What is fluency?

I believe there are many aspects to consider with this question, but the idea of fluency and what is necessary to acquire fluency and how fluency is exemplified in the student could probably be a discussion topic taking hours at any music teacher gathering. (So, if anyone reads and has thoughts, PLEASE feel free to share comments here on the blog so we can possibly get a discussion going!) I was forced to consider my definition of fluency when I was studying Italian and my definition has continued to develop ever since. My second semester of Italian was with a very inexperienced graduate student who was a native Italian speaker. We had a very small class, which should have meant we had the luxury of excessive amounts of practice time of all concepts. Instead, I remember how we would discuss a concept, maybe do 5-6 sentences using the concept and then our teacher would declare it was perfetto and we would be done. I was incredibly frustrated and I used my frustration to analyze my own teaching and how I prepared my students for their at home practice. In contrast, my next Italian teacher patiently made us practice all concepts ad naseum - going back all the way to first semester concepts. I still am no where near fluent in Italian, but it was much more likely to happen with the teacher spiraling through old concepts and practicing until verb conjugations flowed naturally with little to almost no thought needed.

So, how does fluency in a language relate to musical fluency? Some aspects are identical, music is a language. But, music is also a physical activity so we need to practice like it's a sport. And then there is an additional aural component requiring us to listen to subtleties and react immediately, making changes as a reflex reaction since we do not necessarily have time to complete a thought before the moment passes. All these components make musical fluency difficult to define as well as to achieve.

I guess I could give some examples of what I have seen from students which I would say are NOT exhibiting fluency.
Student has many stumbles throughout their piece of music.
Student has many fingering errors in a scale.
Student can play an entire Bach Invention from beginning to end almost perfectly but cannot start anywhere in the middle of the piece.
Student plays a piece multiple times exactly the same way and when asked to make changes to phrase shaping or rhythmic flow everything falls apart.

To complicate matters more, I think we CAN achieve fluency at different levels. Take for example a student who has been taking lessons for roughly two years who can play all major and minor pentascales without prompting; can read accurately and independently pieces with no hand shifts; and can play (after practicing) a piece with a few hand shifts and can verbally discuss the intervals used, phrase patterns and character of the piece. This is a different level of fluency than I expect from a student who has studied their instrument for ten years. But, I think it is imperative (a "moral imperative", to borrow a quote from the movie Real Genius) that we as teachers make sure we have the goal to build a level of fluency in each of our students no matter what the difficulty level of their pieces might be.

So, how to do this... I definitely do not have all the answers, but for now I will oversimplify for the sake of discussion. I like to think that we have two major skills to develop when creating each student's plan for musical growth. One is physical skill, the other is cognitive. Each student (and teacher) will probably have a greater aptitude for one or the other. Our job as teachers is to make sure both sides are carefully developed. This often requires self-analysis as a teacher because we probably teach one more naturally than the other.

First, the physical aspect. I think we underestimate the number of repetitions we need to reach physical fluency. Most students definitely underestimate. So, we need too make sure to give very specific assignments from the very beginning in order to aid them in learning this skill. I will often give assignments to practice a 1-2 measure spot in a piece a minimum of 10 times a day. I work with many parents who have not ever played a musical instrument so I also make sure they are aware that they should be hearing some repetitive practicing.  I often use an example of my brother who spent one winter preparing himself to be a switch hitter for baseball. He diligently did 100 swings left handed every day so the motion became natural. This is when we also discuss how physical fluency is built over time. Please note, it is really important that we do these repetitions in the lessons to make sure they are learning the correct motions so they are not learning and then repeating an unhealthy motion.  I remember having an assignment to drill the opening thirds of Beethoven op. 2 #3 for 10 minutes every day for 30 days. My teacher (Dr. Mia Hynes) worked with me to make sure my drilling was done with a relaxed hand/wrist. She made sure I was drilling with comfortable fingerings. This was when I was an undergrad that she had so much care for my physical approach to the technical issue. It is even more critical that we have that care for pre-college students - many of them will not continue study at the collegiate level to "fix" technical problems. 

 Here is what I suggest for helping build this physical fluency:
1. Establish a scale/arpeggio regimen which gradually increases awareness of fingerings and fluency of scale patterns. Make sure to practice these with the students so you can watch for tight wrists, over curving of fingers, raised shoulders, etc. Focus should always be on learning body awareness before practicing for velocity.
2. Select pieces which do not overwhelm students with too many technical problems in one piece. From the very beginning stages of learning the piece, practice the technical issues together and discuss the practice plan for these passages. 
3. Be very specific in your practice instructions and do all the practice steps together in the lesson. I write in assignment books exactly what I want - 5 times in a row with correct fingering, for example or exact metronome setting for slow practice. I make sure we practice the exact gesture we want to have happen.
4. Once a piece is learned, make sure you have a plan with the student for maintaining the physical fluency. For example, slow practice every other day or spot practice or drilling passagework.

Now, what I think is the second aspect of fluency - cognitive awareness. In many ways I think this can be more difficult to teach because it is built over years with a student. I get many transfer students who physically can play very difficult pieces but are unable to identify intervals and phrases. In many ways even though they have a technical agility, I would consider them to be less fluent at the piano than a student playing less difficult pieces who can discuss musical form, keys, chords, etc. This cognitive awareness will also aid the student in making intelligent choices with regards to characters, dynamics, tempi, fingerings, etc. 

I have to admit now that there is no way I can outline all the ways to create cognitively engaged playing or even one complete way in one blog post. It takes time. It takes thoughtful planning. But it IS our job as educators to do this from the very beginning of musical study. Here are some ideas which I try to use with all my students.

1. Analyze every piece of music. This should start at the very beginning. Ask questions like "what notes are we using?" (both pitch patterns and rhythm patterns are relevant) or "in what direction are the notes headed?" or "what intervals are we using?". If we start looking for patterns or not patterns from the beginning it will not be a new concept when we start analyzing Sonatinas.
2. Ask why. "Why did the composer repeat this motive?" "Why do you want to get louder here?"
3. Explore pieces of different difficulty levels. When a student is learning to read a language, they will not read only books or reading examples of equivalent difficulty. The teacher will mix it up. My first grade daughter has easy reading books from school to work on phonetics, spelling and parts of speech. She has chapter books she reads on her own for the story content. She has the more difficult books which she and her dad read together which aids in vocabulary expansion. All these together build a fluency of reading which does not come by reading only one difficulty level. We should model our music learning on this. We should have some pieces students can play almost immediately, some pieces taking a couple weeks and some longer term projects.
4. Explore pieces in many different styles. This is not about learning different styles to motivate students. This is about developing students who will be aware of the sound differences between Telemann and Bartok and how to make those differences. And not just between composers, but also creating music which is colorful and has compelling ideas which are unique to each student. This comes from students being introduced to many different sounds.
5. Have students learn to make their own choices. It is very tempting as teachers to use the editions with lots of fingerings and helpful markings. Or to write in fingerings or dictate dynamics for students. Although it might save some time in the short term, it does not develop a student who studies the harmonies in order to find the climax of the piece. I inwardly cringe when in January my daughter wears a pink shirt with a red skirt and orange Halloween socks, but I have to step back and let her explore her own style of fashion. We need to do the same thing in some aspects of teaching. Some, not all. My daughter is not allowed to wear her sparkly dress shoes with the outfit above because they are impractical for school. So, we allow choices within set parameters, using those parameters to develop taste and eventually an appropriate sense of style. It takes time. 

More than likely this post did not give you any immediate tips to integrate into your teaching. Being a more philosophical post, I did not intend it to. But hopefully it might be a catalyst for thought. Fluency should always be our goal. Please share any thoughts or teaching ideas or teacher struggles as a comment below, other readers might find it helpful. All my posts are exploring facets of this goal of musical fluency, so keep reading my posts to get practical ideas as well as my philosophical background.



Why teach pre-reading repertoire

My teaching has evolved. Hopefully it will continue to do so as I make more discoveries and have more experiences with students. One of my goals used to be to get students to reading lines and spaces as soon as possible. That goal has changed drastically. Not to the point that I teach everything by rote, but I have learned to slow down the reading process through an exploration of pre-reading pieces. Usually I do this for the entire first year of piano study, sometimes longer. Before describing the repertoire I use I want to explain my thought process on why I have come to spend so much time with pre-reading repertoire.

First of all, our students come to us because they want to play music. But, sometimes as teachers we instead give lectures on technique and give lengthy theory assignments. I am not saying either of these are bad, but when that new student is excited to learn to play, we need to make sure that enthusiasm continues and give them something to play. Our long term goal is that music is always the motivator for music study, not trophies and stickers. So we need to make sure music making is present from the very beginning. (That said, I have used stickers, trophies, dressing up, candy, etc. as extrinsic motivators.) Pre-reading pieces and student compositions in pre-reading notation allow us to teach tuneful and memorable pieces to our students much sooner.

Pre-reading lets us focus on technical aspects of playing without needing to focus on reading lines and spaces. No reading method is perfect, but one of my biggest issues with the Middle C approach is that both thumbs are on Middle C, which is really awkward for both the 1 fingers and the wrists. Other methods delay using all 5 fingers. With pre-reading supplemental materials I can pick pieces to help students build a solid technical foundation no matter what method I use.

Pre-reading pieces can often explore and introduce students to different tonalities. Many of the reading approaches limit student to only hearing pieces in major tonalities. With pre-reading we usually learn melodies based on pentatonic and minor scales and experience tone clusters. What a great way to make sure our students hear pieces which are not always major!

Pre-reading is often easier for students to sing. I make my students sing a lot. Singing leads to natural phrase shaping, develops interval awareness and simply makes better musicians. Pieces centered around Middle C might be easier to read on the staff, but young students will not be able to sing notes below Middle C and should not be asked to. Singing teachers will actually tell you that young singers should sing tunes which use the F above Middle C and higher. (Yes, this means that you as a teacher should be using that same range and singing in your head voice, not singing with your speaking voice.) I know that as a teacher I cannot totally avoid ever going below that F, but pre-reading notation allows me to have musical experiences in the student's optimal singing range.

Pre-reading reinforces rhythm reading without lines and spaces. When we play, we are processing many different pieces of information. We have finger numbers, piano keys, rhythm, pulse, shaping, notation. Anytime we can remove one item it allows us to use more brain capacity for something else. This is why we so often tap out a rhythm before actually playing or why we will use syllabic counting instead of metric. If I can remove reading on the staff it is much easier for me to help a student develop a sense of pulse and concentrate on creating music in the rhythm. I think we too often spend our time on the definition of the note values instead of learning to feel the rhythmic motion and how the rhythm creates the gesture of the phrases. (Another topic for a future post there!) I love being able to work on rhythm shaping without needing to do on staff reading.

Pre-reading encourages directional reading. This is huge for me. I have some parents who try to "help" with student reading by teaching them the mnemonic devices of Every Good Boy Does Fine or All Cows Eat Grass. These devices have their time and place, but it is much more important for students to learn to read by seeing the direction of the notes and not memorizing letters on the staff.
With pre-reading pieces we can work on phrase shaping, dynamics, explore articulations, all without needing to fully read music which would be more complicated if notated on lines and spaces. First year students can make beautiful music and if we focus on their musical expression right away from the beginning it is just another step to creating musically sensitive playing for their entire lives.

Now that you are hopefully considering using more pre-reading repertoire, I want to go over some of the materials I use. I actually often begin with student compositions. We can do this right away in the first lesson when we learn our finger numbers. We will make up some kind of words and put lines above the words. 
The student will then put either the number 2 or 3 on each line. The student can then play their composition on the black keys using their 2 and 3 fingers. We can do this type of activity with 2, 3 and 4 on three black keys or on three chosen white keys. This does not include the directional reading aspect, but it is really helpful for a student who is needing work on finger numbers. We can also fill in a composition using letter names. I find these student compositions especially helpful with some students who are just a bit slower at assimilating concepts. Since we make up new words for each composition even if we do not change the parameters (2 and 3 or CDE of FGAB or whatever) we have an endless supply of pre-reading pieces. As you can tell with my example, I do not always have our words rhyme. It is ok to not rhyme. Especially when we have students making up their own pieces we need to let them have freedom to create something which speaks to them. Eventually you could add that parameter in if you have the student creating parallel phrases or contrasting phrases. Yes, you could be teaching these concepts before reading on the staff!

Moving on to repertoire composed by pedagogical composers. Many modern method books will start with pre-reading pieces. Rarely will I teach a method which begins with on the staff (usually only with a student who has learned reading concepts already with another instrument). Even with adults I will use a method which begins with pre-reading. I am not going to survey methods here, I just want to explore supplemental materials.

On of the first volumes I use is Ready, Set, Play! Halloween Songs . Usually students have started lessons in September so doing Halloween pieces soon after that follows the calendar. (If by some chance the student starts in January, it does not work as well.) There is one piece which only uses C, D and E, one piece only uses two black keys, one uses only F,G,A,B, others use white keys based around C, others are in C Position. Two of the pieces have students playing hands together. It has become one of the books all my beginning students use. One of my favorite pieces is "Ghosties" by Timothy Brown. I just love this ending! What a way to get a beginning student to start to listen to dissonance and resolution.



Soon after Halloween I start Christmas music. I do not necessarily like doing Christmas music early in November, but I have learned that if we actually want to play the pieces fluently and be able to play a lot of Christmas carols well, we need to start them in November. My two favorite volumes are Christmas Carol Activity Book   and My First Christmas Carols both by Gayle Kowalchyk. I like these because they are not too busy with too many pictures and both have the complete carols included instead of just one phrase (often the case in the Bastien Piano Party books and the Music for Little Mozarts books). Unfortunately, the pieces are usually in Middle C position making singing along difficult when it drops below Middle C. Eighth notes and dotted quarter notes are used, but I find that Christmas carols are a wonderful way to introduce these note values since we can usually play the rhythm by ear and then see what notation matches.

For more pieces with which students might be familiar, I use two volumes by Mary Leaf called Kids Klassics. Volume 1 has Yankee Doodle and Mary Had a Little Lamb as well as other nursery rhymes my students have sometimes not heard such as Sing a Song of Sixpence or Hey, Diddle, Diddle. Volume 2 includes Old MacDonald Had a Farm as well as many others. Both volumes use arrangements using both the black and white keys. The more difficult arrangements get their difficulty because fingers might need to spread over more than just three or two black keys. For example, this is the hand position for The Farmer in the Dell. This can be tricky for some students.



Moving on to pieces not specific for a holiday or having familiar tunes - I would suggest anytime you see a pre-reading piece composed by Mary Leaf that you buy it. She has a gift for creating pre-reading pieces which sound sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy playing and that you will not grow tired of teaching. I will tell you about a few of my favorite volumes. (Here is a link to all her works which are in the FJH catalog Mary Leaf piano music.) With all her pieces, make sure to use the teacher duets, they are very satisfying to play and help students hear the beautiful colors she creates with her harmonies.

Echoes of Scotland has two pieces, the first, The Highlands of Scotland, is a beautiful example of a pentatonic melody on the black keys. This piece can be used as a chamber music exercise with students. The first and third phrases are exactly the same in the student part, but the phrases are harmonized differently in the teacher duet part. I love having the student listen and respond to the difference by playing with different dynamics. Sometimes we might not be able to do this with our fingers, but at least we try. The second, Pipes and Drums, is a lively tune in a minor with the drones in the teacher duet. The last line is tricky, but is a great way to have students practice using arm dropping into the keys. I love using this piece to work on feeling one beat per measure. Yes, you can do that with beginning students!

Two other volumes I use a lot, especially with beginning adults are A Day in the Country and A Day in the Mountains (I am partial to the second only for vacationing reasons.) Both volumes have pieces describing animals and experiences one might have in the respective locations. These pieces have such variety in characters and sound colors I love playing the duets over and over with students. Here is one of my favorites, Evening Shadows, from A Day in the Country. This is the last line, a beautiful ending. It is somewhat simple, but requires the performer to really listen to how they are getting slower and softer.



Another volume with a lot of variety is Piano Recital Showcase. Most of these are slightly easier than the Mary Leaf solos since they use easier hand positions like left hand on two black keys, right hand on three black keys. Some of these pieces are longer (three pages!) which for some young students can be intimidating even though they use a lot of patterns. One of my favorites is "Bumper Cars" by Jennifer Linn because of the note clusters to sound like horns honking. Also kudos to Jennifer Linn for using the word "glutinous" in "The Hungry Spider". Great word!! "Pickled Pepper Polka" by Carol Klose can be tricky since the performer gets to clap and find their hand position again quickly.

Black Key Blast by Wendy Stevens has a couple pieces on the Federation Pre-Primary list, but all the pieces are worth checking out. As the title suggests, all the pieces are on black keys. I find the rhythm to be really fun in this volume. In "Ninja Power" there is a bit of syncopation, but the words nicely line up to help the student feel the energy. "Click Clock Click" is great for getting the performer to keep the flow of the quarter notes constantly moving.

The Little Butterfly Garden by Timothy Brown has six of the eleven pieces written in pre-reading notation. As with the Mary Leaf solos, make sure to play the teacher duets, these pieces are great without them but fantastic when with the duets. The duet parts really help make the characters come even more alive. I appreciate how the composer has lyrics to help the student create the sound images. For example, in "Fanfare to Butterflies" the lyrics "Come greet the butterflies" is forte and then the exact same notes are used for the third phrase but the lyrics are "Quietly watch them" and to be played piano.

I know there are more volumes out there and thankfully, more composers are creating works in this type of notation for our students. I will keep updating the list as I find more pieces, so feel free to come back and check for more pieces as I find them.

Scale routines as our alphabet

There are probably as many ways to teach scales as there are piano teachers, with each of us having our own routines, chord progression, practicing tricks, mnemonics, etc. Whatever the method of teaching scales, I think it is crucial to make sure we have a very clear intent on what we are teaching because scales encompass many concepts both technical and theoretical.

I like to think of the major and minor scales being our language's alphabet. When we teach children and adults the language of English, we start with letters, then put them together to make words and sentences. Fluency is achieved when one can read, speak and understand paragraphs. English teachers will incorporate instruction of the sounds, the parts of speech and the definitions from the beginning lessons. I think we need to do the same for music. For all instruments. From my observations, we tend to be really good at teaching the pieces, but not as good at teaching how the pieces are put together. I think part of the reason we are not as good at studying how the music is put together is because we don't study our scales like they are the alphabet of music.

So, that is my intent when teaching scales to my students. Teaching the scales in a way which focuses on using them as a theoretical basis for Western harmony rather than solely as a finger exercise. In general my focus first is the CONCEPT, second is FINGERING, third is FLUENCY, fourth is VELOCITY. Here is my outline of how I do it.

Within the first months of lessons (exactly when depends on the student), I begin with five finger scales. We start with C Major and c minor and continue around the Circle of Fifths (C, then G, then D, etc.) doing both the major and minor of each key in a week. We do the scale with both left and right hand but not hands simultaneously. The main concept we are trying to learn is the SOUND of major and the SOUND of minor. The difference in sound happens because there is only one key different, but it is such an amazing difference! I love it when we get to D major and minor and students assume that just like C and G the scale will be all white keys and they play it and discover the sound is minor. Because I am focusing on the SOUND as the most important concept, we do not drill the scales forever until hand position is perfect. Comfortable hand positioning takes time to develop, it will not happen in a few weeks. Neither will control of all five fingers happen immediately. But we have 12 scales (at least 12 weeks) to work on hand positioning.
Other concepts we might discuss based on the aptitude of student will be half steps and whole steps, the pattern of each new scale being five steps higher. I do not shy away from using the black keys and their names. When the keys start getting tricky I will draw pictures of the keys used in their notebook so they can use the picture as a guide to finding the hand position.

After the five finger scales I move on to 1 octave scales. Yes, this means my students will often be doing 1 octave scales with the thumb under, 3 over motion within the first year of piano study. (If the student is not physically ready, then I might end up doing the five finger scales over again, that time around with the focus being on finger agility.) This time our focus is on hearing/learning the complete 1 octave scale. This time around I do relative major and minor (only natural form at this time). We do one key each week, so one week C Major, the next week a minor, next week G Major, next week e minor. This is assuming that practicing is going well enough that we can play the scale comfortably after one week of practicing. The concepts on which I like to focus are:
1. Every scale uses every letter of the musical alphabet
2. We add sharps and take away flats as we go around the Circle of Fifths
3. Major and minors are relative to each other.

I do not do a huge discussion of fingering patterns, but for the most part I have not had a problem with students playing the scales. We do not play them quickly and we definitely do not play both hands at the same time. As we practice the scales together, I will point to the finger numbers I have written in their notebook since students still at this point have some trouble tracking letters and numbers on the page. I prefer to not use a scale book or notation on lines and spaces for this. (Remember my intent is to know the letters of the scales.) I will write the letters of the scale in one line of the notebook, above the letters I put the right hand finger numbers, below I put the left hand finger numbers. This way we are not actually needing to be reading lines and spaces to do the scales. I like students to sing the finger numbers as they play to help get the sound of the scales internalized.

If we have any additional concepts, these would be the whole and half step patterns and the order of sharps and flats. But, I do not focus on those unless the student is showing an above average theoretical aptitude.

If I feel the student has a general grasp of the 1 octave scales when we have gone around the whole Circle of Fifths, we will then start 2 octave scales, still only one hand at a time. I add two concepts this time and reinforce the concepts from the 1 octave scales. The first new concept is harmonic minor, the second is hand over hand arpeggios of the tonic chord. We do both natural and harmonic minor scales when doing minor so in the students' minds they have two scales to practice on the minor weeks (horrors!). For the hand over hand arpeggios we do four octaves plus the root again on the top. For example, for C Major we would do left hand CEG, the right hand CEG in the next higher octave, left hand crosses over to the next higher octave to do CEG, right hand moves to the next higher octave to do CEG, left hand crosses over to do the next C. We do it backwards for descending - GEC. The arpeggio introduces them to the tonic chord and really forces them to think about the letters of the chord.

By the time we have finished going around the Circle of Fifths again the fingerings are getting much more solid. But, I still do not think it is enough to put hands together yet. This time around we do 1, 2 and 3 octave scales. For minor, 1 octave is the natural minor, 2 octaves is harmonic minor and 3 octaves is melodic minor. Also new is the tonic arpeggio with arpeggio fingerings (so not hand over hand). We are reinforcing and reviewing all the previous concepts. New concepts are the melodic minor and by now I definitely am wanting students to be able to tell me the order of sharps and order of flats. They should also be understanding the third relationship between relative major and minor. What I feel is the most important concept at this point is that I have them practicing the tonic and dominant chords of each key. In root position. By the end of this time around the Circle they should easily be able to spell these out on their own because we have learned the concept, not just memorized chords. Tonic is always on the first note of the scale, we always skip a letter to build our thirds. Dominant is always on the fifth note of the scale.

I think it is really important to learn to spell these chords in root position. I had the experience once of teaching a college piano class for music majors who had been trained to play some fairly complex cadences on the piano. I was impressed until I started asking the to spell me chords. For example, the vi of D Major. The same students struggled to spell what I would consider to be a simple chord spelling for a music major. When my intent is to acquire theoretical fluency, I want my students to be able to spell chords for me and know their function within the key rather than rote play a cadential pattern.

One note about all these scale routines. These are my guidelines, but I do need to often modify because a student needs more work on a concept or simply because they struggle with (or refuse to) practice. For example, we might need to do another round of 2 octave scales or maybe go up to the 3 octave scales and not do the arpeggio yet. Whatever is going to help the student learn the material eventually. Not doing scales is not an option for my students since this is a huge part of how I teach music theory.

By this time around the Circle, fingerings are starting to be fluent (although c-sharp and f-sharp melodic minors might need some prompting). But, I still like to stick with only hands separate scales. This time we do 1 octave scales in quarter notes (natural minor), 2 octaves in eighths (harmonic minor), 3 octaves in triplets (melodic minor). We also do the 1, 2 and 3 octaves in different note values for the tonic arpeggios. Our new concept is spelling and playing in root position I-iii-vi-IV-V-I in every key. By root position I mean that we will play each chord in root position. This means the student will need to pick up their hand for each chord resulting in no smooth transitions. My intent is fluency of spelling chords. We also will be working on key signatures at this time.

One "key" (pun intended) point about key signatures. I think we often teach them backwards. As in we look at the key signature of a piece first and then say the piece should be in this key. For example, we see two sharps so we say that the piece must be in D Major or in b minor. I think we instead need to look at the music first, identify the MUSIC as having the attributes of the key. For example, b minor would have b minor chords, cadences on b, F sharp Major chords, etc. Then we recognize the key signature as a RESULT of the music. I might be splitting hairs here, but I think we need to recognize key signatures as a DEscription of the music rather than a PREscription.

Now, if you remember way back at the top of the page my four tenets of concept, fingering, fluency, velocity, I think by now my student has gone through all the concepts of basic major/minor harmony. We have encountered all the fingerings, fluency is coming along simply because of repetition. Time to work towards velocity. I like to do another time around the Circle, still doing hands separately to get some speed. This time we do 4 octave scales in sixteenth notes instead of 3 octaves in triplets.

Big question, why do I wait so long to do hands together scales? Reason 1: if hands separate is not fluent, putting hands together is very time consuming and frustrating. Reason 2: I don't see hands together scales as incredibly practical. We practice scales for theoretical knowledge and for finger preparation of pieces. How many pieces in the repertoire actually use hands together scales? Two come to my mind immediately - Beethoven 3rd Concerto and Chopin g minor Ballade. There are probably more, but my point is that if we are doing scales to prepare  for pieces, there are very few pieces actually using hands together scales. I think I have some time to prepare students before they will actually be ready to play those pieces. We can push off the frustration of doing hands together scales for a while. Interesting observation I have made though, when I wait this many times around the Circle before doing hands together, it actually hasn't been frustrating. I usually just suggest, hey maybe try hands together now and they can do it because they have done so much hands separate work. We might need to do some blocking work on a few scales to tighten up fingerings, but overall it is a much simpler task than if I try to do hands together earlier in their piano study.

One concept I have not focused on is the whole and half step patterns of the scales. Yes, I think this is important, but since my focus is on seeing key relationships and a thorough understanding of the Circle of Fifths, I don't spend an excessive amount of time on memorizing whole and half step patterns. I actually usually discuss these patterns with students when we analyze and play pieces using modal scales.

Usually the routines in this list will take us through four maybe five years of piano study. This means they will have an understanding of key relationships as we move into repertoire which is solidly in the category of Intermediate repertoire. Which means we are actually able to do harmonic analysis of pieces and see modulations and identify the difference between an Exposition and Recapitulation of a Sonatina. It is so much fun to teach the pieces when the students have been prepared for analysis!

Now, I am not claiming that my students are perfect at theoretical analysis. That takes practice and lots of guidance. But at least I feel (and hope) they know the building blocks of the music.

Moving beyond these routines we work on fluency and velocity, which I feel should  eventually be a different blog post. My routines are always getting tweaked and adapted for each student, but hopefully this gives some ideas of how to use the scales for creating pianists who are strong music theorists. I love using the scales right at the beginning of the lesson so we right away get our brains engaged in our music making.

From the 2017 WMTA Conference

This year's conference is in Madison! It's always great to connect with my WMTA friends, but I always get some great ideas as well.

Yoga with Dr. Paola Savvidou - this was a great morning session with a bit of stretching. Getting our students to be more aware of their bodies is only going to make them play better. Paola has a new book out, so definitely worth checking out. Piano and Yoga

Next session I attended was by Professor Kautsky from Lawrence University. I always leave Catherine's presentations inspired to read more. She is such an intelligent person, her speaking is so descriptive and colorful.

After lunch we got to hear Jennifer Linn. She showed us a number of pieces to help prepare students to play French works, that is a blog post I would love to do in the future. She has composed a number of really great pieces, definitely worth putting on a student's repertoire list. Also had some ideas like students making videos to go with their pieces I also really liked her slide showing three different paintings of the same church with different colors. Great way to show a visual for the color we try to show in piano playing.

Next was a presentation by Aeron Ogden. Extremely well thought processes on communicating practice expectations with parents and students. I loved the reiteration that we always need to remember piano playing is a skill. We are not born with it, it is about how we practice it and how we teach our students to practice and assess themselves. That is what makes them life long musicians, giving them the skills and tools to learn, not just teaching them pieces of music. His All Star program is all about developing intrinsic motivation in students through very clearly laid out, constant and positive reflection. Here is a link to the program, definitely worth looking at. All Star Program I agree wholeheartedly that we need to think about our practicing much more like training for a sport.

Pieces to prepare for the Bach Inventions

The Bach Inventions. One of the steps on the way to what many pianists call the Old Testament of piano repertoire - Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. Most music schools require auditioning students to prepare one of the 48, to help prepare for this all scholarship students at my teaching institution are required to learn the Bach Inventions. So, both the Inventions and the 48 are a big deal. And they should be. They are incredible pieces and should be in every pianists' repertoire. Which means that we as teachers need to be thinking about how we are going to help our students play them. Which means we need a plan for how to introduce these pieces so students learn to love them and play them musically and intelligently.

First of all, I want to discuss what is so wonderful about the inventions, which also happens to be what makes them need our effort in preparing for these pieces. What are the characteristics of the Inventions?

Counterpoint. Two moving lines independent of each other. Which means we will have a left hand line and a right hand line, each with equal importance and difficulty. Functional harmony can still be present, but will follow the rules of composition specific to counterpoint (not going to go into those rules here).

Baroque articulations. Depending on the invention, we can experiment with a few hundred ways to depress and release the keys.

Affect, yet not monochromatic. Each Baroque piece is supposed to portray one emotion or idea (affect), but within that framework Baroque music should be very colorful. I teach students to use a lot of dynamic contrast in their performances. We use the harmonic outlines to help decide on the location of the climax of the piece and moments of intensity and release.

I am sure we could have a much larger list of characteristics, but I am choosing to focus on these three. From these characteristics, I can create my list of what I need to teach my students to help them eventually achieve a readiness for the Inventions.

1. Have a finger agility in both hands to manipulate hand shifts and sophisticated fingerings
2. Be able to listen to two musical lines at the same time
3. Be able to sing one line while playing another (maybe this won't happen BEFORE encountering the inventions, but we will always work on it!)
4. Awareness of cadences
5. Ability to breathe at ends of phrases
6. Be able to use a variety of touches and hear the differences
7. Be able to play different dynamics in each hand (one hand quiet, the other louder, crescendo only in one hand, etc.)
8. Hear how different harmonies have a different "color"

Now I know what I need to teach, time to go find some music!!! THE best part!

I like to think about what I need from the very beginning. As in at the first lesson. I don't like to teach with the mindset that my student might not ever play the Inventions. Because they deserve the kind of teaching from the very beginning which will prepare them to play this repertoire. This means I need to choose a method book which will prepare them from the first day of piano study. I will get into more discussion of method books at another time, that is a HUGE topic. To summarize for now, I want a method which will train both hands equally and aid my student to hear and shape phrases beautifully. This means I will avoid methods which have pieces which have the melody dominantly in the right hand. I will make sure the method has pieces which gives attention to left hand work and does not relegate the left hand to only playing chords and chordal accompaniments. If by some chance I am stuck using a method which does that, I need to supplement the method a LOT to make sure the left hand trains to be an equal partner. I don't have an absolute favorite method. I think they all have strengths and weaknesses. But, I have a few I like better - Faber Piano Adventures, Music Tree, Hal Leonard, Marlais' Succeeding at the Piano. I can usually feel pretty comfortable with being able to manipulate those to get what I want for my students.

In addition to choosing a method which will work for both hands, I like to start scale work early with students. (Also going to be an upcoming post.) I like to start work on the five finger scales within about the first month of lessons. We gradually learn both the major and minor scale patterns and work our way into one octave scales by about the end of the first year of piano lessons (timing of this depends on the individual student's development). I delay doing hands together scales so we can work on independent hand agility which will better prepare us for sophisticated fingerings which are necessary in the Inventions.

Ok. My student has been now working in a method (plus getting supplemental work) which has created hands which are relatively similar in strength and agility and has some scale work. Now I need some pieces which work on getting hands to play together but not doing the same thing. There are some great pieces listed in the Royal Conservatory Music Development Program in the Inventions required for Levels 1 and 2. I often use this list as a guide, especially when it lists a whole collection. Except I just go buy the whole collection instead of sticking to their list. Here are some specific pieces I think work really well beyond the RCM list.

Please note, these pieces do not necessarily sound like Bach, that is not the intention. The intent is to prepare physically and mentally.  I put these pieces in what I think is the order of difficulty, feel free to disagree. The list is by no means exhaustive, I will add and amend the list as I discover more pieces. If nothing else, check out some of the pieces so you can get an idea of what kinds of pieces we should be looking for in preparation.

"Imitation" from Alex Rowley's Happenings.
Both hands are in G Major positions, each hand plays the motive ascending, then descending, then an ascending chord outline followed descending chord outline. I would suggest sometimes swapping the dynamics sometimes so both hands get to play forte as well as piano. 

"Twin Sisters" from Stephen Chatman's Preludes for Piano Book 1.
This piece has left hand in a D Major position and right hand in A Major. The descending "motive" is only 4 notes in length, each hand plays it twice, then finishes with hands together in parallel motion. No hand shifts.

"Fill in the Blanks" from Stephen Chatman's Away
This piece is more difficult than the previous because it does include a lot of two note slurs. One thing I love is that students need to decide some of the notes. Chatman has marked an X in a number of places, students are instructed to "play or write a quarter-note pitch below of above each X". What a great way to eventually lead to ornamentation and improvisation! Both hands stay in a G position, sometimes with a c sharp. No hand shifts.

"Bicycle Ride" from Jon George's Kaleidoscope Solos Book 2
The left hand is not as dominant as the right in this piece, but it does require independent playing in each hand. No hand shifts, left hand is in G position, right hand in D. 6/8 meter.

"Langweilige Geschichte" from Jeno Takacs Fur Mich, op. 7 
This is starting to get to be more difficult simply because both hands are playing simultaneously through much more of the piece. At the mid point each hand shifts. First half of the piece both hands are an a G position and then switch to D. Uses Lydian mode (Major with raised fourth).

"Lighting the lamps" from Rory Boyle's In Times Past
This piece has some accidentals which could be tricky, but does stay in the same hand position. Left and right hands alternate playing a motive and then finish with contrary motion together.

"Mary Had a Little Lamb" from Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee Modern Miniatures
I would change the left hand fingerings so that the first E is played with a 3 finger rather than 2 finger. This would then have both hands starting in a C position and switching half way to an F position. I have this piece as more difficult than the previous simply because of the dotted quarter and eighth rhythm. The last measure requires a fun cluster in the right hand.

"Relay Race" from Jon George's Kaleidoscope Solos Book 2
This piece does not have much hands together playing, when hands are together for four measures it is more chordal than counterpoint. But, this is a great piece for my purposes because the melodic motive passes from one hand to the other while doing hand shifts. Another 6/8 meter piece.

"Mimicking" from Family Matters by Al Benner
This piece is mostly hand alternation, but the first and last section end with hands together in contrary motion. Beginning section is all in C Position. Second section shifts three times with each hand before returning back to C. Third section (m. 25) shifts back to C then four more shifts. I do really like how the composer calls for articulation changes, but for the most part is very symetrical - whatever the right hand does, the left hand does as well. Rhythmically very accessible since it mainly uses eighth notes.


Teresa Richert's Copycat Copycat
Some of these pieces are easier than previous pieces on the list. The composer has created these pieces with the intent of using these to help her students prepare for the inventions and they do that perfectly. All the pieces require hand shifts, some slightly more complicated. I really appreciate the variety of meters and the usage of both major and minor keys. Teresa lists "features of the pieces" at the end of the book. Many of the pieces introduce Baroque ornaments such as the mordent and turn.

"Penny-farthing" from Rory Boyle's In Times Past
This piece has some more sophisticated fingering - finger crossings and extension out of a five finger position.

 Pierre Gallant's Imitations and Inventions
This is another collection, but it covers a wider difficulty level than Copycat Copycat. A few of the pieces have no hand shifts, but more difficult pieces are much more sophisticated requiring finger crossover, shifts, hand extensions. I appreciate the variety of meters, key signatures and modes.

Alec Rowley's Five Miniature Preludes and Fugues
Definitely getting to be more sophisticated, requiring thoughtful fingerings and systematic practicing from students. I appreciate the inclusion of fugue terminology (maybe not in other editions, I have one from Petrucci Music Press), but I would rather be able to work with the student to find the subject and answer instead of already having them marked in the score. Keys explored are C and F major, d and a minor. With many of the movements I could see references to Bach pieces. For example Prelude 1 is similar to Bach C Major Prelude, Prelude 2 is similar to the 2nd movement of the Italian Concerto. This can lead to some fun listening assignments for students. The length of these pieces is perfect for their purpose - about 20 measures each for the prelude and fugue.

This collection is out of print, but it can still be found floating around in online bookstores. I would suggest getting a copy. Stan Applebaum's Folk Music Bach Style: 21 Two-Part Inventions based on International Folk Melodies.
Difficulty level varies (Jane Magrath lists as Level 2-3) depending on type of hand shifts, keys and trickiness of the the rhythm. I appreciate the different folk tune sounds, since being based on folk tunes makes the invention motives really singable. Many times the accompanying hand outlines harmonies giving opportunities for harmonic analysis.

"Invencao" from Miniatures for Piano by Helio Bacelar 
Viana. I once picked up this collection at a music store clearance rack and I have no idea how to get a copy of it, my apologies. The publisher is Brazilian Music Enterprises. The collection has 16 short pieces with a mildly Brazilian flavor which could be really fun to add to a student's repertoire. This invention uses some syncopation requiring the student to be really rhythmically aware of the strength of the downbeat in order to get the dance-like feel of the piece. The first eight measures I feel are the most difficult, tapping out the rhythm will help tremendously in learning the piece. Rarely do hands actually play keys together, but the alternation requires students to really know hand shifts well to have a successful performance. 

"The Mirror" from Kirke Mechem's Whims
Even though hands mostly alternate in this piece, because it is Presto the difficulty of this piece is probably about a Level 5. Requires much more agility in moving around on the keyboard and manipulation of articulations and dynamics.

"Canone" from Casella's Children's Pieces Op. 35
Only slightly less difficult than the easier Bach Inventions. The entire piece is only played on the black keys, so a fun sound exploration!

Teresa Richert's Canine Inventions
Again, only slightly lest difficult than the Bach Inventions, but definitely a fun set to explore. Teresa has carefully planned the pieces to introduce students to articulations, rhythmic patterns and cadential patterns which students will need to know about for their study of Bach.

Two-Part Inventions by Abram Kaplan
Slightly less difficult than the Bach, but definitely offer something different for exploring the challenges of inventions. Not all the inventions are "true" inventions with both voices using the same motivoc material (#1, #5 for example). #3 is a fun dance in 11/8 and 7/8 which needs attention to articulations. #7 is a great example of opportunity to find motivic material. #10 uses alternating hands which is excellent for working on listening to motivic material move from one hand to another seamlessly. #11 has lots of dynamic changes, many of them suddenly. #12 is in 4/4 but the entire piece uses hemiola creating a really exciting finish to the set.

15 Polyphonic Studies (15 Kleine tweestemmige polyphone oefeningen) by Gerard Hengeveld. As far as I know the volume is out of print (I found mine on Amazon) it was published by Broekmans and van Poppel in Amsterdam in 1964. A stamp on my book notes bit was distributed by CF Peters Corporation. Please do not give up on out of print pieces. Many companies are starting to do print on demand orders so it is a matter of course tacting publishing companies to find out who has the rights to the pieces. Many of these can also be found in libraries. These are of equivalent difficulty to the Bach Inventions. They are worth looking at. Students can compare how different composers treated motivic material and used harmonies within a counterpoint style- this can help them compose their own inventions. In addition to simply theoretical value, I find many of these to be delightful to play, why not include them in our repertoire!

Additional note: Many of the Inventions are dances. Which adds another layer of preparation. While preparing for hand independence and counterpoint we need to also be getting the feeling of Baroque dances into our students!! I guess that gives me another list of pieces to find - pieces to help explore Baroque dance. Follow my posts so that when I compile that list you can see it as soon as I hit the publish button!





Yearly planning for the Late Elementary and Intermediate student

Once the school year starts, I don't have much time for lesson planning. Yes, after teaching for about 15 years the planning does get easier, but it doesn't necessarily take less time. I just know what works better or worse because of trial and error. Lots of error. So, I have worked on developing a system that works for me in which I do a year's worth of planning for a student so I avoid that feeling of dread going into a lesson knowing that I will need to make up my lesson plans as I go.
First off, what do I mean by late elementary and intermediate student? You can't necessarily measure this by years of study because every student will have a different rate of learning. I like to think this is the student who I am weaning off the method books and beginning to use repertoire which I can separate into the different style periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, Contemporary). Sometimes I start doing this at later level 2 of the method or into level 3 of the method. Please note, I go through method books fairly slowly because I supplement the method books a LOT. (Watch for future post on Supplementing the Method.) What I am looking for in a student is an understanding of note reading (absolute fluency not required), more comfortable technique at the instrument, knowledge of major and minor scales (a skill I begin really early, watch for a post on learning scales) and a readiness to work through a LOT or repertoire. Hopefully as you continue reading my posts this will become clearer to you. Kinda like how in the first few days of pedagogy classes all those definitions don't really mean much until you actually start to work with the students and see how everything works.
So, moving on. The student I am planning for might be doing some work in the method books still, but is ready to start thinking about music in the style periods. First off, when I am discussing music in the style periods, I don't always just look at the date the piece was composed. There are some incredible composers who compose in the style of Bach for the pedagogical purpose of preparing students to eventually play the Bach Inventions (post coming up about that in a couple weeks!). As I plan, I consider those pieces to be in the style of Baroque, not Contemporary style simply because the composer is still alive. Same way with some composers whose dates line up with the Romantic time period but composed pieces in a Classical style. This means that as teachers we need to be hyper sensitive and aware of what the attributes of each style period might be. We should be making sure our students learn how to play pieces from each style period and preparing them to be successful in future encounters. Ideally, the pieces we use as a student continues their study should prepare them for the advanced repertoire. For example, my goal is that a student will eventually play a Bach Prelude and Fugue. That might be five (or more) years in the future. So, I will choose pieces over the next five years to make sure that when I introduce that Prelude and Fugue to the student, the student has encountered enough pieces preparing him/her so analyzing, practicing and performing in the Baroque style is second nature. Yes, this style should already in their "toolbox" before they actually play a Prelude and Fugue because of my thoughtful repertoire plans.
A short little lecture on my soapbox. In order for a student to successfully be prepared to play advanced repertoire, the student needs to encounter MANY styles and composers as an intermediate student. I would rather have a student playing a LOT of music at a slightly easier difficulty level, but learning style attributes than a student learning one or two really difficult pieces. Our goal should be to create musicians for a lifetime. We are teaching them HOW to learn a piece and style, not just one piece of music. (Who was is that said "teach the music in the piece, not the piece of music"?)
Hopefully this gives you my thought process and philosophizing (is that a word?) on how I do my planning. Here is how I actually do it.
Step 1. Pull out my source for help and choose repertoire. My teaching bible is Jane Magrath's Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature. The levels 1-10 are similar to the levels used by the Music Development Program and the publications by ABRSM, but the book is much more extensive in the repertoire included. My book is getting a bit tattered and well marked up. I make markings in the book of which pieces I have discovered are out of print, which are only available from print on demand sources, which are in my library, which ones are in an academic library I use, etc.
For each of my students I have a planning outline of the pieces I want to do over the year. Here is what I want for each student (remember, in the style of, not necessarily an actually composed in the time period):
Baroque pieces
Counterpoint, Dance, French, Miscellaneous
Classical pieces
Sonatina, Theme and variation, Miscellaneous
Romantic/20th Century (I join together because the style starts to get more complicated and not necessarily as different as Baroque and Classical.)
American, French or French prep, Germanic, Ethnic or non-western, 20th Century idioms, Chopin or Chopin prep, Russian, Jazz/pop
Here is a link to what my planning sheet looks like Sample Planning Outline
I try to have a few pieces which are on the easier side for the student (2-3 weeks to learn), some pieces which are more difficult (maybe 8 weeks to learn). I choose one piece for each of the categories on my list (one or two might be left open because I think we won't be able to get to anymore repertoire). When I first began doing this, I would make sure to write down the level of each of the pieces so I could keep track if a piece ended up being too difficult. This helped give me a better idea of how to work through difficulty levels of pieces. (Again, please follow the blog so you will get updates when I do more detailed discussions on each of these styles and types of pieces with my findings of pieces in each of the categories. Some of the categories are more difficult to find at late elementary and early intermediate level - like French prep or counterpoint. I can't wait to share my discoveries!)
Here is an example of an outline I have finished for a student Finished outline
Step 2. Once I have the pieces chosen, I try to buy the music for the entire year. Yes, this is a financial commitment for me. But I have found that once the school year starts I can't keep up with music orders and I end up wasting weeks waiting for music to arrive. Local music stores rarely have what I want in stock. Planning ahead lets me have time to search for harder to find pieces. Ordering at one or two times also means that I usually get free shipping. I once tried having students go get the music and we would wait a few weeks for them to get around to getting the music or they would end up with the wrong piece of music or an edition which I didn't like. This way, I have what I need when I need it.
This year, I have started using imslp.org more for scores. Much of the music we use is in public domain, so I can use my Office Max discount card from MTNA and print out music for literally pennies. And even have all the pieces I picked bound together. I do always make sure that I have a purchased score in my library so that if we need to use the piece for a competition or an event we will have a purchased score for a judge's copy. Please do not make copies from books, the composers and editors have put many hours into their work and they deserve the small amount of money they get from their music sales. Let's be good examples of music colleagues for our students.
Step 3. Make a youtube playlist for each student. I try to find at least three recordings of each pieces we are working on. It doesn't always happen, sometimes I can't find any. But, then I know that maybe I need to make a recording myself for the student to use. Having the playlist ready to go helps me have the recordings ready to use in the lessons. I am really trying to make sure I teach students how to use recordings in their practicing. That means I can't just assign or tell them to use the recordings, I need to actually show them how to do it. So, in the lesson we tap out rhythms with the recording, we sing with the recording, we conduct with the recording, we compare different performers. Everything that I expect of myself when practicing, I need to actually SHOW the students how to do it.
Over the past couple years, this type of yearly planning has helped me feel MUCH better about how I am teaching. I feel much better about how I am making sure that the pieces are preparing students for the future as well as helping them be prepared for the year's performances.
Couple notes for teaching:
1. This list is not necessarily to be taught in the order on the list. It simply gives me the material I will use for the year.
2. Many times I don't get through the whole list for the year. If this happens, I keep track of what style we might not have encountered over the year and we make sure we get to it in the next year.
3. Many times I will need to modify my plans (what teacher doesn't) if I discover that we are struggling with a concept or technical challenge or have to learn something for a specific event.
I try to do all this planning over the summer so I have everything ready to go when school starts. Often step 1 is done and I have to finish steps 2 and 3 as the semester begins. At least those are the easier steps.
Over the course of the next few months, I plan to share some of my repertoire lists of teaching pieces. Sitting on the piano is a big stack of pieces I use to help prepare students for the Bach Inventions which I can't wait to put into writing!!!


Prepping the Bach b minor French Suite

One of my biggest struggles as a pianist is to find balance between two aspects of being an artist - performing and teaching. Usually I overbalance toward the teaching side, often simply because I get paid better for teaching than performing. But, I find that if I neglect the my own performing, my teaching and playing get a bit static and uninspired. That means I need to find ways to keep myself practicing and performing. Don't misunderstand me, I love practicing, but it's difficult to fit into a busy schedule. So, I try to commit myself to learning at least one recital program a year, usually trying to find a collaborator to make sure that I keep my commitments. This year, I was asked to perform at an all Bach festival in Waupaca, Wisconsin. Here is a link to their website, not a lot of information Waupaca Bach Festival It's small, but I definitely don't mind and gives me a goal for my practicing. I like to be pretty systematic in my practicing, so I am outlining here my process I have used in learning the Bach French Suite in b minor.

Step 1: Aural familiarization. For the Bach dances, I have two goals in this part of the process - familiarize myself with the dances and familiarize myself with these specific dances. I use the Maurice Hinson video on Baroque performance practice a lot in my teaching. Hinson Baroque video
Specifically, I love the bonus lecture which shows all the dance steps. This doesn't necessarily mean  you will be able to eventually perform the steps with the suite movements since they are somewhat stylized versions of the dances. But, it is crucial to know the dance in order know the general tempo of the steps and where the steps will metrically be placed. As much as I love the DVD, it can sometimes be overwhelming to send it home with a student just beginning their first Minuet. So, I also have started using more youtube clips to help students learn the dances. Here is one of them for example: Minuet Then at least the student can see what the dance should look like.

Then for listening to the actual suite I use cds, youtube and amazon. This leads me to one of my pet peeves (I have a lot of them). I really think we have lost the art of actually listening closely to recordings. We are so in the habit of having music as a background noise, that we only half listen (if that much). In order to help overcome this tendency, I encourage my students (and make myself do it as well) to listen with the music score open in front of them. And do NOTHING else but listen. This is not a time to multi-task. Just listen and follow the score. I am aware that there are some people who do not want to use recordings because they feel it will inhibit their own creativity, but for me, it does exactly the opposite. When I REALLY listen I am able to discover the differences each of these recording artists have brought to their interpretations and it actually makes me fell less inhibited in my creating my own ideas. What is most important about using recordings, I feel, is the creation of an aural image which will guide our ears when we begin the process of practicing.

I just have to include an anecdote here. Back in undergrad, I had the opportunity to spend a summer on staff at Interlochen Fine Arts camp. It was an eye opening experience for me. One of my accompanying colleagues, Caleb Harris, was, and still is, an amazing pianist. I watched him pick up a score from the optional accompanying bin and sit down on a bench with it. Not a piano bench, just a bench. I think it was a piece by Liebermann. A while later he officially took the piece and agreed to collaborate with the student saying, "I got this". Not as in, I got the score, but as in, I got this piece, I worked it out in my head. Yes, he had to go and practice some of the technical aspects, but Caleb was excellent at creating his aural image of the piece before beginning his practicing. Seeing him and some of our other colleagues that summer (who up until that point in my career spent more time in the listening library than I did) began to teach me how valuable recordings are in learning pieces before we actually touch the piano. For my students, I want them to have an example in their head of what the piece should be musically with the goal to avoid EVER playing or practicing without a musical intent and shape. (After my summer at Interlochen, I still didn't use recordings to their potential, I probably still don't. Learning better how to use recordings came from my absolutely wonderful, phenomenal teacher Martha Fischer.)

I have my favorite Bach performers, but I do try to always listen to a few performers who are new to me, if I can find any. I really think it is important to make sure we know who the performers of the recordings we use. I don't know how many times I have asked a student who they listened to and in response I got, "um, I'm not sure what their name was..." I have my go-to performers for Bach, you can probably guess who some of them are:
Andreas Schiff - I love his Bach ever since I heard him in a recital in Kansas City when I was in high school. He played the G Major French Suite as an encore. I had recently finished learning the piece and I have loved him ever since.
Glenn Gould  Always have to listen to his versions.
Murray Perahia This one actually has ended up being my favorite. For now at least. His ornamentation is absolutely gorgeous, I wish I were able to perform repeats for this recital so I could use some of his ideas.
Angela Hewitt - not on youtube, but I was able to get the cd on Amazon. I am still old fashioned in loving having my cds. She has become one of my favorite Bach performers. Her intelligence just shines through her playing and I think her ability to show many different colors while staying in the Baroque style is amazing. Definitely worth the money for the cd.
Arthur Loesser This was a new find for me with this project, but a valuable one. See below for a link to his lecture on the French Suites.

Then, I also think it is extremely helpful to study a few recordings of period instruments. I usually get some ideas on ornamentation as well as feeling of tempi and phrase structure. Here are some of the performers I found and used.
Christopher Hogwood
Thurston Dart
Ralph Kirkpatrick

(Please note, I will be having future posts with more details with more exact descriptions on how I use recordings for my own practice and teaching)

Step 2: Practicing. Ok, hmm, how do I elaborate on how to practice Bach. This has taken years for me to develop, I don't think I can do it justice in my already getting too long blog post. Here are some of my top faves for Bach, but start following me and you will be able to see as I expound these ideas throughout the year.
Hands Separate practicing. Definitely a must to help work out fingerings. The Courante in the suite especially had some tricky left hand passagework.
Backwards. I like to practice in short sections starting at the end or the piece. For example, the last four measures to the end, then the last eight measures to the end, etc. This forces me to only think about those measures instead of moving forward through the piece.
Varying articulations. I like to practice a number of articulations before I make my choice for performance. Semi detached in some passagework is extremely helpful for reminding me to keep a loose hand gesture.
Motives/gestures. I like to just practice a gesture to really listen to make sure I am creating a forward motion. Only doing the 16th note gestures was really helpful in practicing the Allemande.
Slow practice. Definitely useful for getting the Courante hands together as well as the Gigue.
Recording myself. I like to record myself, listen to one of my favorite recordings, then listen to myself. It really helps me hear where I haven't shaped a phrase as well as I thought, had a clunky left hand line, etc. 

For this performance, I am not performing from memory so I was spared the type of practicing necessary for me to commit something to memory. I never actually considered doing memory work for this performance because I knew I would not have the time required to do the practicing and repetition I usually need to feel comfortable with a performance done from memory.


Step 3: Musicological background. This is actually sometimes my favorite part of the process and the part which I can go a little overboard. I like to find any lectures that pertain to the work I am learning, any dissertations, books, etc. Here is what I found for this project.
An Arthur Loesser lecture. It is basically an overview of the different suite movements and the characters of each.
A short Murray Perahia webisode. 
Article by Eric McKee entitled "Influences of the Early Eighteenth-Century Social Minuet on the Minuets from J.S. Bach's French Suites, BWV 812-17" in the journal Music Analysis, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Jul., 1999), pp. 235-260
I always like to go back to some articles discussing ornamentation whenever I study Bach works. This time I read through some articles by George A Kochevitsky which were helpful. They are published in the journal Bach in a number of volumes. All articles are entitled "Performing Bach's Keyboard Works - Embellishments" then with the different parts.
And the book by David Schulenberg The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach is on my reading to-do list (Unfortunately, it's a really long list).

Step 4: Practice performances. This is when students and friends can be helpful. I am having a mixture of both come over tomorrow and I will have a list of specific things I want my audience to listen for. For example, my tone in left hand of the Gigue can sometimes be fuzzy, so that will be on the list for my audience. Or the muddy pedaling which happens in the Sarabande. My audience is going to listen while following the music score because I want them to pick out lots of errors for me. This is similar to the practice most music schools have of playing in a master class or studio class every week for classmates to give each other feedback.

Step 5: More refining based on feedback and recording myself. This is the step which I think now continues for a lifetime. I try to make sure I take notes from this step in my score so that I remember my thoughts if I do another performance in a few months or years from now.

Step 6: Perform

Step 7: Redo step 5 as many times as necessary!!










What is fluency?

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