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Must we perform?

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Must we perform?

I have been following a pretty heated social media discussion about whether music students should have to perform pieces or songs. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that playing an instrument ought to be for the purpose of performing in public and that the end result of learning should be performing.

One teacher went so far as to say that she requires participation for any student who isn’t an adult and that those who are unwilling to perform are ‘welcome to find another teacher’. It is not clear to me why the distinction was made between adult and child learner.

Another teacher likened participation in performance to playing in a basketball team: ‘Would he have the option to play or not? No … There is no choice involved in the studios I teach in. It is compulsory’.

A lone voice suggested that perhaps students might have a choice.

Performing is of educational value, I think – it motivates students to practise and to achieve and it can illuminate the teaching and learning processes. When I’m teaching I sometimes find myself asking questions like, ‘Which line do you want the listener to pay attention to in this phrase?’ or, ‘How could you make this piece tell a story?’ I want the student to let the music unfold and explain itself although, during the lesson, the ‘performance’ is for me, an audience of one, or for a ‘virtual audience’. Students concerts can also show that we are good enough teachers and help to showcase our studios – and there is nothing wrong with that.

Certainly, practising performing is essential for anyone who wants to gain qualifications in music, since confidence, concentration and focus in performance are only developed by practising doing it. For this reason, I organise performing opportunities for my students; I expect that they will want to take part and mostly they do, but it is not compulsory. Because I have taught many students who were working towards Advanced Level Music Performance examinations, I have organised weekly Piano Club, during which students may play for each other in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Attendance was compulsory but playing was by choice, when ready. Students may choose to perform a whole piece or they might play a section of work in progress. After each student has played, I invite positive and constructive comments from the other students. The experience builds confidence and trust that the audience appreciates the good points in their playing and is on their side. It also builds a sense of belonging to a community of pianists.

There can be little doubt that music can be a means of communication. If we look at the most natural way of making music this could be said to begin with the dialogue between mother and baby, sometimes called motherese, which has a gestural vocabulary that is similar across all cultures; mothers and babies raise and lower their voices, simultaneously changing their expressions and moving their hands. In this definition, communication is of importance in music making, but it is a very private form of dialogue and does not involve an audience.

Charles Darwin’s suggestion that the function of male birdsong is to communicate the male’s capability of protecting its territory, thereby seducing a female, has been put forward as evidence that the purpose of music is communication. The comparison between bird and human seems spurious and simplistic to me, however; does the bird consciously know it is ‘performing music’?

Perhaps music is simply what the performer says it is and wants it to be, so we can choose what, if anything, we want to express when we play. Stravinsky, famously, said that music is:

essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.

It is wonderful to share music, to perform it and to listen to performances but playing simply for the joy of playing, whether or not anyone is listening, seems to me to be intrinsically worthwhile too. There is, perhaps, a case to be made for studying, but not performing, a piece of music that is at the edge of one’s capability technically, but within one’s intellectual and emotional grasp. It is impractical and also dogmatic to suggest that a public performance is essential, at some point, for music making to be valid. Those who genuinely want to play for their own pleasure and not necessarily for the purpose of communicating, competing or gaining certificates are free to make that choice.

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Good instrumental teaching

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What is good teaching?

Whether you are beginning as a teacher, getting back into teaching after a break or just reviewing your practice, I’d like to share with you a few points that I try to bear in mind myself, as a piano teacher. We all have a preferred and individual teaching style, but these are some reminders that I give myself from time to time.

Good teaching has a clear focus, with definite goals based on musical principles. Good teaching results in good learning. Teaching should build on current understanding and promote future progression. Good teaching ought to be enjoyable for the teacher as well as for the pupil and if I am not particularly enjoying the lesson I ask myself why and aim to do something about it!

Once a student has played for me I like to think of something genuinely positive to say and then to discuss potential improvements to that piece or to the student’s technique in relation to any particular technical or interpretative demands.

What we teach

What we teach is best formulated according to agreed, conscious learning objectives for a particular student, whilst being sufficiently flexible to respond to the needs of the student in any particular lesson. Both short-term and long-term goals should be set for each student, for instance this lesson’s objective may be to teach the student how best to practise legato pedalling, whereas the long-term goal might be to pedal a Schumann piece well enough to pass the Grade 5 examination in six months’ time.

Be adaptable – if a pupil comes along with an idea for making up some music, this can be a powerful motivating tool and the other plans for the lesson may be incorporated later. A student who is involved in setting their own learning targets will be more engaged with the learning process but of course we have to guide students as to how they might improve their playing.

How we teach

Different students have preferred learning styles and it is helpful to know what these are so that we can both teach that student most effectively. The most relevant preferred learning styles for the pianist are:

(i) Kinaesthetic – these students will prefer to learn by ‘finger memory’ of melodic and chord shapes and they will probably be good at this way of memorisation

(ii) Visual – these students will prefer to learn by looking at the shapes that the music makes on the keys and they will probably be good sight readers

(iii) Aural – these students will prefer to learn by remembering how the music sounded. They may like to learn by rote more than by reading music and they will probably be good at memorising

(iv) Combination learners – these students will be able to draw on a range of learning styles.

Being a creative teacher

I like to begin teaching a piece by focusing on an aspect of it in a way that resonates with the individual student’s preferred learning style.

I know that, when beginning Satie’s Gymnopedie III, consistently using the Left Hand finger pattern 5-3-1 for root position chords (like A-C-E) and first inversion chords (like C-E-A), but using fingers 5-2-1 for second inversion chords (like A-D-F), can be of enormous help in achieving accuracy but the way I put this across will vary depending on the student.

Visual learners will be guided by how the patterns look on the keys compared with the notes in the score and kinaesthetic learners will become able to relate the feel of the hand position to the chord sequence to be memorised. Instead of telling my students about the fingering patterns, I may try asking them to devise a method or remembering the different chord shapes by choosing helpful fingering.

Aural learners will benefit most from remembering the sound of the chords. It is a useful and highly relevant exercise in aural development to encourage the student to hear whether the root (the A in chord A minor) is at the bottom, in the middle or at the top of the chord. Hearing this detail provides a quick accuracy check.

I think we should also develop students’ learning capacity in the ways that do not come to them so readily. If we know a student is probably going to learn pieces more by rote than by reading the notation, we could be positive about that student’s memorising abilities, whilst also encouraging better music reading by regularly providing easier sight reading opportunities. Nurture independence by showing students how to learn and practise effectively.

We can think of ways to engage those students who prefer playing by ear to reading from the dots. Playing the chord sequence of the Satie piece while improvising a melody with the other hand could be an enjoyable way of capturing the mood of the music, whilst memorising the chords. You could begin by doing this as a duet with the student, taking it in turns to improvise.

 Assessment

The means of assessing whether or not we have achieved our objectives must be clear to us, for instance we will know if we have really succeeded in teaching the correct time value of dotted rhythms in a Kabalevsky piece if the student plays accurately in the next lesson. If not, we may want to think of a different way of teaching rhythm in that piece.

The best way of judging whether we are helping a student to achieve long term aims may be through examination results but, if that path is not chosen, taking time to discuss the term’s achievement with the student may be a useful guide to how they feel about their playing and also helpful in formulating aims for future lessons.

Advice and resources for piano teachers and students:   

www.e-musicmaestro.com

Additional help for your teaching – 

Aural Test Training for music students: www.e-musicmaestro.com/auraltests

E-MusicMaestro videos of piano pieces Grade 1 – 5:   www.youtube.com/user/9pegasus9

Look out for more piano pieces on our new Youtube Channel as from August 2014:  www.youtube.com/user/EMusicMaestroChannel

 © Sandy Holland

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June 6, 2014 · 1:59 pm