A helping hand

We know that practising hands separately in the earliest stages of learning a piece is very important – and goes on being important even when the music is well known. It is often worth returning to separate hands practise to make sure certain sections are secure or to highlight particular aspects of a section, such as an interior melody embedded in the left hand or the voicing of specific phrases or chords, or to test one’s memorisation.

Sometimes sharing a single stave of music between the hands offers a useful way of voicing and shaping a phrase or section. I’ve been doing this with the left hand part of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 to help me create a particular effect in the bass line – the first beat is detached and the second and third beats are marked as a drop slur, with the third beat becoming the lightest beat in the bar. By practising the drop slur with the right hand, I’ve been able to experiment with a more precise articulation of this section which has helped enormously when I play the bassline with the left hand alone.


I tried this technique recently with a student to enable her to voice the opening of Einaudi’s ‘Ombre’. After the introductory chords, a quaver figure is introduced in the left hand over descending sustained semibreves. Ultimately, one should aim to play this with the left hand alone, but in the early stages it is worth taking the quavers in the right hand. This serves two purposes: it brings focus to the long sustained notes, which form a simple melody in their own right and underpin the entire piece; and allows one to shape the quavers so they are played both evenly and musically.

ombre copy

Another way of using one hand to help the other is to play a tricky section in unison. By introducing the other hand to the picture, the weaker hand feels more supported and playing a section in unison creates a more confident sound which in turn can bring greater security to a section. I’ve been doing this with a triplet figure near the beginning of the Schubert Sonata (bars 13-15). The right hand is more secure here, and when the left hand joins in at bar 14 it can sound ragged and out of time. To remedy this, I play the whole section in unison, giving a little extra weight to the first note of each group of three. Then I cross my hands and practise it again (I was pleased that when asked to do this by my teacher, I pulled it off successfully first time, which shows that section is now well known).

Simply swapping the parts around tests brain and fingers and will demonstrate whether a passage is truly known. Try incorporating some of these techniques into your practising – you will be surprised by the results.

More on this subject here

Symmetry in Practice

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

The curse of the pushy parent

Guest post by A Piano Teacher

Anyone who teaches will know the type – and those of us who teach privately will know the type very well. The pushy parent – sometimes also known as the Tiger Parent – whose demands seem to take up far more time than anyone else’s, whose child/children require special treatment, and who generally creates far more work for the teacher than is really necessary.

The pushiness manifests itself in a number of ways and there are distinct “types” within the genus of Pushy Parent. There is the one who is determined to squeeze every ounce of value out of the lesson fees, who demands refunds for missed lessons (despite the teacher’s studio policy that there are no refunds except for lessons cancelled or missed by the teacher), who queries increases in lesson fees, and who – guess what – regularly pays late. This parent will also often call, text or email the teacher at unreasonable times of the day, outside “office hours”, and expect an immediate response.

Then there is the parent who demands their child is “fast-tracked” through exams, despite the teacher’s firm assurances that attainment in music comes through consistent, careful study, not jumping onto that exam treadmill and notching up the grades.

Another “type” sets herself and her child up in competition with another child (and parents) who may be having lessons with the same teacher. Grade exams, student concerts and music festivals become hard fought contests and if little Johnny or Emily doesn’t achieve a Distinction, or win first prize, the fault lies firmly at the feet of the teacher. Such parents will often ignore the advice of teachers regarding exam or festival preparedness and will withdraw the child from lessons to seek a teacher who will fall in with their wishes.

Then there is the parent who “re-teaches” the child between lessons, because she believes she knows better than the teacher. This can create quite serious difficulties for teacher and student, as the student receives confused signals, and sometimes what the parent is teaching is just plain wrong!

Of course parents want their children to do well and to succeed, and a good teacher will appreciate this and will support and encourage the child to the best of his/her abilities. And some children actively thrive on being pushed, if it is handled in the right way, with realistic targets accompanied by plenty of praise and positive endorsements. But sometimes the pushy parent’s behaviour and attitude can have a detrimental effect on the child by placing unrealistic expectations on him/her: if the child does not meet these expectations he/she can feel demoralised, disappointed and lacking in motivation. Such behaviour can also increase a child’s anxiety, sometimes to the point where they will be so overcome with nerves in an exam, concert or festival situation that they are unable to perform successfully.

It strikes me that a lot of this pushy behaviour stems from the parent’s own issues which in some cases can be traced back to their own childhood. Perhaps they were also pushed relentlessly by their own parents and the behaviour is simply “learnt”. Or perhaps they are making up for some failing or lack in their own life by living their life vicariously through their children.

As teachers we have a responsibility to manage the expectations of our students and their parents. If we do not feel a student is ready to take Grade 1, or indeed Grade 8, we need to explain this to student and parent. Some parents seem genuinely not to understand the amount of time, commitment and application that goes into learning a musical instrument. We rely on parents to reinforce our messages about practising and to ensure practising is undertaken between lessons. This leads to noticeable progression in the student, and they can then draw satisfaction from seeing improvements in their playing and musical understanding.

Fortunately, in my experience, pushy parents are in the minority (though they do loom larger than life when they are being particularly difficult!), and most are pleasant to deal with, are supportive of what I am trying to do, and treat me with respect.

Further reading:

Parents, Parents, Parents, Parents

Aspirational parents condemn their children to a desperate, joyless life

How to increase your kid’s performance anxiety (not that you’d want to)

The Virtuoso Parent

Changing the Vocabulary

wordle 3

The way we interact with our students, and the language we use with which to communicate with them, can have a profound effect on how our students react to our teaching and their own attitude to music making. Young people in particular can be highly sensitive to the kind of words teachers use, and as teachers we are often afforded an esteemed position by our students. To enable our students to succeed, to feel encouraged and supported, we need to choose our words carefully.

This article is inspired by a recent discussion on the Piano Network UK Group on Facebook, to which I belong. A member posted the following:

I suppose we’ve all had that student who no matter what we do our say just will not practice. Here’s something that seems to have worked: change the word. Don’t ask them to aim at “practising”, ask them to aim at “progressing”.

For many young piano students, the word “practising” has negative connotations, no matter how positive the teacher is in their approach to practising. It suggests dreary hours at the piano, hacking through scales, exercises and dull pieces. It reeks of tedium, of effort without reward or achievement.

As teachers we know that regular practising equals noticeable progress, but our students don’t always see it that way. By simply changing the vocabulary, we instantly explain the purpose of practising – progression. “Progression” suggests forward movement, advancement and achievement.

For younger students, the word “play” is even better: because “play” suggests “fun”. And I want all my students to gain pleasure from playing the piano. “Play” also suggests playing for enjoyment, and I often point out to my students that they don’t have to be practising (sorry, that word again!) their assigned pieces and exercises to be doing useful and, more importantly, enjoyable work at the piano.

Another word which can cause major problems and is related to progression is “difficult”. In his book ‘The Virtuoso Teacher’ and accompanying lectures, acclaimed educator (and I might add a fantastic and inspiring communicator), Paul Harris debunks the “myth of difficult”. Again the word can suggest something impossible, or at least very hard. Instead, try “challenging”. Instantly more positive, this word suggests something that can be attempted and that is achievable.

When a student grumbles that one of their peers is “better” (because they have reached a higher grade) I point out that they are not better, simply more “advanced” (and I also point out that playing simple repertoire really well is actually highly skilled).

Children often come to the piano with the idea that their playing has to be perfect and that they must not play any wrong notes. I believe this is ingrained in children from the moment they enter primary school, where their school days are governed by ticks for good work and red crosses for incorrect answers, and where they are required to reach targets which are set by unseen forces higher up the education hierarchy. Perfection is unattainable. Instead I encourage “excellence”: in this way, each and every student can find their own personal state of excellence.

The way we give feedback to our students is also crucial, and should always be couched in positive terms. When we give praise it should be appropriate and appreciative. Judgmental praise causes dependency and builds up an ego which can produce anxiety. We should praise what the student is doing or their effort, not their ego or talent. Praise followed by criticism is not helpful. Sincere praise goes a long way and creates a sense of trust.

Examples of appropriate and appreciative praise:

“I enjoyed that”

“that was really accurate/musical”

“That practising has really made a difference”

This allows pupils to draw their own conclusions about their playing

When giving critical feedback, the correct vocabulary becomes even more important:

Examples of negative feedback:

“you played that chord wrong”

“your playing is inaccurate/unmusical/unexpressive”

“you are not working hard enough”

By personalising the criticism, we make it more harmful. Domineering or bullying teachers who feel frustrated by their students will often pile negative criticism onto their students to big up their own ego and to make the student feel even smaller. This is a form of transference and should be avoided at all costs, no matter how frustrated we may feel by a student’s lack of progress.

Instead, we should use a non-personal form of words – and actions – which involve both teacher and student in the solution to the issue:

“let’s see if we can work out why that chord wasn’t quite right”

“how do you think we could make the piece sound more expressive?”

We should also be mindful about our use of vocabulary when teaching adult students. Adults can be adept at “reading between the lines”, drawing inference from something the teacher may have intended as a throw-away comment. Adult students often lack confidence, often a hangover from an unpleasant experience with a domineering or overly negative teacher as a child, and this can make them highly sensitive.

We should use positive vocabulary in all of our teaching, and also allow students to challenge us if we make sweeping statements which cannot be backed up by solid evidence, in the score or elsewhere.

Simple, positive changes to the kind of vocabulary we use when interacting with our students can have a transformative effect on their approach to their music making, their attitude to practising (“progress”), their enjoyment of music and, above all, their confidence.

Related articles:

The Virtuoso Teacher with Paul Harris

The Heart of Teaching: What it Means to be a Great Teacher