The Useful Pianist: 1 - Eight useful skills that every pianist needs RSS

Teaching / 12/01/2016
The Useful Pianist: 1 - Eight useful skills that every pianist needs

Are you organised?

Some teachers are very organised, whilst others mangle through by mostly “winging it”… and there is quite a spectrum in between.  I would count myself as one who loves organisation but doesn’t always manage to achieve it in practice.  So the Piano Skills curriculum toolkit that I have devised reflects this.  I’d say it can be used both for those “Oh heck, what shall we do this lesson?” moments or for scrupulous forward lesson planning.

My 'useful' kit

My key piece of kit is a chart – one page for each student – covering ten lessons and all the Piano Skills topics.  As I like colour, I go to the extra effort and expense of printing it in rainbow colours – one for each main heading.  So “Inventing” is red, “Listening” is green, “Practice skills” is purple.  But I’m jumping ahead a little.  You’ll be wanting to know what all my topics are.

I’m well aware that the full gamut of piano skills can be divided up and described in many ways.  This is just one of them, but it didn’t come off the top of my head.  I spent about two solid weeks one summer during the long vacation, thinking this through, researching it, evaluating it, finding resources and tests, and refining my plans.  And that big effort came after years of mulling over the problem and watching out for ways to address it in my teaching practice.  You’ll remember the “problem” as I described it in my previous post: in a nutshell, it’s how to develop a learner into a useful pianist.

The 8 most useful piano skills

So at the end of this arduous process I pulled together a list which best covered the ground as I saw it. Every one of these headings on my rainbow chart is followed by half a dozen subsections, which will provide us with plenty of topics over the next weeks. Here’s the list:

  • Inventing
  • Keyboard skills
  • Expressive playing
  • Listening
  • Theory
  • Geography
  • Technique
  • Practising skills

For those who are wondering how I get a rainbow when I need eight colours… there are two shades of green and two of purple. I could perhaps have done different reds or blues, but in the end these were the easiest to produce with my particular printer.

When I show this to a student for the first time, they are generally very excited at all the things they are going to learn. The more picky will stop at the word “Geography” and raise an eyebrow! If you raised one too, read on… The chart acts as a great way to check progress on all fronts and a reason to do a particular (perhaps less favourite) thing in the lesson – “See, you get a rainbow point for doing this”. Primary age children love to nag me about doing rainbow chart work, and the involvement of coloured pens is quite a motivator too.

A quick summary

There will be lots more detailed coverage in future posts, so I’ll just give a quick flavour of the headings.

First up – Inventing. Just about everybody I’ve taught over the age of about 8 is rather inhibited about this, and most adults display symptoms of phobia. This is because people with experience of hearing “good improvisers” know they can’t do that, and people with any sort of fear of failure are unable to play a note in case it’s “wrong”.  So my improvisation programme (renamed “inventing” to take away some of that dreaded Oscar Peterson association, and also to chime with some school curricula) gives the student a safe space to mess around with sounds.

Keyboard Skills is my umbrella term for a mixture of keyboard harmony, ear playing and some general musicianship as done directly on to the keyboard.

Expressive playing is such a virtue in performance, and yet can be so much of a neglected add-on in the process of learning a piece, that I gave it a full category of its own to enhance its value in the student’s priorities.

Listening skills are so much more than an aural syllabus can cover! Here we keep away from the grade work and get into a much wider aural awareness.

My Theory topics don’t have much in common with syllabus work either. Anything to do with notation is covered, plus bigger ideas of form, harmonic progression, musical history and knowledge of other instruments (both to broaden the mind and to prepare for that first request to be an accompanist). It is all done in a very practical way, relating to what they are playing.

As piano teachers we are all familiar with the craggy terrain of the black-and-white pattern – but how to find your notes, how to get to them in time, how to work in a key or make a modulation, are all skills which can be taught under the heading of Geography.

Technique is so essential that it goes without saying… but the problem is it can also go unaddressed in lessons and neglected in practice; by bringing it onto the chart I can make sure it stays important in the student’s awareness and is regularly checked.

My final category, Practising Skills reminds me and the student that time at the piano can be used more or less well. It can only be used well if they know what to do about mistakes, how to improve and self-assess, and how to go beyond the mere notes.

You will probably have noticed that there is scope for overlap between these topics.  As far as I’m concerned this is not only OK but useful, as it can lead to the student getting double credit for certain accomplishments, which makes for a greater sense of achievement and puts more colour on their chart!

What's next?

Future posts will describe the topics in more detail, with hints on using them in lessons, and suggestions for assessing and building the skills over time.

Janet Noakes

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