Integrating “How” with “Why” in Piano Teaching

My recent post “Imagery, Emotion, and Imagination” elicited many wonderful comments. In particular, Seymour Bernstein’s opening statement is especially consonant with my thinking:

“This advice of listing adjectives can be extremely helpful to students. But unless one makes a physical connection to musical feeling, all the adjectives in the world and spoken metaphors at lessons are inspirational at the moment, but may not be lasting.”

How true. In fact, this is a problem I find with most traditional master classes. Don’t get me wrong–I often enjoy these events very much, and come away with new ideas and inspiration. Usually, the emphasis is, rightly, on the music. But many times, the high-quality musical ideas of a master teacher can’t really be well-executed when the student’s technique isn’t fluid enough–and if the teacher doesn’t offer specific technical suggestions about how to achieve the desired musical results.

Further, it is common in many master classes to actually avoid talking about technique. Perhaps the master teacher:

  • doesn’t want to ‘step on the toes’ of the student’s teacher
  • considers technique an area that is ‘subjective’
  • prefers to work only on ‘the music’

Call me a dreamer, but I think that the student–and the audience–will benefit more if the master teacher balances informed music-making with suggestions about how to execute certain passages or gestures.* This can be done in a way that honors the student and her teacher while presenting a new way to approach the music. It’s possible that this may lead to a breakthrough in understanding or in releasing the imagination which, in turn, may catalyze more creativity in the days and weeks that follow.

Involving the whole body, understanding and executing effective choreography, and connecting the physical to ‘musical feeling’ is, indeed, much more beneficial in both the near and long term.

*One practical concern that I’ve been addressing recently in my own presentations is to have a video camera and screen to amplify what the audience can see. Hopefully, this approach will become the new ‘norm’ in venues where the audience must sit far enough away that comprehension is compromised by distance away from the action.

Another practice I’ve enjoyed is when an opaque projector is available to project the score onto a screen for the audience to follow along.


  1. Posted October 30, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    “Call me a dreamer, but I think that the student–and the audience–will benefit more if the master teacher balances informed music-making with suggestions about how to execute certain passages or gestures.”

    Thank you, I really love this because I have been telling my students that there is something about piano nobody is teaching.
    In “3 STEPS TO PLAY PIANO PROFESSIONALLY”, I made it clear like this “1- PSYCHOLOGY: that is to set your mind on the excitement you feel when you produce the best and new music that people swoon for it because it keeps every cell in their body dancing and sobbing with joy.”

    Lit’s have nothing but FUN on our way to mastering piano now.
    Thank You All.

  2. Mary Walby
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more about a master teacher addresses technique in a masterclass. I once attended a workshop where the morning session was discussing how to teach technique, and then the afternoon was a masterclass. To my disappointment not one mention of technique was made during the masterclass, even though I could see the tension in the student’s shoulders to execute a difficult passage. What a gift the teacher could have given all of us and the student: what are different ways to help a student play something difficult without tension?

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