Q & A

Think beginner piano player are easier to teach?


Many teachers share the same frustration as me: Parents are not sure if their child is interested in piano.

Why should they spend more on the beginning lessons?


Here are my responses to the frequent questions:

Here are the list of things to do before a note is played: rhythm, notations, keyboard layout, posture, hand position, firm fingers, AND if that’s not enough??LISTENING. It’s impossible for one to grasp all of these in a few lessons. Good teachers know what and when to focus. Inexperienced but responsible teacher will ask all the elements met prematurely and create frustration early on. The complexity is like driving an airplane. The only difference is that no one is hurt if it’s done wrong. But you wouldn’t trust a credible teacher for your aviation lesson, would you?

I had one parent who keeps on delaying on the purchase of the piano/keyboard. The child had to practice on a toy-side keyboard that is just uncomfortable to play for even 5 minutes. Mom insisted that unless she can practice on that keyboard for certain time, she won’t consider buying a full-size keyboard. I had to tell her that it’s a leap of faith. She has to make the move first or she will never know why the student doesn’t practice. When you put in the effort to acquire the best resources you can get, you are showing the level of commitment toward your child’s learning process. Your child sees the trust and will send a positive feedback. If you give minimal resource to just “try-out,” then the child is under the impression that it’s ok for the goal not met. Then you will be prophecy the outcome of the lesson.

The majority of students don’t commit to become a pianist or musician as a child. Many of us ask for lessons because of some songs we heard of sang. The request comes at a spark of inspiration. A good teacher can prolong that interest and curiosity well into puberty until a good habit establish itself.

The beginning habit takes long time to build and acquire until it’s part of your second-nature. Habits like firm had position, fingertips, observing music and signs, postures all have to be learned over a long period of time. Bad habits take the same number of years since your first piano lesson to undo. Then it will take more years to learn the new ones. Assuming a 9-year-old who has been taking piano lessons for 3 years. To build the new habit, it will take at least 3years to undo (the child is 12) and relearn the habit by the age of 15. That is a huge loss of time because teenagers are the most vulnerable to dropout in lessons.

Ok, I am sorry to disappoint those of you who want a shortcut. Nowadays it’s even a challenge to set the time aside to practice. However, you have right to control how long the time is. On a typical weekday, a high school student can probably put in 30 minutes a day to practice, not 3 hours. Accept the time you have and set your goals realistically. Forcing a 2-hour practice in one day will cause burnout and you will lose the productivity after 30 minutes.

Once you know how much time you can put in each day, access the READINESS of the piece. If the piece is new, expect to spend at least 6 times the time at performance timing. For example, if it takes 5 minutes to perform the piece non-stop (you can acquire it from youtube or internet for finished performance), you will spend at least 30 minutes to read through the notes if not more. For detail work, it will be 10 times depending on the level of difficulty. Suppose we need to repeat the piece 5 times for detailed work, who has 4 hours to repeat them?

So now for the solution: divide the piece into several sections and work each section individually. Resist the temptation to move on and be more sensitive about the stops on the sections you are working on. Repeat the selected sections several times until you hear noticeable errors or stops. Rule of thumb: no more than 4 lines. If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information, you probably are. Our brain can only process limited amount of information and concentrate. Find your limit. If you ran out of the time you commit, stop and go on to your daily activities. With an unfinished piece, you will be more likely to come back to finish it the next day. When you have more time on weekends, then you can try to put them together.

I have heard too many transfer students telling me that their teachers told them to repeat the pieces (from beginning to the end) at least a number of times. It may work with elementary level repertoire as there are only a few lines in each piece. It’s not feasible when the students move into intermediate or advanced level. No wonder there are such high dropout rate at this level!!

The above technique is for learning pieces from scratch. If you have pieces that are already learned and you know it pretty well, PLAY them and not worry about WORK. At the end of the work, we need to have fun. So, if you start to feel exhausted from learning the new piece, play something that you enjoy (yes, anything). It’s the final purpose of piano learning. There is a reason why English choose the word “PLAY” for all the music instruments.

Need I say it more? But you will be surprised that students feel trapped in a piece they don’t feel comfortable or hate because they need it for certain test, festival, or evaluation. A good teacher will challenge and open your eyes for new style. But be frank with your teacher about how you feel your pieces. Remember, it’s your lesson and you are the one facing the piece every day, not the teacher (who has done his/her share). To help your teacher, be more definite about your preference. Telling him or her “I don’t know. I just don’t like it” won’t help the communication process. If you don’t know how to express it, bring a sample clip of your favorite song.

The most unique challenge of being a pianist is that we are all required to memorize solo repertoire. To make matter worse, we cannot bring our piano with us to performances. Most memorization in music is done physically (how you move on the keyboard) or aurally (the sound combination). I have found that memorizing early on opens your ears and you listen to the nuances more. The reason is that your brain can only work one thing at a time. When you focus on the score (visual help) and play, your ears’ sensitivity goes down. When you feel comfortable that you can play the page, close the book and play again. You will then find out where you rely on visual help. Reinforce the areas where you need the book to play through. Memorizing little bit at a time helps when the times comes that you have to play the entire piece from memory.

Normally the composer will gather 3 or 4 ideas and integrate the ideas. I usually start with the sections that have the most repetitions. Many times it takes up 60% of the piece. It will be psychologically gratifying knowing that you get done 70% using only 30% of your effort. Often we want to conquer the hardest 30% first so we know we can control the rest. I have found that I am exhausted at the end and no energy or will left to finish regardless how easy it is!! Also be observing of your energy throughout the day. Some people are most productive in the mornings or vice versa. Save your best energy for the most challenging pieces. If you plan to practice more than one interval per day, practice the most challenging piece at the first interval. Expect the later interval will be shorter because we are humans.

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