“My student has one volume: loud. On occasion he finds a mezzo forte, but it is rare. My word for his technique is “hammer hands”. I do not think it’s in his nature to play gently.”
For some students, the idea of nuance is as foreign as a Chinese newspaper. He reads the notes, he knows the rhythm… and he plays. Loudly. Oblivious to any wincing from your end, he’s quite happy with what he’s accomplished; he’s made it to the end with no mistakes! And who are we to argue.. he did!
The difference between playing the piano and playing the piano are as clear as day to us, but to some of your little piano students, notes are notes and rhythms are rhythms. So how can we help Hammer Hands Henry to develop a sense of musicality… and maybe even a little sensitivity?
5 Steps To Making Music Musical
1. Teach Your Student How to Listen: We recently posted a piano teaching game to help piano students learn how to actively listen. Often students who play with a lack of musicality simply don’t know what it is you are looking for. Providing great listening examples and giving him the language to describe the music is a great first step. Find pieces to listen to with lots of contrasts and ask your student to describe what he hears. Help him to develop vocabulary to vary his responses, and then use these same words when talking about the pieces in his book.
2. Break Free From Method Books: Give your student the opportunity to delve into a lot of supplementary repertoire frequently. Method books do a great job of teaching the notes and the rhythm, but in reinforcing these concepts frequently, not a lot of opportunity exists to focus on how the music sounds. Yes, there are pieces in method books that are slow and beautiful, but often these are as appealing to your piano student as licking a slug. Search out sources of supplementary repertoire that are engaging and different from what is found in the method books you use. Musicality doesn’t always have to be found in slow pieces – your student can learn a lot about nuance even in the most exciting of pieces.
3. Create a Story and a Visual: Telling your Hammer Hands Henry to play with feeling is not nearly as effective as creating a story line to go along with the music. Find something that interests your student and create an elaborate scene. Write what is happening in the story at various intervals directly on his music. This way, while he plays, instead of reminding him of his phrasing or of a decrescendo you can instead say “Oooh.. this is the part where King Edward is rowing his boat through the starlit cave.” …Watch those hands suddenly come alive with imagination and sensitive playing!
4. Include Hand Gestures Into Your Warm Ups: Every piano teacher has a preference for wrist motion, phrase breaks, dynamics… you name it! Select the ones that are appropriate for your student’s level and include hand gesture instruction in your start-of lesson warm-ups. Create simple exercises where the focus is only on how you want his hand to behave and teach this as you would anything else. It may take awhile, but with enough repetition you should eventually be able to move his newly-found wrist motion into the context of his piece. It helps if you give the gestures names or characters so that your student can easily recall what it is you want (like Floating Wrist Fred who accidentally caught the back of his belt on a balloon).
5. Be Patient: This is perhaps the most important of all. By continually calling attention to your student’s shortcomings in the sensitivity department, you may be missing opportunities to give him props for what he is doing well. Make all of your corrections into an enjoyable activity that are not so obviously geared towards fixing things. Resist the urge to avoid the loud and fast music he loves in an effort to work on his flaws. Keep in mind that this child likely leaves your studio and heads home to wrestle his big brother, take a few slap shots at the neighborhood net and climb a tree. The fact that piano is a part of his life is the biggest bonus. Sensitivity and nuance will follow with patience and guidance.