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.
Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition
In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist. He is about to audition for a local orchestra. The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.
I listened to him play the solo through. The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.
He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra. So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”
He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”
I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*
He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses. This caused a sudden change in his playing. One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords. In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch. It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment. Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.
No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context. The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head. The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.
“How do I do this,” he asked?
Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes. He didn’t know. I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.
Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing. If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo? He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.” I agreed.
Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord. It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.
Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs. And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.
I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another. I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding. Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note. Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.
Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.
* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.
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.