How do you get young students to slow down? Certain children love to speed through their playing. This causes, at best, the stuttering mentioned a few posts back, at worst, general frustration.
But “slow down” doesn’t make sense to them! Their desire to speed precludes any logical thinking. Even when I manage to slow them down they don’t see the connection between tempo and success in a passage.
One pedagogy mentor explained it this way: kids who have high energy, and love playtime, associate “slow” with one of two things. You slow down either when you’re tired, or when you’re sick. If I’m asking one of these kids to slow down, they think I’m asking them to be tired or sick, and why would they voluntarily feel like that?
I’ve had success with certain kids to play like a turtle. Occupying their imagination with thoughts of imitating slow-moving animals ‘tricks’ them into adopting a successful tempo.
I’ve been trying out one new strategy, one that I think will work best with 9 or 10 year old students (or older); kids that understand fast and slow, probably even know that slow practice is better, but choose not to do it. I ask them to adopt “thinking” speed. I’ll explain thinking speed as the tempo where their brains and their fingers can talk to each other. (Or if it’s a reading exercise, I’ll sometimes substitute brain for eye; for my Suzuki students it’s sometimes their ear.)
Again, the idea is to fill their mind with a different thought that inadvertently causes them to adopt a desired tactic.
I think with certain students, saying “slow down” causes a certain number of guilt, especially when they know that a slow practice tempo will be more successful. Using ‘thinking speed’ instead allows me to make a more neutral suggestion that gets the same result.
As a follow-up to the last post: I can’t stress enough how important it is to sing while you practice.
Playing the piano is a study of diminuendo. Every note dies away right after it begins. It takes a special ability to make a true musical phrase that isn’t full of false accents. It takes an even greater ability to make a phrase that is truly beautiful at the piano, one with direction, one that pulls on the heart-strings.
By singing, I’m not just getting a shape of the melody. I think singing a line actually helps me shape the accompaniment. Take a simple melody and Alberti bass, something like Mozart’s K. 545. The left hand accompaniment helps lead the phrase along. With subtle rhythmic acceleration and dynamic shape, it can build the perception that the melodic notes are actually growing and transforming. We can trick audiences into hearing shape on single notes.
Many students are resistant to singing out loud! Usually at first I don’t require them to in front of me, but I suppose I need to build the resilience that my undergraduate teacher used with me (spoken of in yesterday’s post!).
At some point in my undergraduate years, my teacher began forcing me to count out loud while I played and practiced.
This was incredibly difficult at the time. She of course wanted me to become aware of my poor rhythm, or unstable tempo. But it seemed that counting out loud just exaggerated the problem. I could either count out loud, or play, not both.
But she was insistent! I imagine now that I had one or two lessons where most of the time was spent with me struggling to count out loud (because I was stubborn and didn’t try it in the practice room during the week!). If my counting drifted off, she’d stop me. If I counted incorrectly, she’d stop me. If I played incorrectly, she’d stop me. We would repeat and repeat endlessly.
I’m so glad for her stubbornness!
Eventually I was able to do it, and it’s an indispensible part of my practice toolbox. I found once I got it, it’s been easier since. I don’t even use this just to fix tempo or rhythmic issues: it’s more about having a metacognitive awareness of the piece. By multi-tasking, my sense of time is sharper, but my technique is more independent, and I listen much better than I ever have.
Those weeks of struggle forced me to transcend passive practicing and cultivated greater awareness of my work. Adding my voice to practicing led to me singing while I practiced (more on that in tomorrow’s post), and helped me collaborate, as I could be more attuned to the rhythmic events outside of my own playing.
Another habit in my students that I’ve been trying to combat has been “stuttered” practicing…Where the student plays a few beats, stalls and stutters, collects enough information to play a few more beats, before stalling and stuttering again.
I’m okay with intentional pauses, in fact I encourage students to learn music in small, isolated, predetermined sections. But within that section, students need to keep going no matter what. This way, we start to get a sense of the choreography needed to play a piece.
But of course most student stuttering at the piano doesn’t work this way. They simply sight read a little, stop, and sight read a little more. There’s no intentionality, there’s no organizing of the physical technique needed to internalize a passage. This kind of practicing yields incremental results. Intentional practice yields exponentially greater growth.
I’ve been saying to these students: “The keys aren’t going anywhere. It’s our hands that have to figure out where to go. We only have 10 fingers but we have to convince our audience that we have 88. Practice so that you can trick your audience.”
Right now, of course, the music is tricking the student and it’s obvious to anybody listening.
I expand on this intentional practicing in my e-book, “Pianist’s Guide to Practicing”. You can get it for free, just by clicking here.
A good crescendo is hard to come by. A good decrescendo is even harder.
Most students will define crescendo as “getting louder”, and they intuitively know that that means you start soft. I’ve been emphasizing with a lot my students that the point of a crescendo is not so much the beginning or ending dynamic. It’s the ‘getting’ part.
The joy of a crescendo is the journey from one dynamic to the other.
The ‘getting’ isn’t a means to an end. The music is in the journey.
Lately, I find myself telling my students: "assume your audience doesn't know anything" (this is an improvement on the original: "assume your audience is stupid").
Now I don't mean that you as a performer ought to look down upon your audience. Nothing high-brow or elitist helps anyone who's supposed to be an ambassador for their art of their ideas.
What I do mean is that you want to be absolutely clear to your audience what your musical ideas are. Something I've learned over and over again is that my musical ideas might seem clear to me, and I might think that I'm expressing them clearly. But usually those ideas have to be exaggerated for my audience to understand them.
Assume your audience knows nothing about classical music. Express your ideas in as big a way as necessary to make it abundantly clear to them what your musical intentions are, what story you're trying to tell.
This is how we get an intentional pianist, someone who's artistry is communicative and engaging.
Occasionally I find that a certain theme shows up in my teaching, with all my students, whether they're little kids or college performance majors. It just happens to be one pedagogical or performance idea that I'm thinking a lot about that ends up applying to a majority of my students. Eventually that idea either becomes a mainstay of my teaching or it disappears.
Sometimes it's a saying, but this week it's been an analogy.
I always try to shift how my students practice, especially older ones. I talk endlessly about strategies and techniques (which I summarize in an e-book, which you can get for free by signing up for my mailing list on the right). I talk about isolating sections. But I find it really difficult to break their mentality that practicing means starting at the beginning of a piece, playing through till they make a mistake, stopping and restarting at the point of the mistake. I could go on about the errors here, but the point of this post is to discuss the analogy I've been trying out.
I've been comparing this kind of practicing to reading a book, but not really reading. We've all experienced having words in front of us, knowing that our eyes are going over the words line-by-line, but our conscious brain isn't receiving any of it. We're 'reading', but we aren't processing; our mind is on something else.
At the piano, so much of student practicing is skimming the piece, and allowing little conscious processing attention until we realize there's been some kind of error.
In the past, I've asked students how they would go about memorizing several paragraphs from a book. Would you read it through, starting at the beginning and going to the end? Then repeat (not even any washing or rinsing).
Of course not, they would study one sentence at a time, repeat it, review it, think about the point its making. When they can recite it, they add another sentence.
If it's academic writing, we need to be able to track the argument the author is making. Study the thesis, the background evidence, and weigh that against the process of study, analyzing application of the results. Paragraph by paragraph, we can break down and analyze the overall structure.
Even my young students understand this at a gut level, when it comes to reading and learning or understanding a text.
I'm not sure why students have trouble applying these reading analogies to piano practicing. Perhaps seeing the final musical composition as a whole creates a desire to approach learning and practicing a piece as a whole. Maybe with text it's easier to see individual moments and practice and rehearse as such.
I've had success with students breaking this habit, make no doubt. Sometimes they make the connection and change their habits drastically. Sometimes I force students to practice only individual measures by covering all other measures up with sticky notes. Sometimes I point them to a random number generator app, have it dictate the single measure number that they focus on. Or, number every system of the piece and practice just one line at a time.
But so often, we talk about why it's so important to practice in small, isolated sections. They understand these analogies. We pull a random number generator and declare we're going to play one single measure. We talk about the difficulties in this measure, and what the student needs to pay attention to. Then the student goes to play it, and they try to continue past the measure. They don't seem to believe me that I mean literally, stop at the barline, or at a predetermined section.
I wonder awareness of stopping points comes from a general mastery of piano playing. Maybe it's easy for me to practice this way because I've synthesized piano technique, artistry, theory and history to such a degree that I can become aware of good isolated practice segments at a metacognitive level. I'm still exploring the best way to instill this practice in my students. I'd welcome anyone's input on this issue!
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act