"Teaching is the highest form of understanding"
Teachers and teaching philosophies often wax poetic about passing musical knowledge onto the next generation. While it is part of our mission to convince and cultivate future musicians and aficionados, we must also describe the detailed ways in which we shape individuals by honing their technical abilities, sharpening their ears, and developing their imaginations. The simple question that must guide every teacher is: what does a piano student need to know? A subsidiary of that is: how does one teach the practical and functional aspects of playing piano and understanding music?
As no two students are alike, so should a teacher’s approach vary according to the student’s needs at that particular time. As I continue to grapple with this challenge, my teaching philosophy matures, a result of two decades’ teaching experience and my own performances and lessons with teachers in private, group, and masterclass settings. I have found that I must adapt my advice to the setting: a masterclass must focus on a few concrete musical—and sometimes technical—details which can be changed and heard immediately; private lessons can focus on much more detail over an extended time period; group classes must focus on functional keyboard skills and more general musical knowledge. Regardless of the setting, a foundation of great pianism and musical comprehension must serve and shape a teacher’s advice.
During my tenure at the Université de Montréal, I taught B.M., M.M., D.E.P.A., D.E.S.S., and D.Mus. students. Some were just beginning their studies; others were preparing for national and international competitions (such as Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Concours Musical International de Montréal, and Canadian Music Competition–Stepping Stone). One of my preferred teaching methods was the Socratic method, whereby I would ask leading questions about interpretation, directing students to a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions. I often asked them to imagine what a lesser composer might have done in a certain passage and why the result would not be as satisfying. It is easy to say a piece by Chopin is great but discovering why it is great and what makes it great is eye-opening to every student. I always integrated musicianship with technique—they are two sides of the same coin. A common aphorism I employ is technique must serve a musical purpose rather than adapting the music to any technical deficiencies. This can be a challenge when a student’s technical apparatus is not developed to meet the demands of a particular piece. I try to instill the musical ideas and gestures in a student’s mind and body before choosing a method to produce those results. Solutions include different fingerings (including redistributions for students with smaller hands), slower tempi, and varieties in sound production (i.e. arm weight and voicing). Sometimes a teacher and student must work together to find a musical interpretation that remains true to the composer’s intentions yet reflects the student’s current abilities.
My mission is quite different in teaching high school class piano at Arizona School for the Arts, where the intention is not to create 14 concert pianists per class. Rather, I focus on functional keyboard skills, informed through a study of music theory and history. In addition, since class time is limited and there is not much opportunity to work with students individually, I stress the importance of good practice habits, an aspect of teaching often neglected at all levels of teaching, even the highest levels, where teachers expect their students actually know how to practice. Ironically, this is rarely the case. To tackle this issue, I often pair students to work on repertoire, charging them with the task of identifying challenging spots in their music and working with their partners in problem solving through questioning. We discuss the notion of repetition with intention (not mindless) and how one might break down the score into manageable components. This methodology cannot be taken for granted as many students don’t know how to identify the actual challenge in a passage. Problem solving can only work once a student has properly identified the main issue. This could be as simple as a jump, for which I suggest shadow practicing: a method of jumping to the new key and hovering over it without actually playing it. This activates and trains kinesthetic and visual memory and will ensure a student’s brain map will have the jump correctly sized up. I draw students’ attention to larger gestural motions that get their hands to the required position: gestures lead, fingers follow. One must move with entire arm and not lead from the wrist (which instead presents a host of issues relating to tension).
Informing all these body motions and movements is my background in anatomy and physiology—I was a biology premed student at the University of Rochester—and my Alexander Technique training with practitioners in Albuquerque, NM and Montréal, QC. As piano is as physical an endeavor as any sport and because we don’t have “trainers” like sports teams do, it is imperative that I coach my students to employ healthy habits when practicing and performing.
Another aspect of functional keyboard skills is basic technique, which I teach through scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions (I-IV-I-V-V7-I) in all keys, learning proper fingering and technique. This includes lifting and dropping fingers for clarity, using proper arm weight to get to the bottom of the keybed, ensuring a strong and supportive knuckle bridge to capture and transfer this weight into the keys through curved, energetic fingers, and making sure posture is supportive and open, allowing ears to discern sound quality more precisely.
Lastly, one can only teach these things through good repertoire choice, an oft-neglected art. Though Études by Chopin are wonderful and truly integrate finger dexterity with great musicianship, equally useful are études by Bartók, Czerny, Debussy, Heller, Hummel, Liszt, Moszkowski, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Scriabin, and even lesser-known composers like Howard Bashaw, William Bolcom, Ignaz Moscheles, Selim Palmgren, Karol Szymanowski. Students must have an equally balanced program representing various musical eras in order to learn about style, class, and elegance (and sometimes brutality) in music. Teachers must be equally adept and comfortable teaching a variety of repertoire and styles. The goal is to create a student that reflects the concept of Gestalt: the whole musician is greater than the sum of the individual parts that went into creating that musician.