Synchronizing with the student at the lesson
Synchronizing communication between the student and the teacher is a very important part of any lesson.
There is a tempo to the way the student and the teacher interact that varies from student to student and lesson to lesson. One of the most important factors in their dialogue is how well-synchronized their minds are.
1. Here is an example of lack of synchronization. Patricia is a dynamic and forceful person with an extremely active mind. She is used to taking charge of things. When I start expressing a thought to her about how to improve the current passage, perhaps trying to demonstrate it at the piano, before she has had a chance to understand the idea I’m conveying, she has already started playing the passage again. If she had waited another few seconds she might have understood the gist of what I was trying to communicate, but as it was, she formed a different idea of what I meant. My concern in this is not that I have been interrupted, but that no communication resulted.
We have working on this issue, and gradually we are learning to ‘tune’ ourselves to each other.
2. Rachael is a student who, in her professional life, in an executive. She wants information communicated to her quickly. Once she gets the gist of what she thinks I’m trying to say, she doesn’t care to hear the rest. In this case, most of the adaption has to come from my side. I have learned to sense the moment when she has gotten my idea, usually in the middle of a sentence, at which point I simply stop talking. It has become an easy habit for me, and she appreciates it.
3. With my student Irving, there is another type of timing related factor that effects communication between us. I usually start my feedback by referring to the place in the score about which I’m going to comment. Even if that spot is the one just played a moment earlier, Irving needs a long time to visually locate the spot in the score. Until he does, all that I say is vague or confusing to him. In this case, the best thing is for the teacher to wait for a sign, usually an eye cue, that the student has found the spot, and then start talking about the passage. The teacher cannot expect the student to speed this process up. Often the student is reluctant to inform the teacher that he is still trying to find the place on the page and experiences that terrible feeling of not understanding something that the teacher obviously thinks is simple enough to understand.
Another option with this type of student is to, by default, always point to the place on the page that he is about to talk about.
4. A sensitive time factor in communication is how long the student waits before putting the teacher’s advice into practice. This advice has a short “half-life” during which its effect will carry over into the student’s hands. This time is exceeded if, for instance, the student first speaks about something else, or goes back too far in the score to start playing.
Staying present with the student is a full time occupation, but one that is well worth the effort; the lesson will be more successful and the student will feel seen and heard as an individual.
A useful definition of piano teaching
Piano teaching: the use of a combination of demonstration (for the purpose of imitation) and metaphors (which at best convey something intangible to the student), which the student can internalize. The metaphors are aided by things like tone of voice, tempo of voice, cadence in the voice, enthusiasm, and gesturing.
To me, piano teaching involves:
A creative attempt to enter the student’s mind to see what point of view they are receiving the information you are trying to convey, and then spontaneously translating what you are saying into the student’s personal language.
Adapting the tempo of communication to a rate that neither bores the student or exceeds their rate of comprehension.
Being an advocate for all that is good in the student’s playing and being patient regarding all things that are challenging to the student.
Allowing the motivated and curious student to have varying degrees of control over the sequence of events during the lesson. And by the end of the lesson, although things may have been covered in a different order than the teacher planned, most of those things were dealt with.
Willingness to answer, as accurately as possible, everything the student asks having to do with music and teaching.
Distinguishing between these three types of information:
a. “Do it this way because it is correct.” For example, you played a C-natural instead of a C-sharp.
b. “Do it this way because it is the tradition to do it this way, handed down through generations of teachers and students.” For example, it is traditional to play this part slower.
c. “Do it this way because it is my personal opinion that it should be done this way.”
Otherwise, the student will conflate all three forms and the teacher takes advantage of being in a position of authority.
Not ‘getting in the way’ of the gifted student.
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.