The Built-in Metronome

built in metronome – (noun) a rhythm that is repeated throughout a piece that a student can use to help him or her keep the beat steady.

A metronome is an invaluable tool when learning a piece. But sometimes a student has a hard time working with a metronome (especially if they are a new player). In that case, I look at the particular piece of music to see if there is any kind of repeated pattern in either hand that can also function as a “built in metronome,” something that is repeated at a steady interval.

If a child can identify visually that something is a repeated pattern, then they will more easily be able to identify aurally that something is a repeated pattern, and they can work from there. The easiest of these patterns to identify is a pattern of all quarter notes, which often happens in the left hand of a piece. Then the left hand becomes a metronome. Since most students are taught note values based on the quarter note equalling one beat, it is very easy for a student to hear that a half note would equal two quarter notes, or a whole note would equal four.

In an example like this, I would work on the student’s left hand first, making sure that they listen carefully as they play. Sometimes I may even make them play the notes as evenly as they can first, then unevenly, playing them in pairs of long and short notes (playing the wrong way sometimes helps a student identify the right way).

Sometimes, I even make them play a repeated pattern of quarter notes while we have a conversation, forcing them to concentrate on keeping the beat steady, and also on something completely different. This is actually a good exercise because it is playing the piano, but still so uniquely different that when/if they make a mistake, it is actually cause for a giggle instead of a frustration. And every so often, which I find very interesting, a student will speed up/slow down to match the rhythm of their speech.

Once they can see, hear (and also feel) that the left hand pattern should remain as steady as possible, we start adding the right hand back in. As they start playing it hands together, I will stop them whenever the left hand starts to be influenced by whatever the right hand is doing, which may still happen in spite of all the work we have just done. I tell the student that it is normal – sometimes a change is not immediately apparent – and that they should continue to practice like that at home.

Sometimes a pattern is not so obvious, or not so useful. The left hand may have all whole notes, but whole notes have four beats each and so they are not the best when trying to compare other notes to it. When I can, I try and find some sort of pattern as a point of reference for a student, to help them make sense of a piece of music.

Zero Gravity

Zero-Gravity Zone (noun) the area immediately surrounding the piano keyboard.

When a kid is young and their fingers are small, many of them will throw their entire hand into playing the piano.  Wrists bounce, sometimes arms flap, and if this is not caught and fixed early, they will struggle to build the finger strength they need to glide over the keys like a master.

To help children visualize the proper technique, I explain to them that the proper way to hold their hands at the keyboard is to hold them like they are floating in a zero-gravity field.  There is absolutely no reason to lean into the keys when they play, that they will not fall off the face of the earth.  The amount of energy they really need in pressing down a key is similar to the amount of energy expended flipping on a light switch.

This visualization should also be recalled when a student is working on playing loudly or softly.

I feel that students are incorrectly taught that a loud sound requires a hard touch, and a soft sound requires a light touch.  This gives the impression that a different amount of pressure needs to be applied.  Playing loud or soft does not involve hard jabs or light brushes on the keys.  What is really needed is a quick pressing down of a key, or a slow pressing down of a key.

If you don’t believe me, witness the student who speeds up through loud passages or slows down through soft passages.  Also check out trying to depress a key without sounding the hammer against the string.  Depending on the sensitivity of the mechanism this process can take actually a few seconds, whereas pressing the key to get a sound is an instantaneous action.

How do I get my students around this?  First with a little bit of my own demonstration.  I set the metronome very low – around 50 – 60 bpm, depending on my mood.  I will play a bunch of notes loudly, and then play a bunch of notes softly.  I instruct the student not to just listen, but to specifically watch my hand.  Moving at such a slow tempo, there is enough time to see that when I play loudly, my finger is quickly hitting the key in an instant.  While I am playing softly, my finger is taking almost the whole beat to move, which is a very obvious gesture.

The next step includes having my student hold out the palm of their hand, where i repeat the gesture. first “loud” tapping, then “soft” tapping.  The point of this part of the exercise is to really have the child realize that when my finger hits the palm of their hand, it feels exactly the same no matter how loud or soft I am playing.  Then, they get to give it a go.

I really stress the importance of a zero-gravity zone, whether or not I even use that exact terminology.  It is very important to work on the proper technique here, as extra pressure leaning your hands or even your whole arm into the keys can lead to not just bad technique, but health problems as well.

Many people are aware that carpel tunnel syndrome arises when the nerve in the wrist is pinched over a period of time.  It can happen because of the way you are bending at the wrist or at the elbow, which is basically a pinching of the nerve due to your actual movement.  It’s a very obvious thing.  The nerve can be pinched by the muscles as well, which can sometimes be not so obvious.  If you are using your wrists to play, or are leaning your body into the keys, the muscles in your arms need to flex, which will include the muscles in your forearm and wrist.  Too much pressure over time may cause carpel tunnel syndrom to develop.

Maybe I am being a little paranoid here because of my own run ins with carpel tunnel.  When I play for myself, I play hard.  I enjoy passionate and loud music (especially if I am playing some of those Ukrainian folk tunes I and my friends enjoy hearing, or straight up pop music by Tori Amos or Fiona Apple).  I know for a fact I lean into the keys more than I should.  I have been to specialists and at the time I was told that my CTS was coming more from my muscles pinching the nerve than from the bones pinching it, but also, that my pain was so faint (yet persistent) that it could have also been a form of tendonitis (which is an inflammation of the tendons, which, again, may have been pressing on that nerve).  It was so hard to pinpoint my pain, and yet, my pain was so manageable, and more importantly, not life-changing, that tests to get to the bottom of the matter may have just ended up being too painful, too expensive, and still, possibly inconclusive.

Since then, I have altered the way I play, and taken a much different approach to my practice regimen.  I am hardly on painkillers. I am very thankful that my symptoms are manageable when they do flare up, and that also, I can recognize a flare up very early, and react accordingly (take pain meds, restrict my movements).

I do not wish this on any of my students.  I know that I am lucky, but not everyone is.

Besides health implications, playing in a zero-gravity zone has other, fun benefits.  For example, a student will start to make more mistakes.

What?

Playing with poor technique is like playing with shackles on your fingers.  You are limited in movement, and your movement can be clumsy.  Once you remove your restrictions (your restrictions being the weight of your arms), it is like as huge expansivive field has opened up before you.  And what else could you want to do besides run through it?  so.  Your fingers speed up, you start making mistakes and you don’t even know why.  It’s important to have a metronome out at this point so that while you are focusing on your new technique, you can use the metronome to keep you grounded… which is an interesting choice of words, I suppose, when talking about floating over the keyboard!

Silly Mistakes

Silly mistake  (noun) – a mistake that is immediately identified as a mistake, which the student self-corrects.

I’m not sure where I first came up with the term ‘silly mistake.’ It’s possible that this is something I picked up from my mother, a third grade teacher but active with music and performance at her school.

We are taught to learn from our mistakes, but mistakes are a little bit different in music.  You make a mistake because of a miscommunication between your fingers, brain and ears.  Most times, a mistake is a clue that you need to slooooow down. Especially a silly mistake.

Silly mistakes happen at that point where you almost know a piece, and your confidence level may be just exceeding your knowledge and comfort level. When you become overconfident, you relax, mentally, and speed up, physically,  and every so often, there is a disjoint between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing.  And that’s where it happens – a silly mistake.

As SOON as you make a silly mistake, you come to the immediate realization of, “Hey!  That’s not right!”  And you self-correct.  The silly part comes when you realize it’s a mistake.  If you knew it was a mistake, why was it made in the first place?

How do you fix a silly mistake?  That immediate self-correction is NOT a fixed silly mistake.  It is the end of the silly mistake.  To fix such a mistake, you need to go over first the small section of the passage where the mistake was made, raelly zero in on it.  Once you can confidently and securely get through the silly mistake, then you zoom out a little and work on the section from a few measures before to a few measures after the silly mistake, because you have to practice getting in and out of the section.

Once you can do this smoothly, then you can go back to running through the whole piece.  The whole process of fixing a silly mistake is a short one, if the student is focused.  It may take anywhere from 5 minutes to maybe even a whole hour or, well, who really knows, depending on the mistake and on the student.  BUTTTTTTTTT.  The alternative, simply continuing on and playing the entire piece from start to finish until all mistakes are fixed, is quite a longer process, and could take days, if it is successful at all.

Doing the Chicken Dance

chicken dance 1. (noun) the wrong way to play scales.

When students start working on scales, this usually marks the transition from playing straight out of piano methods books to playing “real” music by “real” composers who have been dead a “real” long time.  And an important physical change can be addressed when starting scales.

In the piano methods books, all five fingers are stationary.  They sit over five keys and never move for the entire song.  If they move, they move as a group.  Or, occiasionally, the pinky or thumb needs to move down or up a key, at various places through the song.  Students’ hands generally reach into the keyboard straight on from the body… kind of like a zombie (and in fact, for comic relief at this point I sometimes pull out my zombie impression).

This kind of hand position really obviously is the beginning of very interesing (and bad) technique when children start working on scales.  When their fingers are going straight into the keys, it presents an awkward hand position for when they need to cross a finger over their thumb, or pass their thumb under a finger.  Elbows start to flap in the breeze as they try to rotate their hands enough to allow their fingers to move.  What ends up happening is the kids look like they are starting to do the chicken dance.

chicken dance 2. (verb) a form of stress relief.

Sometimes, kids get frustrated.  Sometimes, they even get angry and upset.  Sometimes, we need to take a break.  I did this once in an extreme situation where a student had played the same passage at least five times in a row and had grown increasing frustrated each time she made the same mistake. “I GOT IT AT HOME! WHY CAN’T I GET IT NOW?” Her eyes were shiny with tears waiting to erupt from them.

I silenced her and told her to take a breath.  Deeply in, and slowly out.  And another one.  And another one.  And then, the most absurd thing that came to mind. “DO THE CHICKEN DANCE!”  I sang the song.  I did the dance.  And my student started to laugh.  Crisis averted.

Sometimes, we get so focused we are too focused.  All we can see is what we are working on, and more dangerously, our immediate short coming.  We are only focused on the mistake that we can’t fix.  We get upset, we tense our bodies – very quickly – and we just continue to twist up, both mentally and physically.  To zoom out just as quickly, I often do the chicken dance (don’t tell the copywrite holders, Im sure by now I owe them thousands, although they should let me off the hook because it’s a private performance, and not-for-profit). It works because it’s so absurd, so shocking, so unexpected, and SO FUN, that it snaps the student backwards to a point where they can allow themselves to relax, get their bearings and start over.

Sometimes I like to think this is just good advice for life.  When times get tough, take a deep breath and do the chicken dance.

Bouncing on a Trampoline

Bouncing on a trampoline – (verb) the act of springing up from the keys instead of leaning into them.

When a student starts working on staccato passages, especially when they have to play repeated notes in one hand that are all staccato, I ask them if they’ve ever bounced on a trampoline.  Surprisingly, many of them say yes (I am only surprised because I can not remember stepping on a trampoline until I was in high school).

Then I ask them when they are jumping on that trampoline, do they think about how hard they can lean down into the trampoline, or how high up they can push themselves off of it?  And again, many of them say they are thinking “up.”  So why wouldn’t they also think “up” when playing the piano?

Sometimes, also, if they are having a hard time with this concept (or if we’ve been doing a lot of playing and they need a talking break), I relate a little anecdote to them of my childhood.  When I was younger I went to Ukrainain dance camp for a few summers, and one year, a dance I was in had a lift.  The boys had to all hoist the girls up into the air.  Now, while the boys had to work on being strong enough to lift the girls, the girls also had to work on jumping as high as they could and creating as much momentum as they could so that the boys’ job would be easier.  Every night before bedtime, one of my counselors, Caroline, also in the dance, would make me practice jumping.  I’d have to jump up and hit her hand with the top of my head.

The key to jumping – and I use the entire body as an example because, well, obviously, it’s bigger than just your hand and fingers – is not in trying to throw your body into the air, it is in pushing off with your feet. It’s the spring in your step more than anything else.

When you translate this movement to the piano playing devices located at the end of your arms, it becomes obvious that the key to a good staccato is not in bouncing your hand down into the keys, it is in pushing off with your fingers.  The motion is similar to a quick grabbing motion (if you are using all your fingers). The goal is for your hands to be weightless, and for your fingers to be relaxed to allow for quick movement.

Something to note is where the trampoline image fails.  On a trampoline, children can go flying up into the air many feet.  When you get to the piano, students will embrace the chance to do something so fun and dramatic looking, bouncing their hands up into the air a few inches.  But in reality, a few feet for a human should translate into just a few centimeters for your hands.  Once you decrease the scale, and get your fingers springing quickly, light and fast staccato should be a breeze.