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Pedagogical treasures from Paul Pollei

Paul Pollei (left) and Robin Hancock.

Paul Pollei, popularly known as the "ambassador of the piano," passed away in July 2013 in Provo, Utah, leaving behind friends and colleagues on many continents, who loved him and his enthusiasm for life. He was a champion of piano pedagogy and all facets of the wide world of piano performance. He loved the art and science of teaching teachers. He was chair of the Brigham Young University (BYU) piano area and coordinator of graduate piano studies, and he taught piano literature and both undergraduate and graduate pedagogy during a teaching career that spanned forty years at that institution (1961-2001). His graduate pedagogy seminar consisted of one lecture/discussion session each week and a second session each week with a classroom of ten to twelve second-graders assembled for a group piano lesson given by the graduate assistants, in which teaching concepts would be put into practical action. Each of these children also received a private lesson with one of the graduate students every week after the group session. In this way the children had a concept lesson, activity, game, and performance from the graduates, and then had one-to-one teaching at the piano to reinforce the concepts learned in the group session. Paul immersed us in the teaching literature, and each of us compiled several large notebooks filled with articles on piano teaching. Each of us also created our own beginning piano method book.

Paul was a force on so many musical fronts: he founded the Gina Bachauer Piano Foundation and International Competition in 1976, re-inventing the way piano competitions are governed and administered; he founded the American Piano Quartet in 1984, resurrecting a little-known art form; he revitalized the arts movement up and down the Wasatch Front, and he was counted as a "close" friend by thousands of teachers around the world. He served on the juries of countless international competitions and was a globe-trotter, adding up hundreds of thousands of miles of air travel yearly in the cause of the piano. In conjunction with these duties, he gave master classes and private lessons around the world. His mission was to offer the most scintillating and insightful teaching. He compelled the student to grapple with the composer and resultant pedagogy in a life-changing way. Stored under the piano were boxes of articles and files he had personally written on every element of piano teaching. His manner at countless master classes was to surround the students with a web of meanings and a perspective on soundscape at the piano. He left students and audiences breathless with amazement at the many "aha" moments he injected into just a few moments of working with the student.

Here is a sampling of Paul's pedagogical ideas:

From a lecture on teaching children at the Utah Music Teachers State Convention (October 24, 2008):

A child needs to be surrounded by sounds, the most natural of which is the voice.

Get kids singing—sing with words, numbers, use all possibilities of sound.

Plunking on the piano is not sound or talent.

There are only twelve notes on the piano—not eighty-eight; the rest are just more octaves.

You cannot get the sound of the piano without the pedal.

Use correct posture at the piano right from the beginning—otherwise one has to be the correction officer for the rest of one's life.

The secret of harmony is scales and chords.

Bartók's teaching principle was: Don't play parallel five-finger patterns—play contrary five-finger patterns.

If you have heard "don't play thumb on the black keys"—that is the most damaging statement of all.

Expectation is very important in music lessons—if student does not do what you ask, "then maybe we are not a good fit."

Have the child copy four measures of music a day. This is how Bach learned his music lessons. He had to do it by moonlight so as not to alert his older brother. He did not go to a teacher for weekly lessons.

Play five-finger tunes in twelve keys.

Play all chords in diatonic scales up and down. This exercise will change the young student from playing with a baby sound to real piano sound.

The number one mistake in piano teaching is to jump ahead too fast; to assign literature that is too difficult for the current level of emotional and technical maturity, all in an effort simply to win competitions. This is a mistake.

One problem in America: we don't love music—we love sports.

If the child does not keep her part of the bargain, we have a little "come to Jesus" session.

Secret of inspiration: play for them or take them to someone who can. Take them to concerts. If you leave them alone and only torture them with tedious lessons, it won't work. You don't have to give them a complex piece; use the Chopin E Minor Prelude, or the Bach Prelude No. 1 from WTC I, or a Chopin nocturne, so the child hears beautiful music and develops her ear and brain for making beautiful sound.

Wean the child out of method books as quickly as possible—"I hate lollipops and butterflies" [as found in method books]. Method books don't teach the piano "sound," but rather keep the child in one key and do not use the whole keyboard.

All keys are created equal—there are no easy keys or hard keys to play in.

Start octave scales when they can do all thirty-one Hanon exercises at 100 on the metronome: four sixteenth notes to the beat, staccato. Then at 120, legato.

Take really good care of your students with friendship—have parties, events, recitals.

Use Mack Wilberg's Duet Miniatures in Twelve Keys (Kjos). He also has a second volume. These highlight the five-finger patterns in each key with sophisticated teacher parts.

From a master class given on the Chopin Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 3, at Southeastern Oklahoma State University (September 28, 2005):

The issue is "style." Where does one place Chopin? Is he a Romantic? No, he was Classic, and it has to do with his training. The term "classic" comes from the Greeks and it has to do with architecture—hopefully that gives one a hint to Chopin as a Classic. His music is so beautifully architectural with gorgeous structure.

Your playing is very nice, but I don't like "nice" playing. It needs to change color—show off all the parts. "Take us on a tour" of the interesting parts of this piece. It's a story.

Chopin is one of the most important piano composers. For me there are four "gods" of the piano world: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy.

Debussy said, "play the piano as if it has no hammers."

We have lots of things to think about with Chopin. After Garrick Ohlsson won the Chopin competition, the directors took him into the archives and played recordings of all the previous winners. He said that taught him that "the secret of Chopin is the inner polyphony."

Chopin created the left hand.

When playing the left-hand part of the Chopin nocturne, don't call them "accompanying patterns." You can play every left hand part of Chopin and make a gorgeous solo. Don't chop up the left-hand with downbeats.

A triplet is a slow figure—not a fast figure.

Your legato is too harsh. You are leaving the surface of the keys. There is maybe no such real thing as legato on the piano—but we get close by overlapping.

What did Chopin do for fun? He went to the opera. He loved singing—he loved coloratura—he imitated singing of the sopranos with his ornaments.

Work with sound, blend, shading.

It is just the right hand in the opening—use rubato.

We always associate rubato with Chopin. We should associate it with every composer. Every note is different.

Think about a "ruffle of wind."

Is there a difference between ritenuto and ritardando? Know the difference and what you need to do at the keyboard.

What do you do with smorzando: think of a candle and you extinguish the light (fade out).

Perhaps no one holds a fermata long enough— everything should be frozen—no moving around.

From a master class on Liszt's "Vallée d'Obermann," from Annees de Pelerinage Book 1, at SUNY-Potsdam (November 9, 2001):

What is Liszt's magic chord?

Your score is so clean—it should be meticulously marked up (every detail, every fingering). Otherwise you will always be in the dark, hesitating while you perform.

Teachers are like cooks—they steal. Think about what great teachers have said:

Cortot: Play with emotional fluency and forward propulsion.

Casals: Never play two notes in a row the same way.

Artur Rubinstein: How do you play?—put both pedals down and really play into the sound.

Anton Rubinstein: The pedal is the soul of the piano.

Are you listening? Are you creating something, casting a spell? Virtuosity is only one small part of what Liszt is.

What does "espressivo" mean? Bring out the melody.

What does "marcato" mean? Bring out the rhythm.

[The following remarks were given to a male student performer who was very tall.] You are cramped up too close to the keyboard, your tush is too far back on the piano bench. You look like your great stature is confined in a tiny box and your resulting sound shows it. Use your full stature to be a real concert artist. Your great height already has you looking dashing and romantic. Sit correctly on the bench, properly spaced from the keyboard so that the music can radiate from all of you. When you play this piece you should look like the monster from hell. [Then Paul stood behind the student, tugged on the hair on both sides of the student's head and screamed.]

Paul had the student hold his right hand to the square and repeat after him, "I promise I will always play the piano with two hands and two feet."

From a master class on Bach's Prelude and Fugue in F minor, WTC Book II, to a ten-year-old child in Hamburg, Germany (May 27, 2004): 

Don't make Bach a soprano piece—he is always four voices, sometimes more. Bring out the other voices and enhance them expressively. Always choose, but don't always choose soprano.

Classical style is one voice with accompaniment, but all music is polyphonic.

Treat Bach elegantly.

Never play ordinary; hug this music like it is your grandmother.

Create the habit of always having excellent posture at the piano, both feet to the pedals.

The audience won't be interested if they sense you are not interested; make them interested in the note you are interested in.

Each voice has integrity.

The low voice has a cello-like warmth and is sustained.

Do the left hand over and over for voicing, it should be as expressive as the right hand, and just as soloistic. Can you play the left hand entirely by memory without association to the right hand?

Create the atmosphere with your first note and first measure.

Play naturally—not in a hurry.

In the fugue the theme has to have inflection just as in human speech.

Play each entrance of the fugue theme by itself.

Imagine a line or thread connecting each note. The piano is a crazy instrument—all other instruments are able to connect. Create that illusion through voice leading and by dynamics. You do it with body movement.

Bach composes in sequences. Show first, second, and third levels.

Do you see how you can take all music apart? Do so measure by measure.

Bach is the great upbeat (auftakt) composer.

When big, augmented statements in the bass come in, you say, "a very important person is coming to see you."

Now it sounds like you are playing with conviction.

Can you cut the piece into parts? You have to make plans when embarking on this journey. You have to listen so much and be attentive. 

Miscellaneous bon mots

By their left hands ye shall know them.

Bach is pure cantabile—he is the most emotionally romantic of composers.

So much of Bach performance is mere "rattle-trap" playing with no sense of breathing.

Liszt's contribution of interlocking octaves changed the face of piano playing. No one before him had done that.

Most performers don't know how to pedal Debussy. Study and play the works of Satie and Chabrier before tackling Debussy.

Don't play the very first note of Liszt "Funerailles" until you have counted silently to thirty-seven—the sonorous effect on the first note is incredible. Hold the pedal as indicated by Liszt through the entire first two pages—do not let it up.

There is no character without staccato.

There are four ways to get color at the piano: articulation, dynamics, pedaling, and voicing.

Memorize the five steps to good practicing and live by them for the rest of your life; they comprise your mantra: 1) sectionals, 2) hands separate, 3) no pedal, 4) slow motion, 5) relentless drilling.

Memorize something new every day.

Really tear a piece apart; don't just give yourself a performance every day.

The year-end endurance marathon recital with thirty or so student performers is anathema. Rather find ways for each child to do their own recital perhaps in their own home for their loved ones. But make it official with printed program, even if it is short with short pieces; at least the spotlight of validation is on the one child only, and encourages them to continue their studies. You, the teacher could play a number also to beef it up a little.

Be an iconoclast. Do something different. Overthrow incorrect (though popular) ideas.

Read, read, and do more reading.

Go to plays, movies, and operas. Immerse yourself in all the greatness civilization has to offer.

You have lots going for you; you just have to add beauty.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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