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.