I spend quite a bit of time working with my piano kids on developing fluency in their playing. Why? Because there’s benefits for everyone when this “clicks” for them:
1. As the teacher you are able to then get into the “nitty gritty” of their piece without spending all your time fixing rhythm, correcting notes, adjusting tempo… phrasing can’t really happen properly until fluency is achieved.
2. As the student, it’s waaaaay more rewarding to play through a piece without stops and starts and “speed ups and slow downs”.
3. As a parent, their child simply sounds better when they practice. This means boosted commitment to lessons and more involvement in their child’s piano lesson life.
These 3 things are all very good things. But how do you encourage even young children to develop fluency?
Mirroring and The Magic That Happens
Mirroring (to me) is when I sit beside my student on the bench and work one hand at a time on very small sections of a piece she can play through start to finish; the key is in playing through with her. Both of our right hands (or left hands) play the same passage and her job is to listen, watch and keep up with everything I do. I’m not so concerned anymore with keeping her eyes on the page, or with mistakes that happen. I’m more focused on the overall shape.
When you “mirror” with your piano student, you are:
1. Making her aware of the places where her own rhythm and/or tempo isn’t correct. If she’s keeping up with you, red flags will pop up in her brain when something doesn’t match up exactly with you. Mirroring is more effective in bringing these places to a child’s attention than is counting out loud as they play, or even playing with a metronome. If she notices discrepancies while playing along with you, it creates a lasting memory that will stick with her when she plays alone.
2. Teaching phrasing without having to spell it out. The idea of phrasing to a young child is a fairly abstract one. These kids still giggle at Sponge Bob… the idea of nuance and subtlety are often far from second nature! However, if they are playing along with you, and watching and listening, then they will naturally follow the rise and fall of your phrasing and it will slowly become natural to them. If you can get your piano kids doing this early on you’re ahead of the game big time.
3. Controlling the jackrabbits and speeding up the tortoises. Some children are born with an internal sense of pulse and rhythm. Some are not. For those children who can’t seem to find a steady beat, mirroring forces them to play with good habits (not poor habits that are continually reinforced every time they play).
4. Approaching dynamics without the “cut and dry” idea of loud vs. soft. This ties in with phrasing as well, but for young children often forte becomes “pound away!” and piano becomes “play soft and slow”. If she’s following you she’ll find a natural forte and piano (and the mezzos in-between) that will become part of her muscle memory and transfer over into the rest of her playing.
How to Mirror With Kids Who Haven’t Done This Before
First off, share the bench. They need to see your hand at the correct angle (so no reaching across from your chair or standing beside). Second, choose very small sections. You don’t want this to become a self-esteem crushing game of “catch the teacher”. Keep them small and then eventually stick the small bits together into a longer mirroring session. Third, do this regularly; the benefits of mirroring can be immediate, but they can also take time.
Finally learn to laugh when things go bad. There will always be times when your student just cannot keep up… or forgets all the F sharps, or makes up crazy fingering to keep up with you. Have a good laugh and know that there was just a very strong memory made. They’ll work at that section with a new-found awareness.
But Don’t Let Your Hard Work Go To Waste!
Mirroring helps build a solid foundation in many essential piano skills, but if your students go home and return the next week without having cracked their book, than all’s for not. To keep our piano students practicing day in and day out we use our resource, Shhhh… Your Piano Teacher Thinks This Is Practice. Check it out and just try to keep your kids away from the piano!