Review of Twister and 6 Steps for Teaching a New Piece

As soon as I played through this hot-off-the-press piece from Hal Leonard, I thought of several students who would love it! Twister by Wendy Stevens is fast and it sounds flashy, but the patterns make it accessible for an ambitious elementary student. The quick left hand position changes add to the excitement, but could easily lend themselves to a less-than-continuous flow – very un-twister like! Since our theme here for the month of February is Feeling the Pulse, I thought it would be fun to outline steps to help a student achieve success with this piece.

For starters, I would make sure that the student who is going to learn this piece already has experience playing cross-hand arpeggios and staccato vs. legato between hands. So, without further ado, here are the steps I would use to help a student successfully learn Twister:

1. Play the piece for the student up to tempo. I know there are different schools of thought on this, but I almost always play new repertoire for my students. They can develop their reading skills from their method books; with these supplemental repertoire pieces, I want them to have a vision for what they can accomplish. It’s hearing cool-sounding music like this that inspires them to aspire to new heights.

2. Ask the student to make at least 5 observations about the piece. This helps me see what they are most aware of, whether their perception is that it’s too hard, whether they like the piece, etc. Then we develop and discuss those observations. In a piece like Twister, I would expect them to notice things like: there are staccatos and accents on some of the notes, the time signature is 3/4, the dynamics go from piano to forte, you use the pedal at the end, your right hand moves into higher octaves, there are a few sharps and flats, etc.

3. Identify what key the piece is written in. For younger students, identifying the key of a piece means figuring out the scale upon which the piece is built. Twister is in c-minor. I have them play the c-minor pentascale and chord, and in this case would have them demonstrate a c-minor cross-hand arpeggio (this is setting the stage for a future step!).

4. Label the form of the piece. I’m definitely not a form and analysis expert, but together we look for how long the phrases are (8-measures mostly), whether subsequent phrases are the same or different than the first one, and any patterns within the phrases. For example, in the B-section of Twister, I would briefly highlight the concept of a sequence and show them how three of the 2-measure patterns follow the same interval pattern with each one moving a note higher than the one before. We would likewise look at the places where the right hand moves up in octaves repeating the same pattern. All of this gives the student an overall picture of the piece and makes it easier to learn.

5. Tap the rhythm hands together with the respective hands tapping each part. We do this together at a slow tempo, with me keeping a steady pulse throughout the piece, thus forcing the student to keep going even as they make mistakes (which they almost inevitably will!). As I’m tapping, I incorporate dynamics and articulation elements, but I don’t expect the student to do so at this stage. After we’ve gone through the whole piece like this, we choose one section to focus on first. For Twister, I would teach the last 8-measures first for several reasons: it sounds cool!; they’ve already played the first four measures without even realizing it when they played their cross-hand arpeggios for number 3 above; and it encompasses most of the elements that will be encountered in the rest of the piece.

6. Successfully learn the selected section. I would have the student tap and count the last 8-measure section again, this time moving their hands up or down on the fallboard to portray the octave changes. Sometimes, depending on time constraints, I also have them finger it out by “playing” on the fallboard the fingers that they will use when they actually play it. Once they determine that this feels easy, I let them try it on the piano. I make sure that they incorporate the dramatic crescendo at the end and finish with a brilliant accented staccato. And of course, the rhythm and notes must be correct! With this section “under their belt,” they are ready to go home and apply the same practice strategies to each additional section of the piece. I let them learn the sections in whatever order they choose – forward, backward, or random.

Obviously this takes considerably more time than showing a piece of music to a student and saying, “Go home and practice.” But one of my primary goals as a teacher is to equip students with the skills they need in order to effectively learn new pieces on their own. I aim to teach conceptually so that they can transfer the things they learn to other repertoire. At lessons, I rarely get to hear everything the student has been working on, but that’s okay. There’s only so much you can accomplish in 45 minutes! And if I have to pick, I’ll pick analyzing a new piece in depth so that the student is much more likely to experience success with it than if I just haphazardly assign it. If I do this with a few special pieces periodically, we reap the rewards many times over in all their other playing and learning. And this piece, Twister, is the perfect tool for doing just that. Plus, it’s just in time for tornado recital season here in Kansas. 🙂

I’m planning to have a student start Twister this week, so I’ll try to post back with a progress report. If you order your own copy and teach it to a student, I’d love to hear how it goes!

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