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11 minutes reading time (2280 words)

​​Too much of a good thing: The dangers of over-demonstrating in a piano lesson

The Piano Lesson.1871, George Goodwin Kilburne

The scope of teaching tools at the disposal of any music instructor is often as rich as the music they teach. Since the earliest days of education, there has been an ongoing evolution of what teaching is, how learning happens, what role the teacher plays in a pupil's education, and what teaching methods produce the highest degree of learning.

A primary difference between the performing arts and other areas of learning is that the performer must both study and do. In other educational arenas—philosophy or literature, for instance—it might be enough to study and immerse oneself in a particular work without having to really do anything. However, performers must incorporate—from a physical point of view—what they know into what they do. Take the case of a ballerina, who cannot possibly hope to produce a meaningful movement if she has not thought carefully about the body of visual, choreographic, musical, and aesthetic knowledge behind each and every motion. For musicians the process is further complicated by the production of sound that results from our physical motions. Thus, the teacher is charged with no small task: to impart knowledge of the physical motions necessary to play the piano; how what we do affects what sound or kind of sound we produce; to provide a solid background of theory, style, and history; and all the while addressing a student's individual needs and preserving their individual integrity and sensitivity.

It is my suspicion that new teachers rely heavily on demonstration, primarily because their own playing is the only thing they know they can trust. When a student plays something for the teacher, the teacher may think of many things to criticize. But, not knowing where to start, he plays for the student—partly to show the student what the music could be, but also as a way of orienting himself to the "right" way it should be played. In other words, he is saying to himself, "Since I don't know where to start in correcting what is wrong, let me get a clear idea of what is right, then hopefully I can find the words to get your playing from there to here."

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong in this, particularly as a new teacher. In fact, this is often the only way a teacher can come to terms with the student's strengths and weaknesses. However, I am suggesting that, too often, this pattern continues far too long during the course of lessons, and creates an unhealthy dependence on the teacher's demonstration. Moreover, this often fosters an insecurity in the student's own sense of musical self-worth and validity.

Before going further, I think it is beneficial to divide the use of demonstration into two categories: musical demonstration and technical demonstration. In the first category, a teacher has a particular interpretive idea in mind that he wishes to impress upon the student. For example, a student might bring in a slow movement of a Mozart sonata but seem to have very little sense of the vocal quality of the line. After the student plays, the teacher moves to the second piano and plays the opening few phrases in a more musical, lyrical fashion. As an example of technical demonstration, a student may have difficulty relaxing their wrist. The teacher then demonstrates on the second piano, displaying multiple hand and wrist positions.

I propose that demonstration should be employed mostly as an introduction to a specific concept, rather than serving as a model of how to do it. For example, if a student is unfamiliar with a technical concept—such as a wrist staccato or an overlapped sound—the teacher might demonstrate for the student, giving the student both a basic introduction to the concept as well as a general impression of how it is done. Similarly, if a student is unfamiliar with French music, the teacher might play a few bars of Ravel's Sonatine, highlighting general attributes of the style: elegance, clarity, color, and restraint. Following this introduction, the focus should shift directly back to the student, with the teacher guiding verbally. The reason is two-fold. First, because of individual variations in physique and temperament, no two musicians will play anything identically—physically or musically. Thus, it is a hopeless endeavor to try to make the student play exactly as the teacher does. Secondly, by demonstrating only for the purposes of introduction, the teacher forces the students to think for themselves. This encourages the students to find their own musical voice and helps them discover how a particular piece of music speaks directly and uniquely to them. When working with technique, students are forced to experiment with various hand and wrist positions until they find what works for them. Often, what works for the teacher will not work for the student, and realizing this can save a great deal of frustration for both.

It is akin to a class in which a student copies down text from a PowerPoint slide, compared with a class in which the teacher introduces a topic and then assigns the student to continue the research in the form of an assignment, project, or group activity. Many students often prefer the former method because it is far easier and requires very little thought. Additionally, many students spend most of their energy complaining about the latter type of learning—because they must do more work on their own. Many people believe that students learn more from the active learning, precisely because they were forced to learn for themselves, with the instructor serving only as a guide.

Because of technological advances and the increasing number of pianists, the teacher's role is much different today than it was in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries. Denes Agay states that in earlier times, "the teacher was often the only model. Our ancestors were lucky if they could hear two different interpretations of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata in a decade."1 Thus, the teacher's demonstration served not only to show the student how to play a passage, but also to introduce the student to the repertoire. Now, with a greatly enlarged number of performers and with many more recordings of the standard repertoire, this particular role of the teacher has largely vanished.

With this, the notion that the student must play exactly as the teacher plays has also vanished. This authoritarian model, in which the teacher is in control of every aspect of the student's playing, has shifted to one in which the teacher helps the student find her own musical voice. Increased importance has been given to the integrity of the student's individuality, and the good teacher is now defined as one who imparts knowledge without interfering with the student's individuality. With demonstrations, however, it is very easy for the keenly aware student to try to copy the teacher's mannerisms and personal interpretations.

I bring all of this up simply to put everything a piano teacher does into perspective. It is my strong assertion that a teacher should not simply teach a student how to do something, but teach them how to teach themselves. Thus, every tool that is incorporated in teaching—from asking questions, having a mock performance, giving technical exercises, and demonstrating—should be directed to the higher task of helping students solve similar problems and scenarios on their own. The tool of demonstration plays a prominent role in piano teaching because piano playing is, after all, an art whose end result is doing. The teacher, hopefully, has had a long time to analyze, refine, and expand upon his own technique. He has played a great deal of piano music from a wide range of diverse styles, and is well versed in the larger body of musical literature. Thus, the teacher plays the way he does because of this long, individual learning process, which largely included a great deal of individual trial-and-error. My point is that the teacher does not play the way he does simply because he was told to play that way by his teacher. While the way the teacher was taught certainly plays a crucial role; it serves only as a starting point for his own self-discovery. When demonstrating for a student, the teacher is showing the student what may have taken decades of work, and is possibly preventing the student from discovering on her own. Does the teacher really think that demonstration will give the student such a significant shortcut in her artistic growth?

For many students, the teacher's demonstrations can create insecurity with their own playing. In most cases, the teacher is vastly more advanced than the student and can play certain passages with ease. Thus, when they demonstrate a passage for the student—even with the intent of encouragement and guidance—the student can easily feel inferior and, in many cases, insecure about their own playing. If the teacher instead stays away from the piano and verbalizes every musical aspect and physical motion, the student will feel that the focus rests entirely on her own playing. And, as mentioned above, it is very hard work to focus on every detail without demonstrating. However, I propose that in many cases it is more profitable. By verbally addressing every aspect of playing to a student, the teacher forces the student to do this hard work. The student cannot simply copy the teacher's motions in a "monkey see, monkey do" fashion, but must come up with a way of playing that satisfies the teacher's instructions. By going through this thought process, students will remember the technical concepts in the future, because, in a way, you led them to discover the concepts for themselves.

Louise Barfield, concert pianist, teacher, and director of Little Carnegie of the South in Macon, GA, explains:

The student should be encouraged to think for himself as he or she learns to listen and consider musical decisions, but should be taught that musical and technical ideas change constantly with growth throughout a lifetime. More than likely, a student would not be able to learn all that a teacher could share with him because a student is not at the point of absorbing all of the details already accomplished by the teacher's life of striving for musical and technical perfection. The student has these years of development to look forward to in his own life and inspiration.2 

Louis Barfield

Menahem Pressler, pedagogue of more than sixty years, wrestled with this issue during his career. In an interview for Biola University, he explains his evolution as a teacher:

There was a time when I used to always play for my students, until one day one of my favorite students was playing, and an old professor who was sitting next to me said 'Menahem! You've succeeded in making a little Menahem here!' I didn't like that at all. I didn't want them to copy me, not at all. I wanted them to understand it and to do it their way. Better, less good, with the understanding of what does the piece say, because the content is the most important aspect. So from that time on, I started less to show to my students. I started more to be able to talk about it. And that was not so easily done. You have to learn to do it.3

Menahem Pressler

Another danger of demonstrating too often is that it can incorrectly lead the student to believe that there is one "right" way of interpreting a particular passage, this "right" way being the teacher's demonstration. Far too often, in our efforts to help our students develop their playing, teachers end up making many unnecessary corrections. The line must be drawn between what is wrong and what is simply different; between what is a correction and what is a suggestion.

Ms. Barfield elaborates:

As long as a piano student, by instinct, is practicing and performing with interest, sensitivity, and intelligence, then there is no reason to make unnecessary corrections. It would be beneficial to offer new musical and technical ideas to a student for the sake of consideration and an understanding that there are many brilliant ways to interpret and communicate successfully with an audience.4

Louise Barfield

Naturally, students will—depending on their age, level, temperament, and talent—respond differently to this approach. Demonstration, particularly technical demonstration, is often vital in teaching young beginners, who are not as cognitively advanced and whose technique is largely undeveloped. However, even in these cases, it is crucial that the teacher engage with the student as he demonstrates. It is helpful to explain why, for example, a curved finger is more useful in a particular passage or to encourage the student to listen to her sound and its relation to the way she plays. Without this engagement, the student can easily feel "left out" and neglected by the teacher; she will feel that the she is not the primary focus of the lesson.

At the end of the day, it must be remembered that just as technique is always a servant of the music, so any teaching tool such as demonstration is always the servant of the higher goal of helping a student grow. Many teachers are more inclined towards demonstration and are keenly aware of how to incorporate this to the individual needs of the student. When employing any teaching tool, the teacher should always carefully consider the individual needs of the student, and choose the method that will most adequately address these needs.

1D. Agay. (2004). The Art of Teaching Piano. New York: Yorktown Music Press, p. 459.

2Louise. Barfield. (March 21, 2016). Personal interview.

3Biola University. (June 25, 2014). A Conversation with Menahem Pressler. See video above.


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