Have you ever wondered why a student can successfully correct a problem at the lesson when you point it out to them, but then return the following week having reverted to the incorrect way of playing it? I actually started to understand the fundamental issue involved in this phenomenon as a result of taking lessons myself. I would return home from a lesson and begin practicing a piece, only to stare blankly at a particular section knowing that my teacher had addressed something that needed to be corrected, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was! It wasn’t that I didn’t want to fix the problem, or wasn’t willing to put in the time and work to do so; it was that I hadn’t fully grasped what the problem was in the first place.
In order to remedy this teaching disconnect, I think we have to approach it with a fundamental principle in mind:
Music is sound, not what’s printed on the page. When a teacher recognizes that a student is playing something incorrectly, it is because it doesn’t sound right. Either the student is not accurately playing what is represented on the printed music (primarily the technical elements), or the student is playing in a way that is inconsistent with what the teacher wants the piece to sound like (primarily the artistic elements).
Obviously, unless they just doesn’t care, the student is unaware that the sound they are emitting is incongruous with what it should be. So ultimately, as a teacher, what I want to do is help my student hear the errors and be aware of what needs to be fixed so that they can implement an appropriate practice strategy during the week. As I am often wont to tell my students, “Once you hear the mistake, I’m not concerned; I know you can fix it during the week.” But if they have not fully grasped what exactly it was that sounded wrong, the chances of it coming back fixed the following week are pretty slim!
In an effort to apply this understanding and teach my students more effectively, here are three practical approaches that I take:
1. Relate to something the student is already playing correctly. For example, if there are two staccato notes in a row and the student is playing the first one staccato, but is holding the second one (why is this so common?!), instead of pointing to the book and telling the student that both should be played staccato, I ask them to make the sound of the second staccato note match the sound of the first staccato note. Firstly, this places the responsibility on them to listen for and determine whether they are playing it correctly. Secondly, it develops more acute listening skills and forces them to hear the sound of what they are playing. I use the same approach if a student is inadvertently altering the tempo between different sections of the piece. Instead of saying, “You’re playing too slowly at measure 22. You need to play the same tempo,” I say something like, “Play the eighth notes in the left hand at measure 4; now go over to measure 22 and see if you can match the sound and speed of the eighth notes so that they sound the same as measure 4. Does that sound different than how you played it the first time?“
2. Play two examples for the student – one as an imitation of how they are playing it, and another as a representation of the way it should be played. I have the student identify which example sounded like the correct one. Usually they get this right. Then I have them try to play a good example. If they do well, I’ll have them give the bad example again, followed once more by the good one so that I can ascertain whether they have truly grasped the problem and how to fix it. If on their second attempt they still play it incorrectly, I play it back to them again and contrast it with a properly played example. The goal is always for them to hear the difference and then be able to relate it to what they are seeing on the page and how they are executing it.
3. Audio or video record the student playing the piece and have them give a critique of it – did they like the way it sounded? do they want to re-record and try to improve it? Sometimes before I play it back, I ask the student to watch/listen for three specific things that they would like to do better if we do a second recording. It’s always insightful to see what they come up with!
Do you all have any other suggestions or ideas of approaches you use to help the students “tune in” to the sound of their playing?