The Useful Pianist: 2 - Why, What and How? RSS

Teaching / 16/08/2020
The Useful Pianist: 2 - Why, What and How?

What makes a useful pianist?

I’m not talking about grade exam results or competition success, which are so often used to provide goals, assess progress and reward achievement. These are valuable and part of the staple diet of every piano teacher and many a student. No, what I have been exploring for several years now is a broad set of piano skills: finding out what they consist of and how to develop them systematically in every student, even those who don’t wish to take grades or perform to any stranger, ever. 

Why does this matter?

My starting point is twofold. The first aspect is pragmatic: although research has shown how strongly music contributes to brain development and general well-being, learning to play an instrument is not regarded as a survival skill; for most people it can’t be anything more important than a hobby. So for children especially, awash with educational efforts and after-school activities, it has to be worth their while, to be interesting, to make sense, to be intriguing and motivating. Some of that motivation is almost certainly to please parents or impress friends, and another is (I always hope) the desire to use a piano to express themselves musically. And here we come to the other starting point: it may not be as necessary as maths, but music-making is quite clearly an aspect of being human which is there in everybody, in some measure. If it is not crushed with external demands it can be developed into a natural resource for an enriched life.

the importance of nurture

Learning to play the piano, then, is one possible pathway to a deep and satisfying human activity. As piano teachers, we can lead students along this path and equip them to continue into their own musical fulfilment. Along the way they may well take exams, but trekking through the grades does not in itself make a confident, skilled, expressive player. The problem for the busy teacher is that teaching to a syllabus is often all that can be managed, and with piano practice fighting for space in a child’s (or adult’s) schedule, getting through the next grade can take over as the only (because it’s the only measurable) medium-term goal. The long-term need to nurture other non-examined skills gets squeezed out, and the lack of structure and resources to keep it going means that it falls away almost unnoticed. 

life beyond grade 8

Many years ago, not long after I started teaching piano, I considered the “end point” of a long term course of classical piano study: Grade 8 ABRSM. What did this prove you could do? And what else might people (not just examiners or adjudicators!) expect of an “advanced” pianist after that much study? So I drew up two lists answering these questions. It was immediately clear that they had little in common: the hard-won Grade 8 level ability to play B flat minor in thirds or perform a five-minute sonata movement had virtually no connection with such reasonable expectations as providing accompaniment to a cousin’s clarinet playing at a family gathering, a singalong of Happy Birthday or picking out a pop song by ear from YouTube and finding the four chords to go with it, in that rather tricky key favoured by the singer. Learning to pass a sight reading test (a rather complex little piano solo in an awkward key and abstract style) is not the same as adequately supporting a budding clarinettist at sight… and knowing how to play scales and arpeggios, or recognise intervals and cadences, are only steps on the way to keyboard harmony and playing by ear. 

we are all improvisers

I am emphatically not dismissing the grade exam system. This approach is not meant to be an either/or – this is a both/and. It’s about versatility, breadth and the underpinning of skills that provide the freedom to “just sit down and play”. It is also about the practical needs of teachers who want to have something to use at the next lesson but don’t want to buy into, and learn to work within, somebody elses’s complete system. We are all improvisers; we just need the stimulus – something we can then adapt, using our own skills and preferences, to all the variables in the teaching week.

By now I hope we are all agreed that there is good reason for helping students to acquire a broad range of piano skills as well as showpiece repertoire and other syllabus fulfilment. But in the weekly half hour, especially once we have left the tracks laid down in beginner methods and started up the rocky foothills of the grade exams, how do we keep account of all this and build it up? 

This has been something I’ve mulled over for a long while, and I have crystallised my thinking into a parallel curriculum for piano skills, now being used with dozens of students at every age and level. I am delighted to propose sharing this with you over the coming months.  

Janet Noakes

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