twos or threes and you may need to stretch your 2 up to the E, so your 3 can go on G to avoid ‘running out’ of fingers later on). Strangely, although some people would realise intuitively that the next finger should play the next note whenever possible, the majority of my pupils have a tendency to move their hands about unnecessarily.

Ideally the logic of fingering should be taught at an early stage so pupils understand the need for reading ahead and not ‘wasting’ – for example – a 5th finger (if it would be needed later), when a 4 would reach. In the earlier books a lot of the fingering is generally written out on the score although, even then, many make mistakes.

Unfortunately, correcting them can sometimes be a lengthy process: when I say: “No – use a 4 in the left hand”, many will move the right hand instead – resulting in the need for two corrections instead of one. It’s amazing how easily even adults become confused between left and right hands when playing piano: sometimes it’s easier just to point at the appropriate hand to avoid this.

Breaking Up the Music

When insufficient fingering is given on the score, I encourage my pupil to be responsible for making his own decisions. I might pencil a few finger numbers on the page during the lesson but I then suggest that if, when he tries the piece at home he finds a different finger is more ‘comfortable’, he should erase my numbers and replace with his own. Of course, I will then check that this new fingering is workable and allows for correct PHRASING.

Pupils should have been given an early understanding of how music is ‘broken up’ and why the hand has to ‘come off’ at a certain point and then ‘go straight back on’ to begin the next phrase. Some are fine about the idea of ‘coming off’ but will leave too long a gap before beginning the following phrase.

More commonly, however, learners (particularly adults) are afraid that if the hand leaves the piano it will return in the wrong place (this also means they sometimes over-hold certain notes and ignore the RESTS). I have seen some extreme attempts at stretching or contorting the fingers to avoid taking them completely off the keys. In some cases, the best way to ‘cure’ this is to encourage the pupil to learn a short section by heart so he can look at his hands to ensure hitting the right notes.

When reading CHORDS, I advise getting into the habit of reading the bottom note first. It’s better to focus on just the one note, get the lowest finger anchored and let the others ‘fall’ into place (hopefully!) as you continue to identify them. This makes much more sense than trying to work out all the notes at once or just reading the ‘easiest’ note of the chord first as then the pianist does not necessarily take in whether this is the top or the bottom one. (Very occasionally I allow myself to deviate from this advice when the bottom note has multiple ledger lines and would take me too long to work out. Quite often, if I work out the top note, it’s reasonable to guess at the bottom one being exactly one octave lower).

Hand Shape Exercise

With big chords, it’s essential that the same fingers are used so the pupil gets a firm sense of the hand shape. Once the notes have been worked out and the hand is in position, I advise looking at how fingers fit on or between the black notes and to sense the stretches between the fingers. Then I may say: “Take your hand off the notes and put it on your knee. Now look at the wall to your left, then to your right; now look back at the piano and position your hand correctly again.” If necessary, I repeat this several times. Younger pupils, in particular, quite enjoy this exercise, especially if I speed it up a bit.

Playing the correct notes often seems like the major battle but in fact rhythm and co-ordination can be much harder things to teach.

A dotted or swing RHYTHM (common in C pieces) is always a challenge. If a pupil is really struggling with this, I suggest: “Hold the first note for as long as you like whilst mentally preparing for the following two; then when you’re ready play these two notes in quick succession”. Obviously this will not produce the correct rhythm (and can sound very unnatural) but it’s a starting point and helps the learner to get away from the even (or ‘straight’) beat with which he’s more familiar.

Alternatively, I put together a few words and attempt to sing them rhythmically, putting the emphasis where the longer note falls. (For some reason, the phrases which commonly spring to mind always seem to involve eating and drinking, such as: “I would like a cup of coffee” or “I’d like a nice cup of tea and a big piece of cake”).

Sometimes a swing rhythm in the right hand is played against even crotchets in the left. This can cause CO-ORDINATION problems for some. One idea is to just repeatedly play a random note in the left hand so that the focus is totally on the rhythm rather than having to worry about pitch as well. If this doesn’t help, advise tapping the left hand evenly on the knee while the right hand plays the correct notes and rhythm. Of course, another alternative is to play along with the learner, or for him to play with the cd, although at the early stages it may be too difficult to keep up with the speed.

Lob-Sided Body

Differences in ARTICULATION – when one hand plays staccato and the other legato – can produce another co-ordination problem. This can often be solved by imagining that the staccato hand is light and not restricted by gravity, while the legato one is very heavy and constantly being pulled down. The pianist should pretend that his body is slightly lob-sided and lean heavily on the legato side.

A legato effect can be particularly difficult to achieve when playing more than one note at a time. For example (generally only in more advanced pieces) – a pianist could be required to play C and E and then move smoothly onto E and G.  Obviously the E has to be replayed so will have to be detached but the legato effect can be achieved by taking the finger off the E whilst still holding the C until the second set of notes is played.

Another aspect of articulation is ACCENTS and learners should be made aware of the differences between stress marks, accents and strong accents. For the latter, it may be worth leaning the body forward so the pressure comes not just from the fingers but from the whole arm.

Speed (or TEMPO as it is more commonly called in music) is, on the whole, one of the easiest aspects to teach. Most pupils recognise the need for a slow speed in sensitive, lyrical music and a fast pace in upbeat pieces. The former comes quite naturally as the piece is being learned and – particularly if it is an obviously quiet one – the learner will rarely play too fast. The latter can be slightly more difficult to achieve but, as long as the pupil has learned the piece carefully and is using correct fingering, it’s not usually too great a challenge to speed it up.

The problem lies more with maintaining a constant tempo. At a very basic level there is a tendency to speed up on the ‘easy’ parts and slow down on more challenging sections. The pupil needs to be aware of his own ideal speed for a piece and hear the first few bars in his head before he starts playing: there’s no point in setting off at a great pace if he can’t keep that up.

Some pupils also let their fingers get ‘carried away’ as they go on and will always speed up towards the end of a piece. Sometimes the only way to correct this is by using a metronome. Of course, the difficulty with this is that many pieces include ritardando sections or have an overall rubato feel. However, such things can easily be added later and it’s generally best to secure an overall tempo first.

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