Issue 112: Lessons from my piano teacher (1)

I promised that I would pass on what I learned when my piano teacher came to stay a few weeks back – and here’s a first instalment. The teacher in question is Valerie Dickson, who was over here from the other side of the world where she teaches and delivered seminars. with a particular interest in teacher piano teachers – what could be better for me! Here are a couple of ideas from her to try – if you don’t already do them.

Make a photocopy of the music you are studying – indeed, make several, which you can mark up in whatever way will help you at the stage of learning that you are at. This saves your real copy from all the pencil marks that come and go as you work on the music.

I haven’t done this for myself, but I do have an older pupil (in his seventies!) who did exactly this when we were learning Bach, so that he could use high-lighter pens to mark up the different voices in the three-part fugue we were studying. I ALWAYS write any marks in pencil, which then can be rubbed out when no longer needed, but I have to say that sometimes, overcome by frustration, I have marked something so heavily that it can’t be rubbed out. So the “working copy” seems a good idea to me.

Valerie taught several of my pupils while she was here, while I listened and took notes. This was really useful as she picked up on various issues and offered different ways of approaching them. Here are some of the point from a lesson with a pupil working on the Bach 2-part invention in B flat.

Valerie noticed that she was continually flicking her eyes up and down from music to piano keyboard, as many as six times in a single bar. I had previously had to work on her habit of looking at me after almost every note to see if it was correct (I used to hold up her spiral bound notebook in front of my face. What she never realised was that I could check where she was looking through the gap between the pages). Anyway, now cured of looking at me the whole time, all this eye movement was not helping her to maintain any sense of connection between the notes.

Valerie helped her to become more confident of the placing of her fingers by insisting that she not look down AT ALL, and in fact concealed her hands by holding a sheet of music above them. The pupil, once she recovered from the fear of wrong notes, was able to focus on learning to feel her way around the keys. Eventually she was able to play, hands separately, several bars at a time without taking her eyes off the music.

The also suggested playing through just the subject lines of a fugue or Invention, making sure that each phrase was completed (it usually takes in the first note of the next bar as well). That way you will pick up where the parts imitate or even copy each other. This proved to be a revelation for my pupil (and slightly irritating for me that I hadn’t thought of it sooner!)

When I was learning Bach Inventions with Valerie (all those many years ago), I vividly remember playing through the different voices in turn, but I had forgotten the trick of following the subject in its travels, even though I always mark up the entrance of the subject and countersubject each time they appear.

This week, in her lesson, my pupil actually played the whole of the first page of the Bach from memory, having developed the confidence to trust herself to place her fingers on the right notes using the memory of the “feel” of the notes, rather than relying on reading the music. RESULT!  An intransigent memory fail for a particular note had also been ironed out (I’ll describe how Valerie worked on that in a later post) and, best of all, my pupil had fallen back in love with the piece and was playing in a much more musical way.

For me, listening in to the lesson, was a mixture of thinking “wow, that’s a great idea” and “oh, yes, I remember that” and “oh dear, I really should have picked that up before”. I think I was probably as nervous as my pupil! In the end, it was like any lesson should be – purposeful, useful, and ending up with everyone concerned feeling that it has been an excellent half hour together.

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