Like every good beginning student, as soon as I had mastered the art of staying upright on my snowboard for more than three seconds, I was ready to make my first run down the slopes! But you know what our instructor did? He took us to a special small hill reserved for students and made us spend the whole morning descending 50 feet on either our toe edge or our heel edge, unstrap the snowboard, climb back to the top of said hill, and repeat. All morning! Does that sound like cruel and unusual punishment to you? As much as I longed to traverse the rest of the mountain, I now know that the hours spent on that beginner hill helped me build confidence and skills that were essential to my success once we did hit the big girl slopes!
This is probably my biggest weakness in teaching. I’m so anxious for students to get to the “real” stuff of playing piano that I don’t spend enough time reinforcing the fundamentals. And perhaps some of that is due in part to an uncertainty over exactly what are the fundamentals of playing the piano. Sometimes it seems like there are a hundred of them! After all, we have to think about finger numbers, the keys on the piano, proper technique, note identification, a sense of pulse, rhythmic precision, dynamics, articulations, interval recognition, pedaling, and lions, and tigers and bears…oops. Anyway, then there’s also the importance of developing creativity, playing by ear, confident improvisational skills, a decent grasp of musical styles, and probably a dozen more things that I’m forgetting.
But what I’ve realized (embarrassingly!) is that many of my students still hesitate when I ask them to identify a particular note. And my beginners often squeek by with slightly shorted rhythms or an erratic pulse. Those are the two things that I would consider the most fundamental skills of traditional piano lessons: note identification/placement and rhythmic/pulse precision. Without these, every attempt at something more challenging is bound to be a much more difficult and painful process. But, if a beginning student masters these two skills, he will gain the confidence and foundation from which he can continue learning and developing as a musician for years to come. I hope my students are ready, because from now on I’m going to be cracking the whip when it comes to knowing their notes and counting their rhythms! 🙂