The Principles of Music Teaching

The pursuit of personal excellence, whether as a five-year-old or as a sixty-five-year-old, is a driving force of life–the cradle of hope and faith. Whether this pursuit is in the planting of a garden, the raising of a child, the painting of a picture, becoming an “A” student or excelling at sports, bodybuilding or music, the basic principles remain the same. Regardless of your path, I believe you will find correlations in the basic principles of my teaching of the piano.

1.      Most people READ THROUGH the music repeatedly until they get most of the notes right, gradually deciding on proper fingering, dynamics, phrasing (legato, detached notes, and timing of breath pauses) and pedaling. This approach is a WASTE OF TIME and produces a dissatisfying result.

2.      Listen to a RECOMMENDED recording three or four times–following the music–to get a general idea of the piece. Then DO NOT listen to the recording again until the piece is learned and polished.

3.      Set a weekly goal of how far you want to go in the piece (based on how much of it you can work each day) based on the following principles.

4.      Keep a JOURNAL of your daily practice (or a POST-IT on each piece) so that you have a visual record of what you have done.

5.      Take four or eight measure sections at a time (even two measures if the piece is quite complex). Work out fingerings, rhythm, phrasing (legato, detached notes, and timing for breath pauses), dynamics and pedaling. With great concentration, work to make it all happen simultaneously. REPEAT THE SMALL SECTION SIX TO EIGHT TIMES (eight to ten depending on the difficulty). Alternate repetitions between no pedal at all and pedal to highlight accuracy.

The aim is for it all to be perfectly realized during the repetitions. STOP AND FIX anything that is unclear or messy. THERE WILL ALWAYS BE TROUBLE SPOTS. Use various rhythms and metronome and separate hand practice until they are mastered–past the point of panic. When you get tired and are not concentrating well, stop and take a short break and then GET RIGHT BACK TO IT. Work this way by sections until you get to your preset goal in the piece. DO THIS EVERY DAY, no matter what comes up.

6.      Exercise slogans like NO PAIN NO GAIN and PUSH TILL IT BURNS are applicable. Don’t be too easy in setting goals for yourself but also don’t make the short-term goals unattainable within the week’s time. DAILY work in the above manner on each piece you are studying is imperative. See also this Berliner Philharmonic in Salzburg article.

7.      You WILL get discouraged and frustrated and often feel like you are pursuing an unreachable goal and making a fool of yourself. WE ALL OFTEN FEEL THAT WAY, sometimes 50% of the time. CLEAR GOALS AND HARD, THOUGHTFUL, PERSISTENT WORK–remembering all steps toward a goal are BABY STEPS and we often can’t see them clearly since they are so gradual–this is the winning formula.

That we have the DESIRE to play well and learn to know ourselves better and express ourselves through music is the first sign of being gifted. God has given us these desires and gifts, but He has given them to us RAW. It is up to us to develop and refine them.

8.      Working and thinking and living in this manner makes you part of a group of people who probably represent all that is left of NOBILITY in this century. It is a great responsibility, regardless of our goals, but it is also a great blessing.