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.

1 comment:

  1. Love the analogy about the 1st grader reader:) Great thought to keep in mind as I assign piano pieces!
    Arlyss Troge


Annotated Repertoire from "Pulling it All Together", a presentation for WMTA

Pieces to help teach phrase identification "The Highlands of Scotland" from  Echoes of Scotland  by Mary Leaf I like to use...