Joe's Blog

More about teaching beginners

March 13, 2018

What are the different components of piano playing – all of which must function well either alone or in concert with the others?

Piano “playing” is perceived as a single activity whose component parts are all concurrent in time.  This describes its appearance to others as well as to pianists who have been training for a number of years.

The list of components includes, but is far from exhausted by: the ability to read music notation; to conceptualize the name of the note as a sound, the ability to translate the note(s) read into the depression of the appropriate key or keys on the keyboard; the physical / muscular coordination to bring the finger tips to choose these keys; the ability to distinguish sounds by pitch, loudness, duration and tone quality.  Then there is the ability of the ear to determine whether the previous  components resulted in the correct sonic outcome.  Add to that the ability to see patterns (among notes on the keyboard and among the  more abstract patterns), including the patterns by which patterns change through time.  The ability of creating and distinguishing rhythms.  Most important of all, coordinating them so that they all occur together in an ongoing flow of time.  These are some of the physical, visual, kinesthetic and audio components of playing the piano.

These component parts, if presented separately, would not  necessarily suggest what their effect would be if intermingled, nor the manner in which to combine them.  In the everyday world, most of skills, would not be found bound together, nor work together towards a common goal.

As teachers, we may take it too much for granted that the student will instinctively fuse a coherent whole out of these elements.  It helps if the student has a strong psychological motivation to simply “play”.  This desire is a strong integrating force.

The issue will appear differently to children and adults.

For the adult beginner the issue tends to be how to gradually fuse together the above components such as pitch and rhythm, fingering and counting, which remain separated for longer than with the younger beginner, for whom there is apt to be a more immediate unconscious synthesis of the parts.  There may not even be an awareness of the parts as parts.  In this case, it may be more difficult to pull apart one ability from the nexus of the others to resolve an issue that is due to just one of the components.

During the first lessons the teacher is on high alert to identify which components of the overall skill set the student seems to be already somewhat familiar and to judge accurately the degree of that familiarity.

Ideally we want all the component abilities to progress in tandem, roughly the same rate.  In practice, this is almost impossible, but the teacher should do what he can to allow no particular skill component to lag too far behind the others.  When this isn’t done, we have cases such as the third year student who comes to a new teacher not knowing how to read notes, or count rhythms.

I would so enjoy hearing from other teachers about this subject, and am glad to put up on the site their comments and suggestions.

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