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Is Teaching Really That Different in Asia?

"East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" may have held some truth in 1889, when Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem The Ballad of East and West, but the phrase has little relevance in 2012. World-wide communication, increased travel, and global industry have made our planet avery small place.

So it's good to have an article from the distinguished American teacher Thomas Linde, who has spent the bulk of his career teaching at Tunghai University in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. Fifty years ago, oxen pulled carts up the road outside Tunghai, then surrounded by countryside; today, it's honking cars and skyscrapers. Just like in the United States, life in Asia has changed—only faster.

For all the changes, it's interesting to note that, East or West, the fundamentals of good teaching remain constant. Careful counting, a reliable sense of pulse related to effective technique, and lots of hard work are still necessary for good pianists. And good teachers have a lot in common, too: they are able to quickly diagnose a problem and offer several fixes. Enjoy Dr. Linde's perspective on teaching; I think you will learn a lot.

Teaching pulse and rhythm in Taiwan

by Thomas Linde

In 2012, I marked my twenty-fifth year of teaching piano at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. Making my career so far from my home country began as something of a fluke. During my last year of doctoral work at Indiana University a friend gave me the address of a university in Taiwan and, on a whim, I sent off my application materials. Not even knowing if there was a position available for a pianist, one can imagine my surprise when, three weeks later, I received a call from the chairman of the music department at Tunghai offering me a job.

My first ten to fifteen years at Tunghai were during what might be considered "the golden age of piano teaching" in Taiwan. At that time there were relatively few piano teachers with advanced degrees and countless students who wanted to study the piano. It seemed as though young pianistic talents were everywhere. The students that I taught during those years differed considerably from those that I had previously taught. Most of them were far less likely to ask questions. This produced both positive and negative results. I found it refreshing not to have to bolster my opinions with supporting arguments the way teachers often need to in the States. On the other hand, particularly during my first year, their lack of questions led me to naïvely assume that they understood all that I was trying to teach them.

Another difference was that a disproportionately large number of young pianists had perfect pitch. This provided a wonderful opportunity for developing a strong aural-tactile relationship at the piano. A few were able to prepare a fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier on open score every week or two, singing one line and playing the others on the piano. Where else could I have found such students? If it were in the States, it would probably have been in the larger cities. And there too, students with such abilities would most likely have been Asian.

Piano study in Taiwan has changed significantly since the 1980s and 90s, but certain things have remained fundamentally unchanged. Throughout my tenure, the areas that I have always felt to be the most problematic for Chinese piano students are pulse and rhythm. These interrelated topics, which are of crucial importance to playing the piano, can be both challenging and perplexing to teach.

A sense of pulse

A sense of pulse that can be adjusted according to the specific style of a piece—either in strict time or allowing for varying degrees of metric freedom—is something that does not come easily to many Chinese students. There also needs to be a greater awareness of natural rhythm. It is important to understand that some beats rebound off the keyboard while others are weighty. Conceptualizing metric groupings and understanding their affinity with speech patterns, dance, or song is also essential to good musicianship.

I became gradually aware of these problems during my first years at Tunghai. On one occasion, I remember a student playing the gigue from the French Suite in G Major, BWV 816, for her lesson. In some respects, she was quite accomplished for herage, having good finger dexterity and the ability to learn music quickly. Her pulse and rhythm, however, were similar to those of many students that I would encounter in the years that followed. By about the fourth measure, the spaces between the notes were rapidly beginning to shrink. Although she did not seem to be aware of it, there was an uncontrolled quality to her playing that might be analogous to riding a bicycle downhill and discovering that the brakes have failed. The dance element, moreover, was replaced by a uniformly staccato articulation that had little to do with the hops and jumps that characterize the gigue.

Why this is a problem for so many music students in Taiwan has always been something of a mystery to me. The late Walter Robert, who was on the piano faculty at Indiana University for many years, served as a visiting professor at Tunghai during the 1981-82 academic year. In an article that appeared in Piano Quarterly, he suggested that such characteristics have their origin in language:

"Chinese speech melody is equally far removed from the sing-song of Swedish, the deep throated rumble of Russian or the harmonious ripple of French....Could it be that the syllabic character of the language is unconsciously translated into the kind of precise, note-by-note articulation that I found prevalent among Chinese piano students?"1 

Although many Chinese students that I have taught over the years feel rhythm in a "note-by-note" way, precisely determining its cause would probably require years of intense observation and research. In any society, many cultural and social currents can work together to influence the way people gesture, walk, articulate speech patterns, and feel musical rhythm.

Several years ago, while exercising at a running track, I noticed a fine athlete running laps. I stopped to watch him because I had rarely seen someone run with such ease and grace. There was a general steadiness to the runner's stride, but also a certain flexibility that allowed him to speed up or slow down as the situation demanded. Rhythm generated through his entire body and, although he was a fast runner, his motions were broad and, somehow, slow. Neck, back, arms, hips, and legs were joined together in a sort of synchronized flow, all governed by an internal pulse. He had obviously worked hard to acquire his skill, but his sense of rhythm seemed both natural and effortless. I remember wishing that my piano students had been with me to watch him run.

Helping students develop a controlled sense of pulse and a natural approach to rhythm requires both patience and perseverance. Methods differ widely and, as with most other aspects of teaching, have varying degrees of effectiveness with different students. During my first years at Tunghai, I used the metronome far too much in my teaching. For some, the metronome can become an elixir for all pulse- and rhythmically-related ills. It can even become addictive as both a practicing and teaching tool, providing a false sense of security.

I still find the metronome to be useful for pointing out excessive rushing or dragging and for exposing tempos that diverge too much within a piece or movement. Relying on it too much, however, can encourage an unnatural and even robotic approach to rhythm. Ultimately, rhythm and pulse must be developed from within. In many cases, they can be worked on together. By cultivating a natural rhythmic sense, one can, in turn, learn to control one's pulse. According to my experience, however, it does not work the other way around. Concentrating strictly on pulse does not bring about good rhythm.

Working on rhythm and pulse

Various methods of marking the beat can be used to improve pulse and rhythm. Counting aloud is an approach that some teachers consider to be an indispensable part of practicing. I have found it to be particularly effective for beginning and intermediate students. Counting aloud, however, can be difficult when playing virtuoso pieces. Moreover, conveying a sense of rhythmic character is often difficult when counting beats. In the end, counting aloud seems to be more helpful for developing pulse than rhythm.

For working on rhythm and pulse together, exercises that involve physical activity can be far more effective. The Baroque keyboard scholar and performer, Ralph Kirkpatrick, was surely not the first to point out that a good rhythmic sense is best acquired through "the association of rhythm with movement."2

Julian Martin, now on the piano faculty at Julliard, taught at the Tunghai Music Festival for several years. Many of the lessons that I observed him teach were largely devoted to acquiring good rhythm. Frequently, he would have a student play with one hand while using the other hand to tap the beat on the keyboard lid. For Professor Martin, the quality of the tap was of primary importance. He was not satisfied until the student tapped in a character that matched the music being played. If a student was playing a gavotte from a Bach suite, the tap had to have a buoyant quality. For a Mendelssohn scherzo, the tap became smaller, tauter, and had to bounce up quickly. In a piece marked maestros, the tap was weightier and there bound was slower.

Such a method is effective for establishing a sense of natural pulse in contrast to the inherent rigidness that comes from using the metronome. Indeed, it can encourage a certain degree of flexibility that can be contoured to phrasing and varying degrees of harmonic tension. By tapping the beat, rhythm forms a natural synthesis with melody and harmony, providing motion, direction, and shape to the music.

The problem with this method, of course, is that one cannot tap the beat and play with both hands. Limitations, however, can work to one's advantage. Playing with one hand and tapping with the other is generally easier than playing with both hands while counting aloud. Most importantly, students seem to be able to express both rhythmic character and flexibility of pulse more successfully by tapping than by counting.

Another effective approach for cultivating natural pulse and rhythm is found by conducting one's piano music. What might best be described as "silent conducting" can be done either while seated at the piano or by standing in front of a music stand. If a baton is needed, a pencil will suffice. Little or no training as a conductor is necessary, since the point is not to lead an ensemble but to express rhythm through motion. At times, the gestures might be similar to those used for tapping but can be broader and more expressive. Not being able to play the piano while conducting forces the student to develop an inner sense of pulse and rhythm.

My students are usually a little self-conscious when first asked to conduct during piano lessons. Often, they dutifully use techniques learned in first-semester conducting, careful to put all the strokes in the right places but with little feel for the rhythm. They usually relax when they realize that traditional beat patterns are of secondary importance and, in many cases, can be dispensed with altogether. By conducting, students can learn that good rhythmic performance depends upon what one does with the space between the beats. Conducting a Chopin nocturne would require connecting the beats with broad, fluid gestures and slow rhythmic rebounds. For a waltz, a broad, circling motion might best convey the spirit of the music. By conducting a waltz, the concept of "playing with sweep" can be better understood than it can by either counting or tapping.

When using arm gestures to move through the beats, a student can fully conceptualize how to pace the gradual increase or decrease in momentum necessary to make an accelerando or ritardando—never giving too much too soon. Or one can come to understand what a fermata is meant to convey. Rather than idly waiting for the pulse to resume, as piano students are prone to do, one can physically portray an absence of motion. Syncopated rhythm can also be best experienced through conducting. By using the arms to bounce upward from the beat, the student is pushing against normal metric patterns or, in Kirkpatrick's words, "counteracting the force of gravity."

The effectiveness of tapping the beat and silent conducting depends upon the specific attributes of individual students. For some, hands-on contact with the keyboard is necessary for virtually all types of practicing. Tapping the beat while playing might be beneficial for such students, while silent conducting would be an abstraction, producing few positive results. For a student with a vividly developed internal sense of music, either tapping or conducting would be helpful, providing the potential for noticeable improvement. Both exercises promote a sense of pulse that is controlled and flexible, along with a capacity for performing rhythm in a way that encourages natural musical expression.

Over the past twenty-five years,Taiwan has produced many first-rate pianists, a few of whom I have been fortunate enough to teach. In order to reach their level of achievement, each of them had to somehow overcome the considerable challenges involved in mastering pulse and rhythm. One student, who turned out to be one of the best that I have ever taught, had little sense of pulse and even less rhythm when I taught her as a child. With hard work, she became skillful in both of these areas and eventually won first place in an international competition for high school students in the United States. Attaining such a level would never have been possible without the vast improvements that she made in pulse and rhythm.


Most music teachers eventually come to understand how closely the various elements of music are integrated. Improving one aspect will often remedy another. This was clearly revealed to me during a lesson in which I taught a student the notorious repeated-note passage in Ravel's Alborada del gracioso. The student was a diligent practicer, but no matter how much she worked, she could not get the repeated notes up to tempo. I racked my brain trying to find away to help her, carefully studying her hand position and fussing with the way her fingers moved—all to no avail.

Exasperated and running out of ideas, I told her to imagine that her sense of pulse was located on the top of her hand and that it had a direct connection to her fingers. To my surprise, the problem instantly vanished. Suddenly, she could play the repeated notes clearly and evenly without slowing down. That day, I learned that a clear sense of pulse can improve finger dexterity just as surely as harmonic sensitivity can help in shaping a melody. Music is an artof complex interconnections.

Controlling pulse, I have often felt, is similar to flying a kite. One can pull the string in tautly so that the kite is restricted in its movement or let out more string to allow it to fly freely in the wind. What one must never do, however, is let the string go. Rhythm is a more comprehensive topic. By definition, it "covers all aspects of musical movement as ordered by time."4 Its importance is revealed when considering that every note that one plays is governed by one's inner rhythm.

Like the runner, a musician's rhythm involves a sophisticated coordination of motions that generate into a natural flow. One can learn a great deal about natural rhythm from watching old Hollywood movies of the dancer Fred Astaire. No matter how impossibly complex the choreography was, his sense of rhythm allowed him to carry off his dance steps with a "tossed off " effect, creating the illusion that dancing was, for him, effortless. Of course, to reach that point, he spent countless hours slaving in the dance studio. Like other aspects of art, a seemingly natural sense of rhythm is accomplished through persistence and hard work. As the nineteenth-century painter James McNeill Whistler once said, "Work alone will efface the footsteps of work."

1 Robert Walter, "Teaching in the Republic of China [Taiwan]," The Piano Quarterly 128 (1984-85), p. 46.

2 Kirkpatrick, Ralph (1984). Interpreting Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: A Performer's Discourse of Method. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 65.

3 Ibid.

Randel, Don Michael, (Ed.). (2003). The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th ed. Cambridge, MA:Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 723

Since accepting a position on the piano faculty at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan, Thomas Linde has been active throughout Taiwan and abroad as a teacher, soloist, chamber musician, and accompanist. In 1987, he was invited by the United States Information Service to perform a recital of twentieth-century American pieces in Japan. He has since returned to Japan seven times to perform in Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Utsonomiya, and many other cities. He has been a visiting professor at Eastern Michigan University, has conducted masterclasses throughout Taiwan, the United States, Japan, and Singapore, and has served on the faculty of both the Prague International Piano Masterclasses and the CCM Prague International Piano Institute.

In Taiwan he has taught students whohave won first prizes in international and all-Taiwan competitions and those who have continued their studies at Berlin Hochschule, Eastman School of Music, Hanover Hochschule, The Julliard School, New England Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory, and The Royal Academy of Music. A frequent participant in international music symposiums, he has given numerous lectures and presented articles on a wide variety keyboard literature and pedagogy-related topics.

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