Go beyond the basics to explore teaching excellent piano technique
I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of “piano technique,” and most notably, what is the right way to teach it?
Despite reading lots of books and reading hundreds of articles, watching masterclasses, and having my own lessons with master teachers, I’m no closer to settling on THE one best approach, probably because there isn’t one!
Piano technique is a really personal thing. You could poll 100 teachers, and many will have different views on what’s important, what to do, how to teach it, etc.
But there are a few approaches common to all the best teachers, and we’ll unpack them in today’s article.
What IS piano technique?
Well, it’s more than just “curved fingers”!
While researching this article, I enjoyed reading a book called A Piano Teacher’s Legacy, after Sam Holland mentioned it in his keynote speech at this year’s NCKP conference.
It is a book about the famed Frances Clark Centre teacher Richard Chronister and, despite being written 20+ years ago, his technique approach aligns beautifully with the viewpoints of today’s top educators:
Use non-legato touch to start
Naturally curve the hand
Introduce musical gestures
Rotate the wrist
By the way, I’m going to quote Chronister several times in this article.
Use a Non-legato touch to Teach Piano Technique
I advocate one fundamental foundation for building a solid technique for beginners, and that’s using a non-legato touch when they first approach the keyboard.
This is now commonplace in all modern (read: self-published) methods like Piano Safari and Supersonics Piano, to name just two.
RELATED: Tim interviews Julie Knerr and Katie Fisher about Piano Safari’s approach to piano technique
Here’s why Chronister says aiming for legato too soon is problematic:
“When a child takes his first lessons in art, his method of drawing is expected to be primitive, and the result is unmistakable: it looks like a child’s drawing.
When a child takes his first piano lessons, his technique of playing is expected to be a sophisticated legato, and the result is unmistakable: flat fingers, thumbs hanging below the keyboard, fingers flying, no real legato.
The eternal cry is, ‘Curve your fingers!’
Forcing a child to play legato, to use his hands in a way he has never used them before may be causing him to develop habits he may never break.”
It’s great to see that times are changing.
There is now more focus on Rote teaching (including my own No Book Beginner Framework) for beginner students. They practice technical (and non-legato) movements fluently across the full range of the piano without worrying about reading notes.
And while some methods still advocate ‘unnatural positions’ (both thumbs on middle C) and legato from lesson one, there are many more innovative approaches.
Methods like Supersonics, Piano Safari, Interactive Piano, and many more tackle this head-on.
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Curve the hand naturally
Have you ever had a beginner play a five-note scale by pecking out notes with 1 or 2 fingers, or with thumbs dropped from the keyboard suddenly? Another variation on this is what I call “texting thumbs,” where the student plays with only thumbs above the keys, like holding a phone to text.
We set up students to struggle by missing a naturally curved hand initially.
Richard Chronister’s idea was that it is not natural for a child to play a pentascale on white keys, with all fingers properly supported and quiet, and with thumbs remaining on the keyboard from the very outset of lessons.
We might make this happen at the lesson, but to expect it to happen at home during daily practice is beyond optimistic.
So what approach does Chronister advocate?
Well, it’s about seeing the ‘perfect’ handshape of all five fingers over five adjacent white keys, thumb on its corner, but not playing individually.
The teacher demonstrates playing all five notes at once in a cluster. We discuss how this feels and how it looks. We repeat with the other hand.
Take-away point: “We do the same thing at each lesson until the student can play the 5-finger cluster without help. We will not ask him to do it at home; we will do it only at the lesson.”
This is precisely what Marvin Blickenstaff (an early member of the New School) explained and demonstrated in our upcoming Technique Course and on my podcast.
It was apparently his idea!
Introduce musical gestures as you teach piano technique
Musical gestures share names like “Lion Paw” (Piano Safari method), or “Rocket Launch” (Supersonics Piano).
Every good method has creative and memorable ways to describe the movements that students need to learn.
Back in my day, these were called “drop – float”… boring!
Or “Sigh – ing.”
Whatever words you use, musical gestures are vital for an ability to shape phrases in the future. Beginners must learn to play with a relaxed wrist but a firm tone. They should lift off notes gently, using the wrist.
Here’s a crucial pathway for gestures:
- Lift off reliably — one note
- Practice connecting two notes
- Try fingers 2 + 3 for the same exercise
- Optional: try a 5th interval because it also demonstrates another vital technique that we’ll discuss in the next section.
Rotate the Wrist
I first heard about wrist rotation as a technique when I started learning about the Dorothy Taubman approach, whose focus was helping pianists play brilliantly and effortlessly (and to avoid injury).
I don’t remember ever being explicitly told this by any of my teachers, which may be why I struggled with some advanced repertoire when I was preparing for my Diploma.
After working with a Taubman specialist teacher, I was able to eliminate painful movements while preparing an advanced Beethoven sonata.
You can read about my experience here.
I think we should be freeing our students to make beautiful phrasing from the very beginning, not just working with advanced students on this.
Rotating the wrist enables freedom of expression and ease of playing rapidly.
Interesting in Finding out what the experts say about how they teach piano technique?
Join me for my next free live webinar when I am joined by three experts — Nicola Cantan, Fred Karpoff, and Rae de Lisle — in a “roundtable” chat about technique.
We’ll discuss why is it important, what do we all agree on, and where we differ.
You’ll also take away bonus freebies!
Curious for more teaching topics to inspire you? Join us live in Melbourne in January 2020 at Piano Pivot Live at the ultimate music teachers’ conference!