Oct

2

LeschetizkyA family member recently asked for my advice on piano lessons for her 3-year-old daughter. I devoted many years to piano studies and teaching, and have performed for most of my life. Specs might find my reply of interest, for children and perhaps even in other matters:

– Right from the start, realize that the most important thing is not what she can play but what sounds are in her mind. The ears are more important than the fingers. You don't "talk down" to her in conversation; don't do it with music, either, by limiting her aural intake to kiddie songs. Let her listen to great music performed by great artists. Have her listen to orchestral music, jazz, opera, choral music -– not just piano. No need to limit the genre of music — have her listen to jazz, classical, rock. But it should be really, really good. James P. Johnson for stride piano, Martha Argerich, Wilhelm Kempf, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sviatoslav Richter, Arthur Schnabel, Frederick Gulda for classical. Take her to concerts and have her sit close up so she doesn't feel apart from the performers.

– Start by simply letting her experiment on the keyboard. Applaud her efforts. Play with her. Don't let anybody plunk her down on a piano seat and insist that she slog through one of those dreadful kid books. The music in those books is mostly really rotten. Furthermore, it is a very complicated affair to coordinate fingers, brain and ears enough to read a piece of music and perform it.

– The problem with most kiddie books is that they impose a five-finger regimen of "C, D, E, F, G" that is unproductive in building a good technique, as well as physically and mentally constricting. Let her apply the technique outlined in the Leschetizky method. He taught all the great 19th and early 20th-century pianists, and he knew what he was doing. One of his students wrote an excellent book on his technique.
 
– When she starts learning the system of musical notation, don't let anybody start her off with "C, D, E." No, no, no. Do A, B, C, D, E, F, G — like the alphabet. Then teach her the ledger lines: In treble clef, "Every Good Bird Does Fly" and FACE; in bass clef, "Good Birds Do Fly Always: and "All Cows Eat Grass." Let her discover the black notes. Somewhere in this, show her "middle C" – but if you start there, it could easily end there.

– Don't get just any teacher — attend a recital of students, see if they can play, evaluate their poise and the musicality they're able to project. If you can't sit through the playing without being bored or going crazy, why would your daughter benefit?
 
– It's crucial to help her learn an excellent piano technique early on so that she can reach a level of accomplishment that will allow her to enjoy music and get as good as her path allows. A poor technique will lead to an inability to express herself, even serious injury.

– Once she starts learning pieces, by all means make sure that her teacher is devoted to performance. She should have an opportunity to perform once a month in a big-deal recital where she can showcase her achievements to her peers and to you. When I was a girl, my teacher had monthly recitals that would include all his students, from the tiniest to the teen-agers. There would be a little musical dictation, a little talk about the pieces, and always be a big cake afterward. Somehow the excitement of competition, the joy of showing an accomplishment, the interest in observing other kids and the sweetness of the ultimate reward combined to make an atmosphere conducive to learning.

– Obtain the best instrument possible. If she is to develop an ear for sound and a fine technique, the piano must be properly responsive. If her technique is good and yet the instrument makes an ugly sound, she'll never be able to express ideas and to find the beauty of the piano.

– Don't let her become a little circus monkey. Make sure that she gets theory and musical coaching. Make time for her to learn about the lives of the composers and the history of music. Lessons should not be run-throughs of pieces while the teacher beatifically nods.

– A good piano teacher will include sight-singing and dictation as part of the training.

– Regular practice is key. It should be in a perfectly quiet environment, without distractions. Use a timer. A good teacher will send her home with a list of things to practice, to keep her moving onward. Don't sit with her — discipline is something that must come from her, not you. The discipline of piano playing will unfold into many beautiful qualities and gifts.

– Send her to music camp. A summer sojourn at a music camp is worth years of regular lessons. The chance to be with other musicians, play music together and learn more than usual is an expansive, life-enhancing experience.

– For heaven's sake do not let her think of piano as a career. It's just not possible these days to make a comfortable living as a pianist, if indeed it ever was. Pursuing a music career will ensure decades of financial weakness that could lead to an envious, malcontented existence. If by some misfortune she actually does make a career of it, she will spend two-thirds of her time on the road. Tell her that music is to be enjoyed, that the goal is to be able to play beautiful music both alone and together with other people, that the better she gets the more people will want to hear her. If, despite everything, she wants to become a great musician, then teach her to invest and trade so that she can support herself!
 
Recommended:
The Pleasures and Perils of Raising Young Musicians: A Guide for Parents, by Michelle Siteman (Vic's college girlfriend!) Her son, Benny, is now assistant conductor of the San Francisco orchestra. Michelle is a terrific writer and a smart mom.
 
Leschetizky's Fundamental Principles of Piano Technique by Marie Prentner. The teacher approved this book, written by one of his students.

Laurence Glazier adds:

CzernyI concur with Laurel's recommendation to follow Leschetitsky's teaching methods. He studied under Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven. There are still in most major cities pupils of pupils of Leschetitsky. That makes them, musically, great-great-grandchildren of Beethoven. They are worth seeking out.

Some of the Leschetitsky exercises I saw are straight out of ki-aikido, but invented long before. He reputedly had a sign on his door stating "There is no Method." Perhaps he was very responsive to each individual pupil's needs, giving rise over the years to differing accounts of the "Leschetitsky Method."

I spent a valuable hour with one elderly pupil of the great man. We looked at how to play a simple scale in great detail. "Listen to the sound," she said.

The pleasures of music can exceed the benefits of a secure income. Van Gogh was prolific though he sold only one painting. There are different kinds of capital.

With the advent of excellent music notation and playback software, there is an argument for piano lessons to be accompanied at an appropriate age by composition lessons. At this stage there are not many pianist-composers but the new technology suggests there will be many more in the future.

Alston Mabry writes:

I'm reminded me of a favorite anecdote, from Charlotte Joko Beck's book Everyday Zen:

Many years ago I was a piano major at Oberlin Conservatory. I was a very good student; not outstanding, but very good. And I very much wanted to study with one teacher who was undoubtedly the best. He'd take ordinary students and turn them into fabulous pianists. Finally I got my chance to study with the teacher.

When I went in for my lesson I found that he taught with two pianos. He didn't even say hello. He just sat down at his piano and played five notes, and then he said, "You do it." I was supposed to play it just the way he played it. I played it - and he said, "No." He played it again, and I played it again. Again he said, "No." Well, we had an hour of that. And each time he said, "No."

In the next three months I played about three measures, perhaps half a minute of music. Now I had thought I was pretty good: I'd played soloist with little symphony orchestras. Yet we did this for three months, and I cried most of those three months. He had all the marks of a real teacher, that tremendous drive and determination to make the student see. That's why he was so good. And at the end of three months, one day, he said, "Good." What had happened? Finally, I had learned to listen. And as he said, if you can hear it, you can play it.

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson remarks:

My 6-year old son is taking piano lessons. His heart is not in it. We try not to push him very hard and encourage his progress. I listen to a lot of classical music, some Oscar Peterson and Queen. My son loves listening to Queen, but my wife is concerned that he should not listen to rock music. My argument is that this is a closest crossover from rock to classical/opera music you can find. Well, she doesn't buy it.

Nigel Davies writes:

F & CI was born into a very musical family and my parents did everything they could to encourage me to play something. They had me on the violin, piano, cornet and clarinet and at school I learned the xylophone and the recorder. They had some early progress as I played the xylophone at one school concert and won a couple of prizes on the recorder at a local music festival. But I would later turn my back on music and turn to chess, which nobody approved of. One day I remember being forced to go out into the sunshine instead of sitting over my board. Of course there was only so much they could do with one small, stubborn boy.

Thinking back, it had something to do with the social dynamics of my family. My sister, a couple of years older than I, was a very good musician, certainly better than I was. On the other hand I was soon beating family members at chess, then family friends and then schoolmates. This had everything to do with early success, this was something in which I could win. I felt special, which provided the encouragement to do it more and be even more special.

Let's fast forward some 35 years. Now I'd really like my 5-year old son to play chess, and it's not because of any frustrated ambitions of my own. There are several compelling reasons: He has the right kind of mind/personality for it, I got a lot from the game myself (education, self-worth and many friends and associates) and it's one of the few things I can teach him with much authority. There's also the thought that if he gets to play chess we can go to tournaments together.

What's my method of encouragement? Well there are lots of chess sets around (both live and on computer screens), not to mention the garden-sized one which adorns my living room floor. And he plays around with it a bit and now knows what the pieces are called. I haven't tried to teach him any moves. The next step is to interest him in a DVD produced by Chessbase called Fritz and Chesster, which is a cartoon that familiarizes kids with chess concepts and moves. I don't have any plans beyond that, my intention being to play it by ear and see if it sparks any interest.

What I would never do is set him up for early competitive failure. Based on my own experience I believe success and self-worth are inextricably linked to the enjoyment of an activity. Music is easier — it's enough to listen to your child play (no matter what level) and pretend to enjoy it. With chess I might have to team with my son against the computer. I'll cross that bridge when we come to it. But I definitely want him to win a few games in his early attempts.


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