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Is there a way to make technical practice fun?

from the series: Let's Get Physical: Technique

Scott McBride Smith, Editor

A child need not be very clever
To learn that, 'Later, dear', means 'Never'. 

Ogden Nash, Grandpa is Ashamed

He makes a good point, don't you think? Is there ever time for "fun" in a piano lesson, especially when it relates to technique?

Fun is a charged word for piano teachers. Most of us get tired of hearing parents of lagging students say "I just want [fill in the name of your choice] to have fun playing the piano." Too often that's parental double-talk for "don't expect her to practice much and if you try, we'll quit ." My definition of fun encompasses more. "Don't you think it's fun for [blank] to feel proud of accomplishing a goal?" I ask. "Wouldn't it be cool for [blank] to improve her skills? Isn't it enjoyable to play well at a recital?" That's my way of saying "piano playing takes commitment and hard work. I've set the standards for my studio and I'll help [blank] reach them - if she'll try and if you'll support her."

Still ... a nagging doubt lingers. I tell students "you can always take time to goof around at the piano - after your work is done." But we have so much work to do in our lessons that there never seems to be time for fun. This is a mistake. There always has to be time for creativity, experimentation and pure joy - especially in a piano lesson!

Our three authors have some great ideas to accomplish this. Each stresses the importance of daily technical practice and weekly lesson time devoted to pure technique. But don't ever use the word "boring" to describe their ideas! Rhythmic variations, creative accompaniments, fun with the pedal ... you're going to have fun putting the teaching techniques from this issue to work in your own studios. 

Changing the "style" of technical practice can "ease the dullness often
generated by repetition"

by Stephen Cook

Without a doubt, teaching students technique can often be a piano teacher's biggest road block. We are constantly fighting what seems like an uphill battle to convince our students of the need to learn and maintain the tools and skills that make their musicianship more facile and effective. These skills are taught not only through exercises generated from the repertoire being studied, but especially from compositions written exclusively for the purpose of building a strong and secure technical foundation.

As much as any other teacher, I require my students to regularly practice technique builders. From the vast array of materials available for technique improvement, I use major and minor scales, Hanon, and Schmitt exercises for a strong technical foundation. But how does one market these materials to students as being fun and useful at the same time? I have found that the most effective way to generate consistent technical practice is to offer a variety of practice methods using these standard technical exercises and to change these methods on a regular basis. 


Scales are a staple; the manner in which they are practiced and performed, however, can vary. My students rarely play scales the same way more than three months in a row, because I find that simply changing the 'style' of performance can ease the dullness often generated by repetition. I regularly alternate several styles, marking progress with the metronome, and moving to the next style once the student has been through all of the major keys and their relative harmonic minors. For those students exceptionally prone to boredom, I vary the performance style on a more frequent basis. Try the following:

  • Have the student play at least two octaves with 2 notes in one hand against 3 notes in the opposite hand (or 3 notes in one hand against 4 notes in the opposite hand). (Don't forget to switch hands to balance the development.)
  • Using the metronome and playing for two octaves, start with two 8th notes per click and add one note per click in each octave until the student performs a quintuplet; at the top of the scale begin again with two 8th notes and repeat this additive process as the student descends the keyboard. This assists with learning to maintain consistent pulse despite a continually varying number of notes per beat. 
  • Alternate parallel and contrary motion within one scale. For example, have the student ascend two octaves, immediately transition to contrary motion for two octaves, transition again in contrary motion toward the center of the keyboard, then finally descend for completion of the scale. 

Hanon exercises

I can get even my most 'serious' student to smile when I provide an accompaniment of country and western or mariachi harmonies and rhythms.

Hanon exercises are great for developing equality and dexterity in the fingers. I find their effectiveness appealing, though - like many students - I despised them when I was younger. Using a wide variety of rhythms is certainly a possibility for breaking up the routine nature of these exercises, but there are many versions of Hanon available which incorporate other rhythmic variations, chromatic elements, key changes, differing rhythms between the hands, etc. which are appealing. Students also like the occasional surprise of hearing me play along with their Hanon performance with a variety of accompaniment patterns. I can get even my most 'serious' student to smile when I provide an accompaniment of country and western or mariachi harmonies and rhythms. If students have worked correctly during the week, why not make their technical performance a fun experience? It lightens their spirits and allows for more concentrated and detailed work in the literature.

The studies of Schmitt

The exercises of Aloys Schmitt are wonderful for developing independence in the fingers. By forcing the student to hold down various combinations of fingers while striking other keys with the free fingers, he or she develops the ability to individually voice different notes within complex textures. Admittedly, these are often frustrating at first. My secret is to allow students to play the exercises at an extremely slow pace with the moving notes performed in a staccato articulation. This invariably allows them to think before executing the finger attack and usually proves to be very successful. I also encourage my pupils to transpose these studies to other keys and to different registers of the instrument. The simple changes of key and timbre serve to break up the monotony of these great pieces.

It would be ridiculous to assume that technical practice will ever be as appealing to students as practicing repertoire, and why should it be? (Young readers, for example, want to learn words so they can enjoy books, not so they can memorize vocabulary). Nonetheless, a practical, consistent, and varied approach has suited my students well, and I enjoy the success of their labors as we solve the technical problems found within the literature with greater ease and facility. 

The "trick" is to include technique at every lesson

by Christy Dolan

My technical approach with beginners

I always admired people who could play the piano by ear ... it looks like fun. In fact, most beginners already know how to play "something" by ear. After asking them to show me what they know, I demonstrate how the piano works inside, including all three pedals, and I have them experiment with sounds, such as playing and holding a low key until they no longer hear it.

Next, I ask them if they remember from their "childhood" the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." We play and sing with each note in the group of three black keys, "Three Black Bears ... Going Up Stairs" from the lowest to the highest and change it to "going down stairs" for the descent. When we study the two black keys, the song becomes "Two Bears ... UpStairs (down stairs)". With eyes closed, they learn to find the black key groups by feel and make up pentatonic melodies. In only a few minutes the student has learned how to navigate the keyboard, to listen to high and low pitch, to relate them to the keyboard as up and down and to compose a piece. The black keys make it easier to teach posture and hand positions with their forearms relaxed, their wrists up to key level, and their finger tips on the keys. 

Key names including black keys and finger numbers are next, and students are taught in a game-like atmosphere seeking out sounds and keys at two parallel keyboards. At this point they may be ready for the "Harp Songs." I use the primary chords (I, IV and V) in C Major (CFGC), playing arpeggios hand-over-hand and covering the full keyboard, also showing them how to use the damper pedal. Arpeggios are turned into block chords, and chords grow into 5 finger patterns. Only then are they ready to open up the pages of a primary lesson course. 

Progressing on ...

As the lessons progress, my students continue to review the C Harp Song in the white-white-white group of primary triads (C, F, G and C), and when it is mastered, they add the A Harp Song using the white- black-white triads (A, D, E and A Major). A few lessons later, the A-flat Harp song in the black-white-black keys (A-flat, D-flat and E-flat) is added. Now, they know 9 major chords and positions. 

The primary triads in the remaining three keys (B, B-flat and F# Major) are added one at a time since they do not relate the same way topographically. As soon as all 12 major key chords and positions are secure, I show the students how to combine 5-finger patterns using only four fingers in each hand and creating a major scale by tetrachords. Now they can figure out all major scales around the circle of fifths with no trouble at all. It is therefore time to teach them how to create a circle of fifths all by themselves before they even know it exists. 

The pros and cons of using "technique" books

From the very beginning, my students do most of their technique exercises by memory because I really want them to watch their hands; they also stay on a scale or exercise until it is mastered. I find that course books labeled "Technique" look so much like other books that the student expects to pass one or two pages a week. When I use one of these books it is my intention to use it for sight-reading. Instead of metronome practice, I invite my students to practice with earphones on my digital piano during another student's lesson, teaching them to set various rhythm and harmonic accompaniments to replace the boring metronome. Now they are playing with other instruments in ensembles and they definitely call this "fun"!

"Warm-ups"instead of "technique"

Actually, the word "technique" never comes up, as I prefer to call this work "warm-ups". This is easy to digest because most kids already know about warm-ups for sports or dance and quickly attach importance to piano warm-ups. By way of example, I show them samples from my current warm-up regime which might include all the major and minor scales around the circle of 5ths, arpeggios and an etude. I explain that I practice the same warm-up for several months before changing it. That is the key: it has to be repeated until perfected, whatever the time involved! I use the circle of 5ths over and over forever to learn scales, arpeggios, chord progressions, and most keyboard theory. The trick is to expect technique at every lesson because if they miss it for a few weeks, it will no longer seem important and the joy of preparing it may diminish. 

The way ... material is assigned vividly colors the student's attitude towards it

by Peter Mack

We do our students a favor when we work with them to improve their technical abilities. In fact, failure of the teacher to motivate students to work on technique is one of the main reasons why they give up piano. As they get older and the pieces they are mentally able to play get more and more complex, so, too, does the level of technical difficulty in each piece. If students have not been prepared physically to cope with these new challenges, the level of frustration that they experience also increases, until they finally give up in disgust. A better technique enables students to play more difficult repertoire with ease and assurance. 

Actions and attitudes

As teachers, we need to show by our actions how important we consider technical work to be. At each lesson, a regular time should be set aside for technique. Many of us prefer to begin the session with some kind of exercises. Parallels can be made with sports. "You wouldn't dream of running a race without warming up!" If technical exercises are not heard and worked on in every lesson, then students will not work on them outside of the lesson either. 

We also need to remember that our attitudes about technique, or for that matter, about piano itself, are not necessarily shared by our students. My own private students recently went through their annual adjudication. The visiting instructor - an excellent and inspiring musician - sat at the top of the keyboard, and played along with each of my students as they played through their pieces. It brought back many memories for me. It was the way that I myself had been taught, and I vividly recall just how much I hated it! I wanted to play by myself, and not with my teacher controlling everything from on high!

Accordingly, when I started to teach students of my own, I made the decision that I would let them play alone if at all possible rather than turn each piece into a duet. When I asked the parent of one of my children what was the greatest thing she felt her son had gotten from the adjudication, she replied "Well, she played along all the time with him, and you know how much he just loves that when you do it!" Our students are individuals, with their own set of likes and dislikes. It is no longer a surprise to me when I ask a student, "Of all the things that we did at this lesson, which was you favorite?" and the student's reply is "Hanon!"

The way in which material is assigned vividly colors the student's attitude towards it. Consider, for example, the difference between the two words "Must" and "Get" as used in the following two sentences: "When you learn your D major scale, then you MUST do the scale of A major," "When you learn your D major scale, then you GET to do the scale of A major!" 

Relating assigned exercises to the repertoire being studied

Exercises that are shown to be relevant to the pieces the student is working on are more likely to be enjoyed than studies that seem to bear no relation to anything. If a piece is in A major, then the scale (maybe also in thirds, sixths, and contrary motion) and cadential chords can be painlessly added on. (Some students will grow to enjoy the beautiful sound of the parallel sixths, or to appreciate the logical way the hands move together, especially if this is pointed out to them.) When teaching technique, we need to be sure that we explain to the student why technical practice is important. Just about any bitter technical pill will go down more easily if the student is told, "This will help you to play really fast!" 

Awarding "gifts" as incentives

For some teachers, the motivation towards learning is the achievement itself. To be able to move about the keyboard with ease is reward enough. Others see no harm in adding a little extra incentive. "If you can play all your scales beautifully next lesson, then you get to pick a present from the gift bowl." In my studio I have a tub filled with tiny presents - beads, foreign coins, ornaments, bouncy balls, etc. Good lessons are rewarded with a gift. IfI want a student to try especially hard, I offer an extra gift as an added bonus. I make sure to follow through, and it really works. 

Using imagery, metaphors, competitions, and performances
as practice motivators

A student of any age will respond more enthusiastically to the use of colorful imagery. "Keep the bridge of the hand well arched!" is all very well and good, but it pales when compared with the chicken coop metaphor. In this image, the hand is a chicken coop, with tiny chickens inside. The fifth finger sticks out? "You've left the window open. The chickens will escape!" Similarly the back door can be left ajar (wrist too high), the front door needs to be closed (thumb sticks out) and, if the bridge of the hand collapses, I exclaim "Oh no! The roof is squishing the chickens!" In a similar vein, sporting metaphors might appeal more to a very physical student. Technical exercises can be given more ath- letic names such as "Finger push-ups" or "Sprints."

Some students thrive on competition, and some will be more likely to work hard if they know they will perform in public. So why not add a scale component to your next recital? Prizes could be awarded for the fastest in each age group, the most even, the wackiest combination (Anyone for D major in the right hand combined with A flat major in the left hand?) A scale progress chart could be prominently displayed in the studio so that each student is able to see his or her progress every week. 

In attempting to make technical practice more enjoyable, we need to remember that not all methods will work with every student. However, just as with ear training, it is most important that it be done in each lesson. What form technical practice takes can vary from student to student according to their needs and abilities.The main thing is that it should not be neglected. As I stated at the outset, we do our students a favor when we work on their technique! 

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Comments 3

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