MTNA Conference; Tuesday, March 24, 2015: Teaching Skills Not Pieces


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(This is the last post in this series) I really enjoyed this presentation by Dr. Beth Gigante Klingenstein, author of The Independent Piano Teacher’s Studio Handbook. (Great book by the way if you don’t already own it…)


Dr. Klingenstein firsts asks us how much time do I spend teaching skills, discussing musical elements and fixing mistakes?

The most pressing task is to teach people how to learn. (Peter F. Drucker)

Then she went through the following lifetime skills…

Practice– How can we teach students the art of discovery? Dr. Klingenstein says that we should expect 99% accuracy the 1st week. How many of  your students do this? I know this is something I need to work with my students on more. The key is slow practice and intelligent, mindful repetition. Students should discover the musical elements, patterns and technical elements in the piece. Practice should be goal oriented. (versus time). I do stress this with my family when they ask how much time their child should spend practicing. Dr. Klingenstein said when students first learn a piece they should start with hands together. Then if needed can break certain sections hands separate.  She also stressed that students should be able to make musical choices from the very beginning (dynamics, articulations, etc.)

If you google- 8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently (Dr. Noa Kageyama), it was discovered that it did not matter how long practice. What did matter how many times they played incorrectly, The % of correct practice to incorrect practice.

Memorize- There are 4 different ways a student can memorize. Analytic/Cognitive, Tactile/Kinesthetic, Aural and Visual. The best way to memorize is to memorize as they learn the piece. Other tips are small overlapping sections, patterns, mindful repetition, slow, various orders and to be able to start from any location.

Performance- Students should practice performing. When they say can I start over? Do not let them…. “You are on stage, deal with it”. They should learn to cover (avoid fixing, no expression, shaking head, keep going…), focus on musical issues when performing, not on demons, avoid perfectionist tendencies. “Olympic skaters fall down all the time and its okay, it’s normal to make mistakes…”

Timing- Students should count out loud and count before playing. You can use the metronome, drums, clapping, tapping, etc. Teach students how to learn correct timing on their own! Let the student figure out right timing. After they have done so, you can step in to demonstrate subtleties of rhythm.

Technique- The goals for good technique are to play musically, be tension free, strength, speed and finger independence/control. Basic technique should be taught early. Stand back and look for proper position, posture, use of fingers, wrists, elbows and arms. Look for tension in face, jaw, neck, shoulders, back, arms, wrists,fingers. Discern the cause of the tension. If it hurts, something is wrong.

Sight-Reading- This can be learned. Look over the piece and check for patterns, read intervals and view chords as a single unit.  Use knowledge of theory. Count out loud, do not mess up timing. Keep going no matter what (80% is okay). Develop good fingering habits. Do not stop! Keep eyes ahead and on the music.

Fingering- Good fingering habits impact: Musicality, Technical skills, Accuracy, Memory and Performance. Remember fingering choices have technical and musical repercussions. Develop fingering options. Plan ahead. Observe 100% of fingering on the page (if it doesn’t work, change). Rethink poor choices. Keep fingering consistent. Choose fingerings that eliminate strain.

Pedaling- Students should understand the mechanism of the pedal, explain it. Incorporate use of pedal early. Use a pedal extender for small children. Explain varied reasons to pedal (legato, blending, dynamics, tone color). They should understand how/when to lift and the various graduations of pedaling. The should understand when and how it’s appropriate or not appropriate to pedal by stylistic period/composer. Avoid over pedaling! Tip: start playing staccato with pedal up and then gradually put pedal down so you can see the gradations/colors of the pedal.

Self Assessment- Teach students to assess progress. Spend time doing our own self assessments of teaching skills. Research possible ways to improve teaching. Reinforce the need to listen

Are we teaching our student the skills they need to succeed?


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  1. Bradley Sowash

    All good stuff. I would, of course, add chording and improvisation as essential lifetime skills for practical piano playing.

  2. paulamanwaring

    Great note taking, Jennifer! Thanks for sharing with us. I missed Beth’s class and appreciate this. …..bought her book!


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