Learning the right material as a piano student

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Hi, I am a young piano student who hasn't been playing for more than 2 years. I have a passion for learning piano, and right now I am doing very well. But I always wondered "what should I be learning as a piano student?" I know that all teachers are different and some may not be as good as others, and I want to make sure that I am learning what is necessary to become a great pianist. Currently I am working in a series of lesson books (More specifically the John Thompsons series, currently on level 3), a classics book, and any other material that I find. I also find myself not being assigned drills, scales, etc. and I wonder if that will affect me as a pianist in the future. Am I following the right track so far? Or do my teacher and I need to change some things about our lessons? May main questions is: "What things should I be learning as a piano student?

-- Ryan F. (Ryman821@sbcglobal.net), February 11, 2005


I think your teacher is on the right track by not assigning drills and mindless stuff, but instead having you develop technique through etudes and your lesson pieces. I didn't know there was still anyone out there using Thompson, though. After having the Thompson first books as a child, I do have to ask: Are you learning the notes on the staff and not relying on finger numbers and hand positions? (I've seen people who relied on those and it was a mess.) Assuming you are, then you need to keep concentrating on sight-reading, because that's a skill that will serve you very well. You should also warm up at the keyboard with the scale of whatever piece you are about to play, just to be sure you know the scale (in one octave or even in two, up and then down, and then the I-iv-I-V-I sequence-- that's what I usually do just to get myself into that key.) You can do scales up and down with both hands, right? And not just the tetrachord (where the scale is divided between both hands)? Don't sit there and just play scales, but it doesn't hurt when you are sitting down to play a piece (especially a new one) to look at the key signature first and play the scale of that key and the cadence I mentioned. I've always done that because we did that in school when I was in the choir, and it put our ears in the right mood.

You should also be learning interpretation and how to put emotion into your playing. Dynamics, legato touch, how to interpret the composer's markings. (If you're playing by ear, you'll go directly to your feelings for interpretation instead of reading the music.) I think musicality and a love for music are the most important things to learn at any instrument. Don't worry too much about whether the teacher is advancing you fast enough, unless you are not getting any original music by composers and you're only playing method book pieces. I think most second-year students are ready to go into the Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, and of course some teachers start you on Bartok's Mikrokosmos, which goes from really easy way on up. You'll be ready for some easy Beethoven, such as the dances or eccosaises. I would definitely ask the teacher to choose some "real" stuff for me to play if I were only in a method book, because you can handle some real repertoire by now.

You should know what the legato touch is and what the staccato and portato touches are. You should also be pedaling. When to use the pedal is a complex subject and goes as much by taste and ear as by rote. You'll soon just "know" when and how to pedal, but at first use your teacher's wisdom. There's a half pedal and there's rhythm pedaling. (I'm talking about the damper pedal. You also need to know about una corda pedal use and eventually about the middle sostenuto pedal on grand pianos.)

I think that you could even start participating in recitals and Guild or MTNA contests or competitions, just so you can get experience playing in front of people. That has always been my own Achilles' heel, because my parents and family always hated to hear me play or practice, and would yell from the other room that they wanted me to stop and they couldn't hear that TV or whatever, and it was always very tough for me to practice. I'm not talking about just banging on the piano--they hated Beethoven sonatas with equal opportunity dislike and would come in to sneer, scoff, wait for a wrong note, and say, "That stuff doesn't impress me." Some people just hate the beautiful sound and resonance of a piano. This has made me very very jumpy and nervous if anyone is around when I'm playing or if they are in the same room and watching. Don't let that happen to you! Get your teacher to put you into recitals or into a group lesson so you won't develop any stage fright. It's really important later that you not be shaking all over because someone is watching. I have trouble with even teachers watching over my shoulder because I just never was watched or listened to (the piano I finally bought with my babysitting money was banished to the faraway sun porch, so no one had to hear it.) If you have an opportunity for someone to hear you play without being ready to "strike," take it and feel lucky.

You can always shop around for other teachers if you aren't getting what you need in lessons. But also don't put pressure on yourself. You have probably started too late to ever hope to be a concert artist, but you can become a perfectly serviceable advanced amateur no matter what age you start!

-- Shalanna Collins (shalanna@yahoo.com), February 12, 2005.

Shalanna, I really found the information you gave Ryan on the pedagogy board great. From all the information you gave Ryan, you sound like a very experienced piano teacher. You mention not only stage fright, but also, just feeling shaky playing around anyone? If you are a teacher, do you feel this way while teaching if you have to demonstrate something? I ask because I am a piano teacher and had much the same experience growing up as you describe and I have never been able to 'perform' in front of anyone. I feel terrible at times when demonstrating something for my student if I hit a wrong note or feel they are watching too closely, I get that same shaky sort of feeling and then that makes me feel rather incompetent. I seem to be able to teach and my students do wonderful, in spite of it all! I was just interested if you had any problems while teaching.

-- Maxine (babenpansyrose@aol.com), February 12, 2005.

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