Issue 108: What do I teach first?

Thinking about teaching piano, the problem is that I want to ensure that the student learns the correct notes, fingering, rhythm, articulation, touch and dynamics. It is clearly impossible to learn all those elements in one go, but I am also very aware that the longer the student plays the music with any of those elements missing, or incorrect, the harder it will be to get them right later. There is so much to learn at once that it can be hard to “see the wood for the trees”

Entering the jungle

Of course, if you are teaching a string instrument, there are the whole issues of bowing and intonation, and for wind instruments the articulation and finger coordination issues.

By now there will probably be some issues with the rhythm. Once the student has played the WRONG rhythm twice, it is well on the way to becoming a real problem. The movements are already embedded in their fingers; hurrying past two isolated crotchets in a run of quavers will now be a habit that needs focus and attention to correct. Or the horrid intricacies of dotted rhythms, glossed over when tackling a bristling array of sharp, flat and natural accidentals are now a serious stumbling block to be patiently negotiated every time.

Once the notes and fingering and rhythm are in place for each hand, there are the dynamics and articulation to check and perfect. Then, after all that work, the whole thing falls apart when attempting “hands together”.

Faced with all this, I am surprised that all piano students don’t fall victim to despair and depression.

So. What do I do?

I find that it is a very good strategy to look for places where the same rhythms, fingerings, and, with any luck, completely identical passages, appear in the piece, and work on these to start with. I’ll mark them all in the score. I use pencil, or colour-coded using “Snopake” removable transparent high-lighter strips, as it is a FIRM RULE of mine NEVER to mark up a score in a way that cannot be removed or altered later.

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As an aside – I use these transparent strips ALL the time when teaching, to highlight a section that is to be practiced, or an area where there is a problem  – eg “practice the chord at yellow” or “watch out for the LH note at pink”.


Then, in the early stages of learning the piece, I get the student to just work on these few bars at a time. That way the student can focus their attention on just a few, similar bits and pieces at a time. This is actually how I approach learning new pieces myself. I scan through the whole thing, and then pick out similar passages in order to get those particular techniques sorted and ingrained into my fingers correctly from the start. I will work on the passages hands separately and then together.

There are two vitally important considerations when “chunking” a piece like this.

You MUST always use the correct fingering at the start and end of each chunk. If you don’t you will always run into trouble when you try and link the chunks together and the fingering collapses.

You MUST spend time working on the links from one chunk to the next, making sure you have some kind of grasp on how the chunks connect; it could be a chord, the movement of your hands, a change of direction in a sequence or phrase. Whatever it is, you need to ensure that you can navigate your way through the whole piece without hesitation.

Playing right through isn’t enough, or course; you should be trying to tell a whole story through your playing. But that’s a whole new post for another day.

"I hates singing!"

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