And may there be no moaning at the bar line
Irving is an intermediate student. We are working on one of the numerous, smaller Schubert pieces: a Waltz in A Minor.
I am aware that at various places he hesitates before going on to the next note. This seems to happen especially when going from the last beat of one measure into the first beat of the next measure. It happens much less when going from one beat inside a measure to the next.
This situation reminds me of a “steeplechase,” or any other race in which horse, or human, must periodically jump over hurdles. In between the hurdles, the path is flat and so it is easier to maintain momentum. In Irving’s case, it is as if each vertical bar line is a literal hurdle or obstacle to be overcome through a greater amount of effort, although the connections over the bar lines are not generally any more difficult than the connections inside a measure.
Could it be that the bar line is just a psychological hurdle and no more? Is it the mind’s reaction to seeing a vertical line that, visually, appears as a barrier to be crossed or surmounted to continue in the piece?
It could be that the effect is due to the fact that the first beat of the (next) measure often requires extra energy to create the ictus due to a downbeat?
Or, it could be that there is a certain limit to how many upcoming notes the mind can digest before having to pause and take in some more notes, and that a convenient place to fill up the mental buffer is at the beginning of a new measure.
Let us consider instead the cases where the transition between bars only seems more difficult than the changes that occurred within the measure.
In our case, given the 3/4 time of the waltz, the student should play four (sic) consecutive beats at a time. Doing this will always involve going over one bar line. Let us say, Irving is playing from one downbeat of one measure through to the next downbeat.
Having executed these four beats, pause. Repeat the same four beats as necessary until there is no hesitation going over the bar line.*
Continue by advancing one measure at a time, starting with the downbeat that ended the previous four beat segment. Advance through that measure and come to a pause on the following downbeat. Repeat this process, updating the starting point from the downbeat of one measure to the downbeat of the next measure. In this way, the student continuously updates his mental cursor to the position where he had previously stopped.
Here is another, more direct technique for crossing bar lines: Get rid of the bar line. The neatest way to do this is to mentally erase the bar line. We chose to erase every other bar line. The result is that piece in 3/4 time now seems to be in 6/4 time. Doing this often automatically removes any hesitation that occurred between what used to be beat three of the first measure going into beat one of the second measure. The forward motion flows freely through where the bar line used to be.
* Part of the advantage of practicing this way is that how we play the next measure’s downbeat is not interfered with by any mental or physical preparations we may be making about continuing beyond the new downbeat and further into its measure.
The beginner who has trouble with rhythm and counting
At her lesson yesterday “C” told me that the amount of focus and concentration she needs to keep track of rhythm as she plays through a piece in real time is so great that she often cannot sustain that effort, given that she is already focusing on what the notes are.
There are some students who are convinced that they do not have the ability to play with the rhythm in addition to playing the correct notes.
Often I find that their conclusion is inaccurate. They do have the ability to feel and reproduce a rhythm; what they lack is the ability to translate the visual notation of that rhythm, a series of odd looking musical symbols, into the feeling of the rhythm that is already in their bodies.
While playing, the student if necessary can interpret and react to just one note at a time. However, for rhythm, it requires fusing a group of successive written symbols into a single sustained act through time. In other words, the rhythm does not lie in a single note but in a series of notes.
To prove to the student that they do have the ability to execute rhythms accurately, I use just one note (middle C for example) and reiterate it in a certain rhythm. For instance if I play the sequence:
| dotted-quarter eighth | dotted-quarter eighth | eighth eighth quarter | half |
the majority of students will be able to play that rhythm back. They will do so at the same tempo in which I played it. This last fact suggests that they achieve this without subdividing the conscious duration of their rendition into separate notes, without breaking it into a series of separate notes, each with its own private duration.
Now that the student is aware that they do have the ability to mimic, and therefore repeat if necessary particular rhythms, what’s left to do is leisurely learning to recognize the visual concatenation of symbols that stand for that whole experience that their body already knows and has internalized.
More about teaching beginners
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.
Teaching technique for younger beginners: tolerance for criticism
A useful technique is to create ‘room’ within the student for accepting negative criticism, by the creation within the student of a second person, who views the first person from the outside (as someone in the second person singular). This person can be called a colleague-teacher. Someone the teacher can consult with about the way the student is playing. This term puts the student into a position of authority with a sense of power and omniscience, thus steering around the potential for the student to feel as a victim of negative criticism.
Agree ahead of time on what the important things are that should happen during the next run-through of the piece.
a) the notes in the correct order.
c) a steady even tempo*
plus anything else that seems relevant to help improve that particular student’s playing, such as fingering, dynamics, tempo, articulation, clarity, enthusiasm, etc.. But not too many things. Perhaps a maximum of two or three to five.
After each run-through of a piece, consult with the ‘colleague-teacher’, and ask him to give his opinion on each of the categories, by assigning a separate grade, from one to ten, for each of the agreed upon categories. It is easier, with this setup, for the student to give criticism to himself without the resistance and hurt feelings that would result from negative criticism by the adult teacher. It creates the possibility of working on the aspects of his playing that he acknowledged as having lower scores.
* this may be the hardest for the young student to admit because, tacitly, she is acknowledging that certain sections of the piece are more difficult for her and therefore in need of more work than other sections.
Teaching Technique: One: Concerning Beginners Who Have Studied For a Few Months.
A teacher may make an unintentional error in judgment when he assumes that the student has learned something simply because 1) “sufficient” time has been spent during previous lessons going over it, or 2) judges solely by the student’s outward behavior (the student ‘seems’ to have learned it).
The role of diagnosis on the teacher’s part:
If you ask the student to read from a score a certain note (E.G. middle C) and then play that note on the keyboard, and as a result of the question the student plays a D. To know where things went wrong we would have to query the student to insure that his visual interpretation of the note on the staff was a C, and, just as important, insure that the key that the student thinks is “C” on the piano keyboard is indeed C on the Keyboard.
Otherwise any of the following things may have happened in the student’s mind:
1) The student thought that the note printed in the score was D, and then played the “correct” note based on his assumption.
2) The student thought that the note printed in the score was C, but did not know where C is located on the keyboard.
3) Or consider that the student knows that the visual notation is for middle-C and knows where middle-C is on the piano keyboard. But he didn’t play the note that he thought he did: he meant to play C but made a careless error and landed on the D next to C on its right.
Such a “careless” error is sometimes the result of nothing more than the fact that a finger is an opaque object. That when it is covering and depressing a certain note on the keyboard, the beginner sometimes make the wrong assumption as to what key on the keyboard is lying under the finger in question. The most invisible part of the key is the point where the student’s finger makes contact with it. This can be made more unclear for the beginning student if it is not only one finger that is poised over a single note but as many as five fingers are covering (and therefore possibly obscuring) as many as five keys on the keyboard. Under these circumstance it might be easy to be unsure of the full geometric shape of the key which lies under one of the fingers in the middle in the middle of the hand.
Sitting at the student’s side the teacher may have a clearer view of what key lies under what finger than the student does, and this leads to a false perception on our part as to what may be going on in the student’s eyes. The student is looking at the keyboard from a point of view over the finger and over the keyboard.
What is the most useful way to provide feedback to the student in each of the three above cases? If we ask the student enough specific questions to diagnose the nature of the confusion in time, then our response, though delayed, can begin with the positive affirmation of the part that the student understood correctly, and then an explanation with how starting with correct judgment can lead to an incorrect conclusion.
Sometimes the student seems to have responded correctly but in fact has not really done so.
An example: the student thought that the note printed in the score was D, but was unsure where D is on the keyboard and thus played C but thinking it was a D. This possibility is intriguing since from the ‘outside’ he appears to have read the note correctly and played the correct key on the piano.
In many of these cases, the student makes assumptions that he thinks are correct, and then makes correctly drawn logical conclusions from the first assumption. The student is then confused about his sense of rightness and wrongness. Beginning piano is far from a clear field of sensory information. It can be a minefield of mental booby traps. So much depends on the order in which things are taught, and the student’s own sense of logic of what ‘follows’ from what. A misunderstanding in one thing can lead to a perfectly correct series of ensuing assumptions or judgments. The younger student then learns from the teacher that he is wrong, the distinction between an incorrect premise and an incorrect conclusion being too sophisticated at his age.
We will look briefly at three other similar situations among many others.
Example 1 . At issue may be something as simple as “Where is middle C”?
As teachers we have decades of experiencing recognizing what about the sound of Middle C makes it different from the sound of any other C. To us if the student answers incorrectly, there is a moment when we are likely to automatically ask ourselves “does the student hear that the answer is incorrect.” However only certain students can make this distinction among C-s by ear in the early months of study.
The student bases his answer on something else than sound.
If the student does not have a piano but rather a 61 key electric keyboard, the lowest C is c2, and then by moving rightwards 2 c-s one finds middle C (c4). This system does not work on the teacher’s piano, where middle C is the fourth C from the left end of the piano. Even if the student can accurately ‘hear’ which C is middle-C on his keyboard, he may not yet have the ability to hear the identity between middle-C-s played on two different instruments, though some of us may consider this ability as given a priori to the human ear.
Even if the student works on a normal piano at home, and also knows that middle C is the fourth C from the left end of the piano keyboard, there is room for confusion. We’ll assume the student is clear about left and right. But has he by now come to perceive clearly the topologically repeating segments of the piano keyboard, for instance not counting correctly because of the similarity of the C and the F keys.
Example 2: The symmetry of the notation of c4 in Bass and Treble clef may lead the student to assume an identity between b3 and d4, or to a3 and e4.
They are mirror images of each other in the written score. Two possibilities for an incorrect assumption on the student’s part are, he cannot distinguish between an image and its mirror image, or he can distinguish between the two images but considers the mirror symmetry between the two notes to be of a higher logical priority than whether the note is high or low on the staff.
Was it the student’s fault that the first note taught him was middle C, in both its visual manifestations, and thus was dutifully applying the same principle to other pairs of mirror image notes. What started as a pleasing symmetry to the eye in the first weeks of study (and a possible conclusion that reading notes was not going to be as difficult as his friend Ellen said it was for her) has instead become the more difficult problem to find a reason or criterion for why b3 and d4 (or a3 and e4) should not the same note.
Groups of Similar or Equivalent Terms:
Consider these types of questions for the student:
-Which direction is a higher pitch on the music staff, up or down?
-Which direction is a higher pitch on the piano keyboard left or right?*
-Which direction on the keyboard is the same as up on the staff, right or left?
-Which direction on the staff is the same as left is on the keyboard, up or down?
These questions have to do with “what goes with what?”. It often comes as a surprise to the teacher that after a month or more at the piano the student has difficulty pairing things together.
We should begin by considering all the possible mismatched pairs and triads. Only then can we give meaningful help to the student about this type of situation.
Here is a table of terms that ‘belong’ with each other, about which the student may be still be confused. Or worse, the student is confident that they have mastered this, but they have not. Only after the teacher uncovers the exact nature of the confusion, will he avoid invalidating the student’s self confidence.
Unless I am absolutely certain that the student is clear about these, I will continue to review these associations at lessons. I always consider that the student may still be in some mid phase of understanding even these most simple things. If I am going to err, I always try to err on the side of not taking too much for granted, and being pleasantly surprised if there was no need to worry.
This chart summarizes these associations among terms.
It was my intention here to include a chart. After several attempts at this I have given up. Instead I describe the chart.
Two lines, one running east-west, the other up-down, intersect at their midpoints.
At the top of the vertical line appears this caption:
up the staff, higher in pitch, forwards in the musical alphabet.
At the bottom of the vertical line appears this caption:
down the staff / lower in pitch / backwards in the alphabet
At the left end of the horizontal line appears this caption:
left on the keyboard / lower in pitch / backwards in the musical alphabet
At the right end of the horizontal line appears this caption:
right on the keyboard / higher in pitch / forwards in the musical alphabet
* after first ruling out a confusion regarding which side is left and which side is right.
There is a group of students, who after several months of lessons, are declared as lacking the necessary talent to learn piano. This conclusion is wrong if we do not first give the student ample time to re-make or re-shape their judgments about things. The problem, easily fixed with patience, lies in fundamental misconceptions. Things so basic that the teacher tacitly assumes the student should know a priori.