I am studying for Intermediate Piano Pedagogy and one of the big questions they always ask is in regards to “What are the pedagogical challenges of this piece” OR “What are the technical challenges for a piano student in this piece” Then of course they ask for solutions. My problem is not coming up with solutions, it’s categorizing in my mind what the possible challenges could be, and then summarizing my ideas for solutions based on the type of challenge it is.
This is probably one of the most helpful skills to learn as a teacher. One of our goals in teaching should be to help the student be successful, and one of the ways we can most effectively do that is by identifying potential difficulties and then equipping the student to overcome them. The natural tendency of every student is to start at the beginning of the piece and then stumble their way through, glossing over problems until they reach the end. And, of course, this is usually the least effective way to learn a piece. Here’s a step-by-step list you can use to approach teaching a new piece:
1. Pre-Lesson Prep – play through the piece several times and make a note of any potential challenges for the student in these 10 areas: note accuracy, rhythm accuracy, dynamics, articulations, tempo, style, pulse/continuity, fingering, technique, and pedaling. For example, I recently had a student who was going to learn the familiar Burgmuller L’Arabesque. I knew from playing it, and from previous teaching experience, that the short phrase at the end of the B-section would present a fingering challenge. So, I determined that this would be the first part of the piece that I would go over and assign to the student.
2. Determine the Best Preemptive Approach – Typically this will not be starting at the beginning and playing through the piece! It could be clapping the rhythm away from the piano, talking through the notes or intervals, doing a chord analysis of the patterns, playing hands separately, tapping the correct fingering on the piano fallboard, etc.
3. Look over the Piece with the Student – Using this Piece Description Worksheet is a helpful approach. I always start a piece by having the student identify the time signature, key signature, form, and rhythmic and melodic patterns. Usually, I also ask them if they can tell which part of the piece will be the most difficult.
4. Isolate and Drill the Challenging Spots – If at all possible, avoid just assigning the student the spot to work on without any work at the lesson. I try to walk them through every step of the initial practicing, encouraging a slower tempo when necessary, separating the hands, breaking into even smaller sections, or whatever seems the best way to help them achieve mastery. This often calls for “The Penny Game”!
It’s all well and good to study these sorts of things theoretically, but there is nothing like working with real live students to gain a better understanding of issues that students will face and effective ways of preparing to deal with them. One thing that I often do is say something like this to a student, “A lot of times, students who play this piece don’t figure out good fingering at this section, so they always stumble over their notes and it never sounds very good. I want you to be able to play it really well, so let’s work on this section first so that it feels easy by the time you have the rest of the piece learned.” This seems to help them understand my reasoning for requiring practice on a particular section first and motivates them to master it.