Keys

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Keys is a book that I am writing about my life and the insights I have gained as a student, performer and teacher of the piano. The word keys has many meanings and I thought it would be an intriguing title. I fancy myself to be a minimalist and one word suits me just fine! Born in 1961, I feel a strong need to put into writing the concepts that I teach from day to day, to leave a legacy and teach students of the future through my book. This blog is a start and I hope to then turn it into a book.

I am a Myers-Briggs ENFJ or teacher by nature, have always revered knowledge and the process of sharing that knowledge. Even in 6th grade I wrote in our yearbook that “Knowledge is Power!”

In this book I will address some of the most frequent questions that I come across as a teacher and use autobiographical information to help tell this story.

One of those questions is this, “Should I keep my child in lessons even though they don’t want to practice?”

That seems like a question that has an easy answer, an easy solution and yet it doesn’t. My father started teaching me accordion when I was only 4 and I added piano at about 9 years of age. My three siblings and myself were made to take piano lessons until the age of around 13. Were there times that I didn’t want to practice? Sure. Were there times that I cried? I think so. Am I mad at my parents for making me take lessons? The answer to that question is a big NO.

What my parents did is train me in the discipline of music which included practicing for 30 minutes day minimum. My grandmother, nicknamed “Sarge”, a tough lady named Mary, babysat us most days while our parents ran the music store and each one of us sat at that piano for at least 30 minutes daily with the kitchen timer set and we knew not to stop until that timer was dinging.

We also participated in our store recitals annually and competed in the Canadian Kiwanis Music Festivals annually. Dad had three accordion bands comprised of students from his store. We were in those also where we learned about teamwork and preparation, timing and performance skills.

You are giving your child a gift, a gift that will last, a gift that will entertain, soothe, heal and increase brain power. A person does not develop their frontal lobe, the part of your brain that can make great decisions, until the age of 25. Does a child of 5 or 10 even know what they want in life yet? Of course not.

And why music? Why indeed! I had an adult student who came to me recently and exclaimed in a very excited voice “I WANT TO LEARN PIANO!” His passion was palpable, we proceeded the learning process and he shared with me how music is a universal language like math, that it can foster peace amongst people who normally would not get along. Musicians who don’t even know how to speak to one another can play a quartet together, all reading the language of the written music. Music takes a neutral stance when it comes to politics, religion and money. You can mold it into what you want or need to express.

A child who has no music in their life is a very sad notion to me.

Many adult learners come to me and express that their parents made them take lessons when they were young and they REGRETTED that they quit!” I help them start over, and yes, we have to start over and there are many more distractions in an adult life that often seem to discourage them. Here is a fact: it IS easier for a young child to learn to play the piano physically and it IS easier for an adult the grasp the theory of playing the piano. So, yes, the younger, the better.

That being said…I recall a student named Mike at S.U.N.Y. at Fredonia, New York, where I did my undergraduate studies in Piano Performance and also received a Performer’s Certificate. Mike came in as a Freshman playing at a Sonatina level, I actually was surprised he was accepted into the program because I had already surpassed that level by leaps and bounds, and he became one of the best, most accomplished and expressive pianists that attended while I was there, in my opinion, completely nailing the Chopin Ballade in f minor!
I will take a break here and return soon…please leave any comments or questions that you might have and I will try to answer them.

The Mystique of Great Technique

A great pianist must have great technique, that’s a given and again, there are no shortcuts. When you watch a pianist perform a difficult piece with ease it might seem like a mystery as to how they would accomplish that feat. I am going to share with you the most important lessons that I have learned throughout my studies and observations so that you can be the best pianist that you can be.

There are some hard and fast rules about playing the piano and there are some performers who break them and still play well…I would prefer to say that there are principles of piano technique that you should try to follow and yet, stay creative and true to oneself.

Principle number 1: You must be sitting at the right height, facing the piano straight on and be the be proper distance from the piano.

You can learn on a keyboard or piano but if not seated properly at either, you will have improper technique and will at best, play poorly and worst case scenario, will injure yourself. This is also true in sports, proper form is essential. One of the worst things that you can do is plop your keyboard onto your bed and reach to the left or right. Avoid this at all costs.

Your wrists should be slightly higher than the keys, sit approximately an arm’s length away from the fallboard with fists clenched and be seated toward the front of the bench. Do not lean back into a chair. An adjustable bench is wonderful as is an adjustable stand for your keyboard if that is what you are practicing on. To become a classically trained pianist, acoustic is a must, but if you choose to use a keyboard, Yamaha and Casio are well known and used brands you cannot go wrong with. You also want to have 88 keys that are weighted and touch sensitive. FYI: There are 88 white and black keys combined.

Now that you have a great set up, here is Principle Number 2: You will be lifting your fingers up and down from the first (major) knuckle. The thumb will also move up and down but the knuckle won’t bend unless you are tucking it under the other fingers as in scales.

One of my first accordion lesson memories is my dad having me put my hand on top of the accordion and having me lift each finger up and down, silently, practicing finger independence.

Principle Number 3: Nails must be short and knuckles number 2 and 3 must be bent but don’t bend the thumb unless tucking.

We teachers call it curving your fingers. This must be mastered to play well. Playing on the black keys requires a slightly less curved approach. That being said, remember that there are those great performers who sometimes creatively break the rules and still play well. Horowitz is known for his flat fingered approach and I completely adore his playing.

Principle Number 4: You must master a great number of scales and arpeggios because pieces are based on scales and arpeggios are used quite frequently as well.

Yes, there really is no way around this and there are many great technique books that can help you do this.

Principle Number 5: You must use a metronome regularly, make it your friend!

Some pieces require a certain speed and will have it indicated at the beginning so, speed is important but so is accuracy which reminds me of the next principle.

Principle Number 6: Fast Practice = Slow Progress, Slow Practice = Fast Progress and NO PRACTICE = NO PROGRESS.

Lots and lots of slow practice is key as are speed drills after the slow practice. Work your way slow through different speeds with the metronome to help you keep it steady. Gradually work up to a faster speed. Remember, there are no shortcuts, this must be done. Lay a great foundation. Some students have a real struggle with the metronome but I think part of it is just a reluctance to try it.

Some students really struggle with rhythm in general and can barely just clap with the metronome sounds. Nuture vs. Nature, some students will have work harder at this than others that seemingly have a more natural sense of rhythm but don’t get discouraged, just work harder at it.

Taking a break ….leave a question or comments please!

Time

This leads to another all too common question, “How long will it take me to learn to play the piano?” I cringe and am flustered when asked this question and am trying to analyze why. When I am faced with this inquiry I usually come up with my pat answer, “Everyone is different, it depends” and this is true.

Upon reflection, I now realize that not one child has ever asked me that, it is always an adult. Adults have two concerns that children don’t when signing up for lessons and those concerns are number one, the cost and number two, the ever pressing idea of Father Time. They are acutely aware that their time on earth is oh, so limited. Children’s lessons are paid for and they have no pressing sense of time limits in their lives.

The cost concern is understandable and more reason to put a great effort in to practicing and learning. Other than cost, I think it is a matter of lack patience and understanding about what they are about to embark on. If I flippantly say one year then it completely discounts all of the years I have had being trained in the field of music. Even worse, if that student does not progress enough in that year they will be discouraged. Music is a craft, an art and a discipline that cannot even be completely learned in a lifetime, there is so much literature to study!

Beyond all of this, some students are tone deaf, they can’t tell if they have made a mistake and yes, I have had one student with this problem.

I have a student now who I think might have photographic memory and she learns very quickly. Nurture versus Nature tells us that some of a person’s ability is gifted to them at birth and some of talent is because of upbringing.

So, general rule is practice 30 minutes a day, if you do less you won’t have great results and if you do more you generally will progress more quickly. Performance majors in college are expected to practice at least 3 to 4 hours a day to be able to meet their goals.

As an undergraduate, I tried to practice 8 hours a day. As a graduate student at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, I once did a marathon practice of 11 hours in day. I was preparing for an audition and needless to say, I injured myself, having a trigger finger injury to my pinkie and could not practice for about 6 weeks. I had to wear a splint and I think there may have been a small part of me that felt it was a “badge of honor” for a pianist, but I know better. We, as pianists, want to avoid injury at all cost and I will talk about technique in a bit.

Along with the question of “How long will it take to learn to play the piano?” is “At what age can you start piano lessons?”. What is the youngest age a person can start piano lessons? Another time related question which deserves some attention here. I started accordion at 4, and yes, there are small accordions made for children. The youngest I have had success with at the piano is 3. That being said, I have had 4 year olds who couldn’t read a word, didn’t know left and right and I have had 4 years old that were reading books and listening to classical music in the car.

I also am trained as a Suzuki teacher and if you follow the teachings of Dr. Suzuki you may have read “Ability Development from Age Zero”. His idea is that children learn language skills at a very young age and music is, after all, a language of sorts. Having your child listen in utero is one of his teachings. Training a child’s ear from age zero.

To quote Dr. Suzuki, “the fate of the child is in the hands of his parents”. In other words, a child might have innate tendencies toward music ability but unless it is nurtured by the parents, it is wasted, undeveloped. Parental guidance is of the utmost importance and can benefit a child greatly unless it is a “Tiger Mom”or a “Helicopter Mom” approach. It is important not to create a child who resents music for a lifetime. You want your child to love making music and benefit from it or have others benefit from listening to them play.

In summation, time is tricky, there is no quick, shortcut to learning an instrument. It is better to start young and stay with it but it is never too late to learn. Stay far away from any “shortcuts” you see for learning the piano. Usually they are teaching you chord symbols and playing lead sheet music which, guess what, you will still have to learn to read music and there will be no one watching your technique and listening to your timing.
This is a good place to take a break…..be back soon and please leave comments!