“I’ve played piano for over 30 years and nobody has ever told me to start in the middle of a measure,” said one of my adult students last week.

She had been attempting to practice a Brahms passage where the motives echoed across the bar-lines by starting at the beginning of each multi measure section. This strategy broke the motives up both in her head and in her fingers, causing quite the mess.

My student was very apologetic and then excited about this new way to practice. Another adult student said that she understood totally because we are taught from our earliest lessons to begin at the beginning and step right up to G and back down to C in the strictest 4/4 time. I mused, as I always do, about the failure, somewhere along the line, of anyone to give this woman practice strategies that matched her maturing concept of phrasing.

I have had the above motive situation occur plenty of times before, but it usually happens with high school or early level college students who have a background of lessons and self teaching. When I first meet them, nearly all my students also have problems with orphans—single or multiple upbeats that are attached to the previous phrase instead of the next one during practice.

So I say, “What was that middle part again?” or “Poor little orphan,” which usually elicit some giggles or at least a grin. Then we have a(nother) discussion of phrase marks. If there aren’t any, we put them in and practice listening for them in their playing.

Many students don’t ever make the connection between upbeats, phrase marks, and sound on their own. Not all students practice creatively. Many are simply blindly obedient. But, once you point out the middle parts and orphans (many times is usually necessary), they make a great leap in their practicing and playing. If students are lucky, this happens at the late elementary to intermediate level.

But, it’s never ever too late.

Here’s some bonus silliness from The Pirates of Penzance…

GENERAL: Stop! I think I see where we are getting confused. When you said “orphan”, did you mean “orphan” a person who has lost his parents, or “often” frequently?

KING: Ah! I beg pardon- I see what you mean — frequently.

GENERAL: Ah! you said “often”  frequently.

KING: No, only once.

GENERAL: (irritated) Exactly- you said “often” frequently, only once.


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