Here you will find musings on piano teaching and the music of NMP. Watch for new articles. I hope something unique to my teaching style might offer inspiration to add to your personal approach.

  • Allen Myers

Speed 

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I am often stretched as a teacher when demonstration and explanation are not enough for the occasional student having difficulty either reproducing or understanding a particular concept. A fairly basic approach to teaching is to relate what the student knows to what they do not know. I usually keep up with the general interests outside of music that students have, whether specific sports, favorite subjects in school, hobbies, or recent vacation activities. Any gathered information may be useful for finding commonalities. For example, if a student is studying dance, relating hand movement to choreography is a connection they can understand.

Slow

Speed benefits from slow practice. Technical accuracy and intent of expressiveness requires being in control of one’s fingers, hands, and body at the piano and knowing what to say musically before attempting to perform. Students playing fast too soon, as you already know, typically can lead to overlooked details and a lack of steady tempo leading to habits in performance which need to be broken. 

Beginners

Elementary students on occasion view medium to fast tempo with trepidation when it's first required of them. To demonstrate that the hands are capable of great speed, with their hands in some kind of five finger position, as this is usually the hand position for the composition they are playing, I will place my hands higher on the keys above theirs and play through a passage very quickly as they watch their fingers move without effort on their part. After a second demonstration, I ask the student to play. Having experienced both aurally and physically that with their hands it is possible, student receive a boost of encouragement to try.  

Looking Ahead

One step toward increasing speed early on is the ability to look ahead. Often to demonstrate the challenge of the eyes spending to much time where the student is playing instead of looking ahead, I guide their eyes during a performance. With my pencil in hand I ask them to play their piece and always look where I am pointing. Once they get started I start moving my pencil one to two beats ahead of where they are playing to guide them throughout the piece. If the student finds this too difficult to follow, then we start the piece over at a slower tempo. 

Grace Notes

An example of relating one experience to another occurs when I discuss moving fingers fast in a relaxed manner while performing grace notes. As the student gains experience with performing grace notes, the approach of quick finger movement can be applied in other contexts. The challenge before the student may be a short passage of sixteenth notes within a phrase, and in other cases, it may extend through an entire work such as in C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggietto

If the student’s difficulty lies in a linear melodic passage of sixteenth notes, I will have them play the first two with the first functioning as a grace note to the second.  The relaxed manner of playing the grace note is then extended to three notes with the first two sixteenths now being ornamental to the third. (Examples of a pair of grace notes can be found in Tapioca Tango from Keyboard Confections and Siesta Song from Mexicano Suite.) With each new note added, I demonstrate, as I feel hearing is an important first step for the students experiencing speed. Slowly, additional sixteenths are added to extend the number of grace notes until the passage is complete. The goal is to think of all the grouped grace notes as part of a single gesture. You may wish to explore Jubilation, a solo for one hand, or Sippin’ Soda from Keyboard Confections for examples of a series of step-wise grace note patterns. Playing the passage as grace notes becomes more of a challenge if the contour zig zags up and down as in the triplet figures of Augmented Reality from Vignettes for Solo Piano or if there are shifts in hand position. 

Slower Metronome Settings for Speed

For very quick tempos, I suggest working with a metronome in a flexible manner. Students are reminded that the pulse of the metronome can represent any rhythmic value. For instance, if the piece is in 4/4, thinking in cut time with the metronome pulse representing a half note is a good place to start. I learned this while playing in a jazz trio with a guitarist and saxophonist and my role in accompanying the group often involved walking a quarter note bass line with my left hand while comping syncopated rhythms with the right. Numerous Bebop tunes were between 200-250 BPM.  With the metronome between 100-125 representing half notes, I found it was easier to stay relaxed. For an additional challenge while practicing, I shifted my thinking and allowed the clicks of the metronome to represent beats two and four to mimic the closed hi-hat rhythm associated with the swing beat.

When working with students, once the cut time approach is done, try shifting the metronome pulse to the whole note. Find a comfortable very slow tempo on the metronome when chunking together larger rhythmic values. If the piece is in ¾ time, try setting BPM pulse to represent a dotted half note. For the more adventuresome, let the pulse represent two bars of music once again at a slower metronome marking. A good example for exploring this with a young player would with Carrie Kraft's solo Jiggity Jig which is in 6/4 and is to be played as fast as you can. Setting the metronome pulse to represent a single bar would be the equivalent of two bars in ¾ time. With any rhythmic value chosen, the student should stay with it until they can move the speed of the metronome higher numerous beats per minute. Throughout the exercises, I will continue to relate the need for relaxation, keep their eyes looking ahead of where their fingers are playing and remind them of the ease in which they can play grace notes. You may find some students holding their breath during the exercises. Remind them to relax and breathe. If they are having difficult with remembering to breathe, consider having them breathe rhythmically in time with the music. For instance, inhale for one or two bars followed by exhaling for the same amount of time.

When working with scales, in addition to thinking a larger pulse, I have the student think about lateral arm movement. In other words, thinking not just about quick finger movement but also focusing on moving the arm from left to right, or vice versa. I suggest students imagine someone is pushing their arm across the keys while they move their fingers as quick as possible to keep up with the lateral movement. 

Advantages of Increasing Tempo

Insecurities Revealed: Sometimes a student needs to be able to discover their own insecurities. Playing a passage at an increased tempo may reveal specific places within a phrase where there is difficulty maintaining a steady tempo. It is important to understand why the problems are occurring and so this approach is best saved for the more mature late intermediate to advanced performers and modeled during a lesson. As the student plays, look for the point where there are disruptions to the flow of tempo. There may be a multitude of reasons for the disruption. It maybe an inability to look far enough ahead in the music and/or analyze what is required quickly enough. Maybe issues occur making shifts in hand positions. Was there a rest before a change in position for one of the hands and did the student prep moving the hand during the rest while the other hand was playing? Students tend to focus on the hand that is playing more often than prepping hands during rests which requires greater familiarity with the music. Was there a disruption due to an awkward choice or inconsistent use of fingering? Does the student focus more note-to-note rather than grouping of notes? If so, they are missing the forest for all the trees. Grouping of notes can occur by beat, contours, such as those associated with sequences or short phrases. Once an area of disruption in tempo has been discovered, I mark the music with brackets around the groups of notes or measures just before the disruption so the student will know where to begin their practice and then discuss why the disruption may have occurred.

Reaction Time:  Momentary practicing at tempos beyond given metronome markings will challenge performers to react faster. I usually reserve this approach for the late intermediate to advanced student who is very familiar with their music and is getting close to the appropriate tempo. If the goal is 128 BPM, try a few moments with a metronome at 140 BPM and then drop back to 128 BPM. If this is too much of a shift, try 132-136 BPM before going back to 128 again. This approach may offer some variety in practice to advancing the tempo in an incremental manner towards the goal.

 

 

Playing Cold 

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While public performances offer opportunities for students to express themselves, some performances may seem more daunting than others, such as the move from recitals to contests before a judge for a rating.  In preparation for such scenarios, I recommend that students throw themselves into uncomfortable situations prior to performing. This can be accomplished by playing at times that might seem counterintuitive or just inconvenient. If the student is more of a morning person, then I suggest sitting down at the piano and playing the solo late at night just before going to bed. If more of a night owl, they can play first thing when they wake up before doing anything else. If they are not feeling well, take advantage of the less than ideal moment and ask them to give the best performance possible. In other words, anytime is a great time to play if it is the last thing they want to do. Combine this with playing on as many different and/or unfamiliar pianos and they have the potential for creating undesirable circumstances for performing. In all theses instances, there is to be no warm up. They are to sit down, concentrate, and give their best possible interpretation of the literature. The results may be the worst they play all day, but the goal is to challenge them to focus and concentrate despite how they feel at the moment.  By adapting to the situations and learning to better concentrate, they are preparing for the most unusual situations surrounding any given performance. In other words, get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Often in recitals that my students are a part of, the hardest works are at the end of the program. If the performer warms up at home, drives to the recital, sits through the lineup awaiting their turn at the end of the program, the amount of time that passes could be significant and therefore turns into a cold performance situation. By having prepared ahead of time under unusual circumstances,  adapting in the moment to different room acoustics, key resistance of the pianos and how the pedals respond (or how none of the pedals responded as was the case in accompanying my daughter at state contest one year) while staying as focused as possible, they can better prepare for what they might face in performance. One of my students recently learned to adapt his pedaling from full to half and quarter pedaling as he did not like what he was hearing from the piano at a district contest. By adapting his approach, he did very well despite the circumstances thrown at him by the piano. He commented to me after receiving a gold rating at state that the cold playing helped a lot.

To illustrate such an unexpected possibility in performance, I would like to tell you about a pianist who during our undergraduate studies had just finished a turbulent first movement of a work. During the quieter second, all the lights on the stage went out. The auditorium was completely dark. He just kept on playing as if nothing happened. Slowly after a short period of time, which must have felt like an eternity to him, the lights over the stage slowly rose in brightness back to their original state. Upon conclusion of the recital, everyone wanted to know what went through his mind the moment the lights went out. His response was, “Concentrate!”

Another advantage to the cold playing is the discovering of passages that are not as secure as they should be. Students may become more aware of these spots without a warm up. One cold performance to another will highlight the weaknesses as they reoccur and point to where more attention is needed before the big performance.  

In addition to playing cold, I also push my students to continue playing through memory slips in order to not stop the performance. Preparing for potential memory slips, we look at the solo and divide the work into multiple sections. Usually I will number or have the student number sections that can be any formal divisions and others varying in length, such as four, eight or sixteen bars. Then, I ask them to treat the solo as a story and the sections as chapters in the story. After memorizing the starting points, the student memorizes each of the sections. Once they are able to start a section when I call out numbers in a random order, I know they are ready at any instance to jump from one section to another in case of a memory slip during performance. So if a memory slip occurs in a cold performance situation, they have a plan for working through the slip. If for some reason they become flustered during a performance and can’t remember the next section number, any number beyond the slip point will get them closer to finishing the piece. Of course, of all the sections to not forget, the last one is probably the most important. 

Goals 

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At any level of ability I like to emphasize long and short term goals with my students. If a new musical/technical concept, i.e. goal, is easily mastered, then it in itself could be defined as a short term goal. Areas of weakness needing some nurturing can be considered long term goals to explore in piano literature. 

Long term goals could be addressed by using longer compositions, multiple easier short compositions or those that are short and are much more difficult than what is currently being studied.  However, with short term goals, using short easier pieces has the advantage of quickly building up the student’s repertoire and the student’s sense of confidence by mastering multiple concepts easily or by reviewing those that may have been long term goals in the past.  

Goals may overlap from time to time. For instance, exploring music from different time periods may happen simultaneously with certain musical considerations. Let’s say a student has trouble with key signatures. Performing numerous pieces in a new or difficult key signature can give the students time to build confidence.  If pieces are chosen from different time periods in music history, the student simultaneously explores the history of music and its composers. The discovery of favorite composers along the way may dictate future works to fuel their interest.  Once the student become comfortable with several keys you may wish to challenge their confidence with a composition that modulates into several keys and/or explores key centers with more extensive chromaticism to challenge the reading and remembrance of accidentals as they potentially repeat throughout a measure. 

For a short intermediate composition that challenges the reading of key signatures and the ability to subdivide rhythms, consider the Military March. Six brief keys are explored as the music unfolds. The march starts with D then travels to C, Ab, D minor, A, Eb before returning to D major once again. With a steady quarter note pace, the performer’s left hand harmonic fifths must navigate each of the keys. As mentioned, in addition to key shifts is the further challenge of the subdivisions of dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note rhythm and eighth note triplet rhythm in various phrases of the right hand melody. A lazily performed sixteenth following the dotted eighth may sound rhythmically closer to that of the last eighth note in a triplet if the performer is not subdividing correctly. 

I see the number of goals for my students as a never ending list that is fixed by the speed which they are mastered  and the time I have with them as a student. Some examples of other goals a teacher might consider for elementary and intermediate performers are fluency of hand crossing, handling meter changes, less common meters, music with clef changes, two-part writing in either or both hands, music requiring the performance of extensive articulations, swing rhythm (see numerous solos in Vignettes for Solo Piano), tempo changes, and quick tempos.

Hand Crossing

Nouvelle Music Publishing has numerous works to offer involving hand crossing at various elementary levels. These works include Jiggity Jig, My Day,Oops! Hit a Bump which are all available in Noteworthy Elementary Solos, A Zen Moment March of the Martians from Piano Tidbits Book 2 and some light use of hand crossing in Ghostly Gathering. At the intermediate level, consider the bright tempos of Hot Sand Hop in Summer Scenes and Acceleration of Time briefly from Vignettes for Solo Piano.

Meter Changes and Less Common Meters

For those wanting to focus on meter changes and less commonly seen meters for a particular goal, Nouvelle Music Publishing offers the performer in both solo and ensemble settings music to meet these goals. Some examples in piano solos include Jiggity Jig in 6/4 meter, which as just described, also has the added challenge of hand crossings and is set at a fast tempo. There is a single bar shift from 4/4 to 2/4 in Pumpkin Patch or the occasional shifts from 4/4 to 6/4 in Songbird. Numerous pieces throughout the collection of Vignettes for Solo Piano offer multiple meter changes with in a single solo. The solo Hang Gliding from the collection also includes two pages of unmetered music. 

In an ensemble setting, there is Callie the Great which moves from 4/4 to 3/4 which is also accompanied by a key change to key of A in the middle section, Old Woman, Old Woman which occasional shifts from 4/4 to 3/4, and Itsy Bitsy Spider that is in 6/4.

Clef Changes

Maybe it is clef changes you wish to focus on. Though there is plenty to choose from at the elementary level including a series of solos from Piano Tidbits book 2 (Having Fun, In the Desert, Scary Footsteps, and March of the Martians) as well as Celebrate!, Ghostly Gathering, Halloween Happenings, and Songbird. Most of the solos in Keyboard Confections will keep the intermediate player hopping with these changes. Others available at various levels of intermediate playing include Pumpkin Patch, Goblin Rag, Mostly Ghostly, Skeleton Skedaddle, Clouds from Vignettes for Solo Piano and several from Summer Scenes (Summer Breeze, Too Hot, Hot Sand Hop, Sitin’ in the Sun).

Two-Part Writing in one or both hands

Two-part writing can be found in numerous works from Nouvelle Music Publishing. Marshmallow Fluff found in Keyboard Confections has examples in both hands. Others for consideration include Military March, The Many Adventures of Axel Sloan (a solo for right hand only includes up to three-part writing), Gems on the Lake duet (more in the secondo part than the primo part), and New-Fashioned, Old-Fashioned Waltz (secondo part).

Tempo Changes 

If you are seeking numerous tempo changes as a goal,  you may wish to have your students explore the following solos at the elementary level. These include Tick Tock Turtle from Five Finger Frolics, Halloween’s Here from Halloween Delights for Five Fingers, Pumpkin Patch, Oops! Hit a Bump, Big Dog Luke and Missy Moo found in Noteworthy Elementary Piano Solos.

At the intermediate level, one might consider Ashore on an Unknown Island, Tapioca Tango found in Keyboard Confections with its momentary burst from lento to presto, and Summer Breezes along with Summer Showers from the book Summer Scenes.

 

 

 

 

Analysis 

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I am sure we all at some point introduce the idea of analyzing music to our students. For me, harmonic analysis is an ongoing discussion with the students from the moment chordal analysis is first introduced in method books. In this article I will write about other elements I have students study prior to sight-reading. 

As a starting point, I will ask the student questions to point out certain aspects of the music. These questions might include looking for new musical concepts introduced recently. We also look for patterns of repetition. These patterns might be rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, or a combination of these as in sequences. It also could include fingering, articulations, changes in hand position, regularity of tempo or dynamic changes, and even when the pedal is employed throughout the piece. Recognition of these patterns may ease feelings of anxiety about sight-reading new music that looks challenging, includes new unfamiliar concepts, or is longer in length than what they are use to playing. Forms of repetition and any varied approaches provide a model for the student who is composing or improvising their own music. I will discuss more about some of my thoughts on teaching composition and possibly improvisation in future articles.

I often have students scan the music for anything that might look unusual or things they might not understand. This often happens when students face a new concept such as music without bar lines that one might first encounter with the music of Eric Satie. In my book Vignettes for Solo Piano, the solo Hang Gliding has a middle section without bar lines.

At the intermediate level I might ask them to scan the music for accidentals to see if any exist, and if so, do any reoccur. This is bound to happen in tonal works in minor keys as the raised seventh of the key allows for major V or dominant seventh chords. Occasionally the raised sixth scale degree occurs for the formation of major IV chord or possibly a V/V in minor keys as well. After playing numerous pieces in a minor key, looking for these types of accidentals should hopefully become second nature for them. Examples of these types of accidentals in a minor key can be found NMP literature of Journey to an Oasis, Ashore on an Unknown Island, and Toccata.

Sometimes I might relate back to music played earlier in the lesson to look for any reoccurring issues they may have had and to see if these issues occur in the new piece about to be sight-read. For beginners it may be pointing out those occasional half notes that were played as quarter notes. Unfortunately, I hear this from time to time when the quarter note is the predominant rhythmic value.

Another possible question is “What is the form?” If it is a new form, I will take the time to discuss. Once a student discovers that an ABA form exists, I remind them that the return of the A at the end actually reduces the amount of new material to be learned if it is an exact repetition. If I work through the A section and leave them with the B section to learn for next week (for elementary level it’s probably only eight measures long), I will point out that there is a little more than one measure a day to work through for the following week. If they need extra encouragement, I will point out how quickly they got comfortable with the A section and compare that to the amount of time they practice in a week or even a day if it came together fairy quickly. My goal is to make everything seem manageable. This may be necessary for those who feel that I have assigned a lot of music for the week or for the student who is easily overwhelmed.

Sometimes analysis opens doors to introducing new vocabulary and helps young readers understand why they may run into difficulties. For example, in Noteworthy Elementary Solos of Carol Flatau and Carrie Kraft, the solo A New Little Minuet was placed specifically as the last solo in the book due to the challenges of reading different types of melodic movement between the two hands. After an introduction of parallel, contrary and oblique movement between the two voices, often demonstrated by drawing a set of arrows in relation to each other at the top the page, I will have the student point to examples of each type in the music. My experience has been that a mixture of these movements from note to note tend to give students trouble in reading. Often when difficulty occurs in the reading process, I will draw, though you may wish to have them do it if time allows in the lesson, arrows showing direction from note to note in order to see how the voices change direction. I have had some luck with students improving once the addition of the arrows are drawn in the music as the arrows provide the visual feedback through tricky passages. A further challenge may occur, even with arrows added, when one voice is moving by step and the other by the leap of some interval. If necessary, to further help when needed, I will label the interval. Two specific areas of difficulty I have noticed tend to be with the reading across the bar line and between systems. This discussion is often repeated once the student starts playing the music of J.S. Bach. 

Pretend you are at home practicing 

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As piano teachers, I assume we have all heard from a student at one time or another, hopefully not on a regular basis, “I did not have much time to practice this week.” Or even worse, “I did not practice at all this week”. Occasionally I will say, especially with new students coming to me from another teacher, “Pretend you are at home practicing. Work on your music assigned and do what you do if you were practicing at home. I am not going to stop you until I am ready to discuss what I have heard.”  I will let the student play anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the size of the assignment(s), complexity of the music, or the age of the student. 

Observations of what they do and what they don’t do can be quite revealing about their approach to practicing. Were problem areas acknowledged before or after playing through the piece? Did the student mark their music if the situation might have warranted it? Are they aware of missed flats or sharps in the key signature, articulations or how they are phrasing the music? Is the younger performer focused more on fingering than noticing changes in hand position? Complex music may require more time to discuss observations so be prepared to talk about broad aspects or to determine an order of importance of specific issues with the remaining time available in the lesson. 

Were there issues that carried over from one piece to another?  Were they aware of such issues? A student who focuses on fingering and not noticing shifts in hand position will probably continue such habits until forced to deal with the issue. In such a case, I have the student analyze each fingering printed in the music by the composer/publisher and ask if it represents a shift in position, and if so, that they circle the fingering. The circle alerts to the shift and forces them to read the note(s).  This is a good place to start for such individuals before sight-reading as well.

While there may be plenty to discuss, I never overlook an opportunity to compliment good practice habits. Encouragement of any kind can go a long way, especially to the perfectionist who only hears the problems in their performance. When time allows, I will reinforce the compliment(s) again at the end of the lesson when speaking to the parents.

 

Five Finger Music 

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Not only is five finger music a good source of supplementary and recital material for young performers, but I have discovered it is also a good choice for adults returning to piano after many years away from it.

The limited hand position allows adults to reacquainting themselves with note reading. Reinforcement occurs from one piece to another for any one given hand position. If the music limits melodic movement to steps, it’s a good way to get students to think forwards and backwards in the alphabet. As music moves down on either staff by step, I have students say the note names backwards in the alphabet. Thinking forwards when notes go up is usually not an issue. 

In addition, five finger music has a further benefit in the exploration of the keyboard topography if the music requires the performer to move hands up or down an octave in hand position at some point in any piece of music.

I have had success with Jane Hergo’s Piano Tidbits Book 1 with adults returning to piano. Her expectations of the performer with a variety of touches through varying articulations adds to the discussion of piano technique. 

Once the younger student feels comfortable with five finger position pieces  I will consider moving to, for a lack of a a better term, next step five finger position. These are pieces which require the movement of a few fingers out of position on occasion. About half the pieces in Piano Tidbits Book 2 are five finger and the other half require some finger movement for expansion in range.

Noteworthy Elementary Piano Solos of Carol Flatau and Carrie Kraft is another example of a mixed hand position approach. Some stay to five finger position while others employ quite a bit of shifting in position.  A couple of solos in the book include the key signature of D major instead of implying key signatures as accidentals.

Other books to consider would include Jane Hergo’s Five Finger Frolics and Halloween Delights for Five Fingers both which center around middle C position. Five Finger Frolics does have a few selections which require right hand finger three to be placed on Eb for a C minor tonality, while all other solos have the soloist on white keys. Halloween Delights for Five Fingers incorporates more use of black keys as does both Piano Tidbit Books which explore C, G and middle C position. One solo, Blue Ghost, found in Halloween Delights, is also available in sheet music. It is in a D minor five finger position.

 Jubilation has a few moving five finger positions. The solo for one hand requires finger control during moments of two and three-part writing. The expectation of a relaxed hand position while certain combinations of fingers are held down as other fingers play should provide a challenge for the early intermediate performer.

Questions 

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As time allows during a lesson I find asking questions about a student’s performance helpful to determine their perception and how engaged they are in listening. Students who have parents or other siblings that play piano might find it stressful to receive correction from family members. Instructing these members to ask questions I believe can help. The challenge is to ask questions that lead to the student’s discovering what needs correction. Instead of being told they are wrong about some aspect of their practice, the self-discovery of answering the question guides them into what to practice next.

For instance, if the student was not acknowledging the dynamics in their performance, you could ask, "How well did you observe the dynamics?" If they say “I don't know?”, ask them to play again and pay attention to dynamics. Then afterwards ask the question again.  Students might begin to pick up that any question points to an issue. I like to ask about aspects of the performance that were good as well. Mixing the type of questions keeps them from anticipating that I am always trying to correct and that I am more interested in what they are perceiving while playing. If a student says there was something that needed correction when there was no issue at all, it will alert you to how attentive they are to details of performance. If parents or siblings cannot get the answer they are looking for in the self-assessment, then they should ask a different question to point to the issue at hand.  

Are you breathing? 

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I have discovered over the years that some students naturally hold their breath as they reach very difficult sections of the music. One situation is when the music needs to be moving at a faster pace than what they can currently perform. I sometimes ask the question are you breathing in one of the two scenarios. The first is when it’s obvious to me, though not usually for them. The second is if I suspect they are and a student has a coat or bulky clothes on such as during winter months when it is not as obvious to me. If the students says “I don’t know”, I ask them to play again and observe. Other times they are aware once the question is asked. If the passage is difficult I try to have them slow down and focus on breathing before trying to move the tempo back up again. If the music is fast I suggest they try to breath at a regular interval such as inhaling for one or two measures and exhaling for the next one or two measures. 

Need a short work at a fast pace to challenge the students to continue breathing through the situation? Maybe consider Agitation, Toccata (The Chase) or Scherzo all of which are sold separately or can be found in Vignettes for Solo Piano. Other solos found in the book to consider would include Augmented Reality and Acceleration of Time.

Blocking the Broken 

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Blocking broken chords I find helpful for students to better understand the relationship of the whole to its its parts. Students learn that when I start circling a group of notes, whether in either or both hands that typically surrounding beats one and two and then three and four where harmony might change, that I expect them to play the group as a block chord as a warm up before starting a new piece. Whether it is two-part writing in one hand, a melody that outlines the harmony, or block chord in one hand and an arpeggio in the other, we focus to move quickly playing one block chord to another to build reaction time and kinesthetic memory. Reaction time will be important if the tempo of the music is fast. If fingering is useable I will have them use correct fingering. If however the figure requires shifts in position, we might forego the fingering and simply demonstrate the reading of all the notes as a group. Being picky, I will remind them of the instructions if at any time they start to play the notes one at a time. The goal is for the students to see the groups of notes as harmonically related and not to think of as a string of notes somehow unrelated. Sometimes I will circle groups of notes just to indicate hand positions and their shifts from measure to measures. In other words, steps may be occurring more than arpeggiation of harmony.

Once completed, sight-reading begins. If harmony in left hand is mostly broken chords, I will have the students perform with block chords in the left hand while playing the melody in the right before attempting to play everything as written.

In the “A” section to Santa Rosa Breezes right hand offers opportunities to observe both harmonic relationship to the left hand in addition to melodic hand positions for notes in each measure. Various portions of part two and three in the piano trio Old Woman, Old Woman can be studied for harmonic analysis with your students. In a Bonsai Garden you might consider bar to bar as blocked chords for hand positions. The pentatonic structure of the melody may stretch the readers ears a bit  with the occasional steps that occur. Many of the solos found in Summer Scenes would also benefit for hand position as well.

Syncopation offers an opportunity for drawing attention to broken chords and simplifying a what may appear to be a difficult rhythmic texture upon first glance. Reducing to quarter or half note blocked chords, as the case may be, can ease apprehension the student may have for the syncopation and allow them to focus on hand positions as the harmony changes. In Keyboard Confections the solo Marshmallow Fluff for most of the work could benefit the student with this approach.

Sports Injuries  

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How often as piano teachers have we heard that Joey hurt his hand this week while playing __fill in the sport of your choice here__. Parents will often say their child will skip a lesson until the hand is better. It is probably a good idea to have some solos to reach for that are appropriate level and for the hand not injured in order to avoid the need for a missed lesson. Having music ready for their sight-reading prepares for the unexpected. In addition to sight-reading it is a good opportunity for  introducing new music for an upcoming recital or for a National Federation of Music Club performance. Some solos are written specifically for either right hand only or left hand only. While Nouvelle Music Publishing, LLC offers some of these including Contemplation and The Many Adventures of Axel Sloan, there are some solos which is able to be played by either hand. 

For example, Jubilation (Early Intermediate) has the music presented twice, once in bass clef and another time in treble clef. Both Celebrate! and In the Desert by Jane Hergo from her book Piano Tidbits Book 2 offer a slight different approach. Right hand fingerings are written above the staff while left hand fingerings are below the staff. Changes in hand position and clef changes further challenge the elementary pianist.

Watch for more one hand solos in near future here at Nouvelle Music Publishing, LLC.

Stepping into a Performer’s Shoes 

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash. 

I encourage students from time to time once they are comfortable playing through a piece of music that they find multiple recordings on YouTube in which they can play along. Sometimes particular recordings with specific performers are recommended. Students find this easy with medium to slow tempo compositions. I ask that the intermediate students pay attention to variances in interpretation from one performer to the next. This will require multiple listenings of each performance prior to attempting to perform with any video. Stepping into the performers shoes so to speak will allow them to focus on tone, dynamics, voicing, phrasing, rubato, etc. I encourage them to write on their music with the interpretive markings to be able to anticipate actions needed while playing along. It is revealing when they discuss their discoveries how much they are actually hearing in the recordings.  Why not try this approach with any of the recordings available on the Nouvelle Music Publishing website or on the company’s SoundCloud page.

Say the Problem 

Photo by Karla Hernandez on Unsplash.  

Students early on learn that I have particular phrases that they will hear often. Soon students are able to answer before I finish reciting one of the phrases. Any particular phrase is dropped once a concept is thoroughly mastered. 

Of all my repetitive phrases, this one is probably heard the most. By saying the problem, specifically out loud, the student hears themselves say one thing and do another when mistakes occur. All of a sudden they stop and correct themselves. Soon, if not immediately, they are performing correctly as they say the problem. Occasionally something in their playing that was not an issue pops up as they focus on a single problem. I never worry about these as long as the one they are focused on is improving. Once corrected, the focus can move to another area. 

Often the first issue is, “What is the problem?” Not an issue for me but sometimes a challenge for the students when asked out of the blue about a performance. To help the student out, I make a list of what should be addressed at the top of the page in addition to highlighting problems in the score. 

If a student has problems with half note rhythm and can correctly play all other rhythms, I will often have them count out loud “1-2” every time they come to a half note regardless of its metric position. If the student is not paying attention to fingering I will have them say the fingering out loud. If the issue is dynamics and counting in general, I might have them count dynamically. In other words, count soft in soft sections and louder in the loud sections. Maybe the issue is remembering to use the sustain pedal. Say “down” when foot is to be applied down and “up” when there is a need to lift the pedal. If it is a matter of key signature, have the student say “sharp” or “flat” for notes that are in the key signature. Military March is an example where this approach to key signature might help considering its six brief key changes moving through the major keys of D, C, Ab, F, A, Eb before returning to D. Sometimes coordination between the hands can be an issue in syncopated rhythms such as in my book Vignettes for Solo Piano (see solos such as Agitation, Second Time Around, Acceleration of Time, Jazz District at 18th and Vine, and A Brazilian Sunset). For those situations I write T, L and R between staffs or below bass staff for each rhythmic event in a bar or passage. T represents hands playing together while L is for left hand and R for right hand. After placed, I have them say what is written while tapping the appropriate hand(s) on their knees. Once mastered at appropriate tempo or slower, we move to a faster tempo than what is required in the solo, then I have the student return their hands to the piano to play the passage. 

Anytime a student finds the activity difficult we slow the music tempo down till we find the tempo at which they can perform with ease. I don’t care how slow it needs to be as long as they say out loud the problem while performing the activity. 

The ultimate goal is for the student to recognize their own issues and correct themselves without saying the problem out loud.