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Q What are your criteria for choosing teaching pieces for collections or workshops from standard classical "albums for the young?"

A My choices, and undoubtedly those of most individuals, will be based on personal perspectives, artistic taste, aesthetic sense and sense for what fits the hand well. For example, pieces that exhibit strong character and personality often stand out; they capture one's attention. I look for literature choices that I believe the majority of students will find compelling or stimulating based on my teaching experience. Usually I avoid selecting pieces solely for the technical issues that they develop, but instead seek selections that are of high musical quality--that are convincing and compelling musically. With respect to your own choices for students, many times the repertoire choices that you like and that stand out to you will stand out to others as well, including students. We tend to teach pieces that we like well. I especially look for pieces that "feel good" in the hand or seem to fit the hand well. In addition, I look for strong character and communication to me as a pianist thorough the music.

Q I dislike playing ornaments and especially playing long trills because my fingers do not move fast enough. How do you prepare a student to "ease" into ornaments? Why does my hand lock up?

A Strive to keep a feeling of lightness in the bottom of the hand, beneath the large knuckles when playing trills and other ornaments. Practice short trills, perhaps four notes only, becoming aware of how the bottom of the hand feels at the end of the trill. Gradually add sequences of four notes, with stops for breath and relaxation between groups. The key is to maintain relaxation and lightness, avoiding letting other fingers and parts of the hand get in the way of playing the ornament. I like to play the ornament from the large knuckle in the hand, with a small gesture. Consider practicing the ornament on the fall-board of the piano, lightly. Then, how would it have sounded, you might ask, if it had been played on the keyboard in the same way, with the same touch? This can help with consistency of touch and also lightness, as well as evenness.

It is likely that the hand locks because so many small muscles in the hand tense and, thus, work against each other. Small muscles that are not necessary to play the ornament involved may engage inappropriately. Practice keeping lightness and relaxation in the hand. Perhaps alternate finger groupings/fingerings in longer ornaments. In many respects, one may need to practice ornaments as part of her technical regimen, just as she builds the playing of scales and arpeggios to gain strength, stamina, fluency and tonal control.

Q How does one avoid stiffening up when playing their scale technique? Can you go through the whole routine without hurting?

A Practice segments of scales in short impulses of notes. For example, play a scale one octave ascending quickly with a light but even touch. Then, relax while still depressing the concluding notes and use just enough weight to sustain the tone. Continue by playing another octave in this way, perhaps four times ascending, relaxing at the end of each octave scale while sustaining the final notes, and then descending in similar fashion. Keep the motion light. It can be practiced on the fallboard or a tabletop. Strive for ease of motion, lightness and evenness of finger strokes. Many times an individual will "key-bed" or continue to hold weight into the keys at the end of a passage or while playing a passage or scale. This is just one way to stimulate awareness of key-bedding while playing and to gradually eliminate heaviness in the technique.

Never should we experience pain in playing technical passages. Tightness may occur from muscle sets working against each other, and that too should be avoided. True pain is never good or helpful in piano playing, and one should cease what they are doing as soon as it occurs, rest the hand or arm and diagnose what caused the problem. Pain is a signal that something is not right. Muscle tightness also should be avoided, and building strength in the technique can help. Take periodic breaks or incorporate relaxation at key spots in the playing when the tightness creeps in. Be sure that you and your students are able to discriminate between pain and muscle tightness. Neither is to be lightly dismissed.

Q Would you please define voicing?

A I refer to voicing in piano playing as bringing out certain tones and lines above others, as well as producing various colors and tones in a hierarchy within thicker textures in piano literature. Most individuals think of voicing as achieving compelling tone and balance between two or more notes in a single hand. I like to think of voicing as never-ending in my own practice to develop rich tone colors and textures. Developing skill in voicing requires the ability to balance a melody and accompaniment between hands, and then between two or more notes in a single hand and between the thicker textures in both hands. This comes through the performer's practice repetitions of a section of a piece and his eventual matching of his ideal sound model to the sound he creates. For me, it is the central key to a pianist's own musical voice.

Q How long do you have a student work on a piece when not working toward a specific goal such as a recital or competition? It is difficult to know when to leave a piece.

A In some respects, this is difficult to answer since so many variables exist. I will mention some questions and points to ponder in determining this for different students' own musical needs and goals. When the piece has ceased to grow in terms of musical and technical satisfaction in the eyes of the student and the teacher over the period of several weeks, then the time may be present to stop working on the piece or to put it aside--either permanently or for a period of several months or a year, for example, if the intent is to return to it. If the piece is going nowhere, even with diligent and creative teaching suggestions, then perhaps it should be put aside. The key is this: the scenario of letting pieces go that are not fully learned should not occur with many of the pieces in the assignments. If it does, the student will not progress evenly, will begin to develop technical problems and will become accustomed to not completing pieces.

I believe that it is important for a student to leave a piece when it is able to be played up to tempo, with proper character and with appropriate musical portrayal of the score. Each teacher has her own aural image for a student to achieve to determine when a selection is sufficiently well learned that the student can move on. In general, if the performance of a piece does not convey the emotion and the meaning (or character) of the piece, then perhaps more work can be accomplished on it.

Elementary classical repertoire pieces at levels 3 and 4 are often only one to two pages long--and these pieces can be mastered ideally by most students in three to four weeks, perhaps more quickly in some instances. Slightly longer works at levels 7 and 8 may require more study--perhaps four to five weeks. The length of the work, the technical considerations and the number of different musical ideas in the work combine to help determine how long a student will need to learn it. Naturally we assume that the assigned piece is appropriate in difficulty/accessibility for the student's reading ability.

Q I have a slightly built (tiny) 14-Q year-old female student. She is a bright and talented student--beautiful hand position, intermediate student. She does not put much weight into the keys, and rarely does she achieve a true forte, much less fortissimo. Help?

A It sounds like this is a student who needs to develop more strength, just as an athlete works to build up his own strength in a particular area. The teacher should be careful not to assign exercises that are too advanced for her (and that could produce tension), but rather have her work through a regimen that is appropriate for her ability at the present time. Consistent daily practice on technical exercises helps to build strength. Playing exercises that are too difficult or playing too fast with improper motions will not accomplish this. Perhaps a couple of colleagues in the area could offer suggestions as well, as they see her hands and hear her level of accomplishment in a live setting, and a technical plan for her jointly could be established. Sometimes a student simply will need to grow and mature physically to gain some strength to play more loudly.

Q Do you re-finger passages for guys with thick fingers? So many high school guys are beginning to have these problems.

A I am not inclined to re-finger passages for individuals whose hands are so different from mine. We know that small-handed pianists may become quite adept in creating their own fingerings, or they find ways to move quickly on the keyboard to accommodate their own needs. Likewise, I encourage those whose hands seem awkward with thicker fingers to find ways to slightly move the hand or re-finger a chord to promote ease. I might encourage them to shift the hand slightly in (toward the fallboard) and out on the key to accommodate their own physical structure, just as pianists with small hands find their own ways of moving. Many times with some extra practice, the problems begin to take care of themselves as the students experiment with what feels best in terms of slight rotations and placement on the key and with use of creative fingerings.

Jane Magrath, NCTM, is internationally known as a pianist, author, clinician and teacher. She is professor and director of piano pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Magrath, Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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