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Practicing is definitely a two way street. I was reminded of this important dual thoroughfare is when my work with 2 different students and my own practicing intersected this week. (#serendipity)

Leaving On Time (Cheating)

One of my adult students is working on a Bach Sinfonia and doing very well with it. It’s nearly there, in fact. But, as she played it through last week, we were both troubled by some awkward hesitations and accents throughout. Some discreet pedaling on her part helped but wasn’t the total answer because the accents were still present underneath.

Suddenly, my Messiaen practice session from the day before popped into consciousness and I had an aha moment. She was trying to hold all her dotted notes the full value and didn’t have enough time to negotiate the distance to the next key—the very problem I had worked on correcting in my own playing not quite 24 hours before.

We talked about how if she left for her lesson at 1pm she would be late. The word cheat was also used. To resolve the problem, first I had her just lift her RH while LH kept playing. Once she could do this without disturbing the line in her LH, we added traveling to the next key and stopping on it while the LH kept playing.

After some time, she was able to play the passage without hesitating. She didn’t feel rushed anymore so the false accents disappeared—poof! The best part was that afterward she looked at the score with new eyes and pointed out all the other places she needed to correct without any prompting on my part.

Recognizing Same & Different (A, A1, B…)

A going on 8 year old student of mine is learning Galumph Went the Little Green Frog. She is doing very well with the 8th notes but still totally overwhelmed by the look of the piece. (ok, let’s face it, she’s been scared.) Even though the number of measures was similar to what she has been learning, there are more notes in each measure (sometimes twice as many). In addition, there are upbeats in the last measure of each stave with the completion of the phrases on the next.

She needed to see that more than half the piece was just a repetition of the first phrase, which she could already play fairly well. So, we circled each phrase using erasable colored pencils (you can get them here). For the first and third phrases we used red since they are exactly the same. We chose pink for the second because it was mostly the same as 1 & 3 and blue for the last because it is totally different.

The weight was lifted off her shoulders. I could see it in her eyes. We played all the parts that were the same and then those that were different. Actually, I played the different parts because she had only learned the first phrase. The upbeat situation also resolved itself once she understood the phrasing.

At the next lesson, she could play each color phrase as I called them out in random order. I told her how musicians have a letter code for the way we marked the phrases with color. I marked the first phrase A and she easily marked the 3rd phrase the same way. Then, we talked about how the second phrase was mostly the same so we would mark it A1.

Here’s the best part: when I asked her what she thought the letter code for the last phrase would be she didn’t hesitate one bit. “It’s gotta be B!” Then, she wanted to know if you could have a C or a D. Of course. “What about a Z?”, she asked slyly. Bingo!!! The fact that she could joke about it made me so happy.

Well, wouldn’t you know that a few days later I needed to take my own advice while practicing Schumann. It was a piece I had studied and performed before. I had one spot that just kept falling apart. I experimented with new fingerings without success. Turns out—you guessed it—there was an A1 motive situation that I hadn’t intellectually recognized and reviewed. Once, I practiced all the A motives and alternates (and yes, there were others), everything was just peachy.

My Take-away

We all put on our piano pants one leg at a time no matter the age or level. Students thrive knowing that their teachers use the same strategies and techniques for solving problems that we teach to them—that there is no magic pill that makes everything easy. Easier certainly. I had a theory professor who used to tell us that things don’t get harder, they just get more complicated. Yup. And, we need to be humble enough to see how much our own practicing grows from our work with students.

It always gets me riled up when a teacher comes up to me and says seriously that they only teach students up to level _____ because they themselves only studied up to _____. As if this is a good thing. It is wrong on so many levels, mostly because there is so much more than notes, rhythms, and a few scales to be taught in the early levels.

When that is all a teacher gives, it leaves the student feeling like they are not very good at music or at piano. Many hit the wall and quit (and write rants about why they quit music lessons on the internet). I have worked with many such students as teenagers and adults and it is a great joy to help them learn and grow in music and enrich my own growth at the same time.

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