Some people think piano lessons are about learning to read notes on a page. And, that is part of it. But, it only covers a small portion of what lessons are really about. Exploration during piano lessons is an essential component to creating strong musicians. Regardless of whether they choose to pursue this professionally.
How We Learn
There is a fabulous book by Benedict Carey called “How We Learn” that covers the research into learning from the last 60 years. While a book on learning research may sound incredibly boring, I assure you this one is not.
The biggest thing we can take away from this research is that having students sit at the piano learning one song after another is not the best option. Especially if students are left to figure out what the commonalities are between the pieces on their own.
I still remember a summer psychology class I took in university (which at this point is nearly 20 years ago). Why do I remember one particular class out of all the other classes the teacher taught?
My professor told us we were going to learn the parts of the brain. It was if a record came to a screeching halt. To say we were not looking forward to this “snorefest” was a bit of an understatement.
At least right up until our teacher dimmed the lights to show us Pinkie and the Brain singing about the different parts of the brain.
I am quite sure most of us ended up using that video to study for our midterm! Not a single person forgot the brain stem. Not only was it catchy and fun to sing along with, but it was also something to bounce along with in our seats.
Think back to what you remember the most. Chances are it engaged multiple senses. Whether it was touch, smell, sight, sound or the emotions, they create a vibrant, multi-sensory memory.
A Long History Of Exploration
The biggest names in classical composers all have one thing in common, regardless of which era they lived. They all explored and pushed the boundaries of what could be done on their instrument or available notation (how we write out music).
Almost all of those composers also taught to supplement their income. And, guess what they taught their students? To question musical conventions and create their own interpretation of the written music!
Having students explore at the piano, both during lessons and during the week, is integral to students creating their own voice.
The Famous Mozart
“But, my child is just playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star! You can’t tell me there are different versions of this simple little piece.”
In fact the original is a French folk song called “Ah vous dirai-je, maman“.
But, did you know that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (yes, that Mozart) decided to put his own voice to this incredibly simple song. I think we can all agree that he certainly succeeded in making it his own interpretation in these 12 variations of “Ah vous dirai-je maman”.
If Mozart had not explored the full potential of what this piece could become chances are we in the Western world may have never been introduced to this common childhood song!
Liszt, A Classical Rock Star
Another famous pianist, Franz Liszt had a lasting impact on music as well. He is the reason pianos are turned so the audience can see the pianist playing and why festivals/exams typically expect students to memorize music. Liszt was an incredible performer and showman that people flocked to see.
What you may not known is Liszt is also famous for saying he would perform a piece however he felt the audience would respond best to it. Regardless of what the composer had written or the musical norms from when the piece was written.
Liszt was all about putting his own voice and expression into every single piece he played. In order to do this, Liszt would have spent hours, if not days or weeks, exploring all the options available to him in order to figure out the absolute best way to play each piece for a concert.
Exploring Away from the Piano
We know that we all learn a little differently from one another. And, piano lessons are no different.
What makes off-the-bench activities so useful in piano lessons is they allow us to explore how different gestures and concepts feel in our bodies.
Piano playing is based on both the physical and artistry.
In order to play in a healthy manner, pianist use their whole bodies to create the exact sounds they want. Otherwise, our poor fingers overwork themselves and we run the risk of serious injuries over time.
For example, most music nowadays is written in a 4/4 time signature. It has a marching feel (left, right, left, right) and we naturally feel the correct emphasis since it is so common.
But, a 3/4 time signature has a circular feel that is often best explored off the bench. Students need to feel how the body responds differently to this time signature to play it correctly at the piano.
There are so many ways in which isolating a particular group of muscles helps students play piano.
A few examples are:
- Tone production: the quality of the sound
- Dynamics: the louder the notes, the more the arm and back muscles are used
- Articulation: the physical way we change how to play the keys
- Phrases: musical sentences vs. the Shatner school of acting approach
Exploration During Piano Lessons
In piano lessons, we want to “boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before”. Or, at the very least where our student has gone musically.
Having students explore away from the piano is integral to learning what makes good music and what is just sounds.
It is integral to giving students a voice, rather than copying what others have done before them.
And, exploring at the piano is what keeps students excited to learn and making music for the long term.
What questions do you have about what exploration and a discovery approach to piano lessons?
Let me know in the comments below!
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