Clavier Companion – a valuable resource

I was introduced to the piano magazine “Clavier Companion” when I was a pedagogy student at school (at that time it was two separate magazines knows as “Keyboard Companion” and “Clavier”).  I used to devour the articles and make notes all over the pages.  In every magazine there was something applicable to my current teaching or learning situation, which strengthened my understanding of the piano and the art of teaching.  As a professional I continue to learn from the articles and find comfort and renewed enthusiasm from the remarkable insights and perspectives shared by the authors in this magazine.

I was particularly thrilled to read the article entitled, “Culture of Caution” in the July/August 2009 magazine.  Peter Jancewicz discusses what he calls the “timid chipmunk syndrome” meaning students who approach learning the piano with timidity.  Are you a timid person by nature?  Or, have you had a timid student in your studio?  How do you go about helping students find inner confidence to play with feeling and beauty at the keyboard?  And, how do you get them to realize that their contribution to musical society is valuable?  There is no one solution to any challenge, but understanding where the source of timidity is coming from can make it easier to figure out a resolution to the problem.  For example:

1. A perfectionist student may be overly concerned with making “mistakes” and focus more on the notes and timings than on the musicality.
2. If a student has a parent who calls out mistakes rather than looking on the whole of a performance, or the positive aspects in a practice session, then the student may become a lack-luster performer.
3. Shy students often have difficulty projecting themselves emotionally or dynamically because they’re not comfortable with attracting attention to themselves.
4. Teachers who squelch in their students’ natural and strong desires to create and explore at the piano can dampen the child’s inherent confidence and belief in his/her abilities.
And so forth…

Peter states that “an overemphasis on caution and security will lead not only to a lifeless performance, but also to an anxious and timid approach to music and playing the piano in general.”  As teachers we have the important role of instilling in our students the “OK-ness” to make mistakes; be it through fun games and exercises, positive comments and encouragement, setting goals with students, or including parent participation, etc.  That is not to say that practicing irresponsibly or repeatedly playing incorrect notes, rhythms, etc. are to be condoned!  But, making mistakes is just apart of human nature.  Students, parents and teachers need to understand that performances can still be exceptional and beautiful even with minor mistakes.  The freedom to express music without constraints on perfectionism is essential to molding confident and musical students.

As a teacher I create opportunities for my students to “practice making mistakes.”  (Doesn’t that sound funny?)  Some ideas for practicing making mistakes can include:
1. When a student plays a piece at the lesson (such as the first time through) consider it a “performance” and do not allow them to stop.  If the student stops to fix a mistake quickly shout out “keep going.”   The student must pick up from where they left off and NOT go back to fix the mistake.
2. Sight reading exercises can be a great opportunity for practicing to let go and not sweat the minor mistakes.  Sight reading exercises are not usually as “personal” to a student since they have not invested lots of time and emotion into the piece. This is a great starting place to learn to let go of mistakes.  When a stumble occurs use it as an opportunity to teach a student how to keep going and stay focused on making beautiful music.  Do not allow your student to stop and “fix” the mistake!  And, as an added bonus your student is practicing sight reading.
3. In preparation for a recital create many opportunities to distract or throw off your students performance.  If a mistake occurs remind them to “keep going” until the end of the piece.  This is also great concentration practice!
4. Make a game where each time the student makes a mistake yet keeps going he/she gets a reward (money, M&M’s, etc), but each time he/she makes a mistake and stops the reward is removed.  Talk about fun motivation to keep going!
And more…

For some students learning to be OK with mistakes will take continued effort and encouragement on the part of the teacher.  But, the ultimate reward is a confident and musical student.  As Peter stated, “I have no objection if my student has an honest slip.  That they get carried away in the heat of a passionate performance and lose a few notes is, to me, a sign that they are connecting with the music, and therefore with the audience.”

When teaching the student to let go with simple mistakes, it is also helpful to “teach” parents that making mistakes is OK.  Well meaning parents can sometimes contribute to the timidity of a student if expectations are not realistic.  Helping parents understand the difference between acceptable mistakes vs. irresponsible practicing will help them contribute to their child’s learning in a positive way.

I love how Peter ended his article by stating, “I do firmly believe that practice founded on an uneasy bed of caution produces timid, stilted, and ultimately unsatisfying music, both for the performer and the audience.  [But,] music that is approached from a foundation of love, curiosity, and the spirit of adventure is bound to move the performer as well as the audience, and this is what makes piano playing worthwhile.  Have a rewarding and fulfilling musical life at the piano…”

If you are not a subscriber to the “Clavier Companion” magazine Piano Discoveries highly recommends that you include it as a part of your studio.  The cost can be considered a business expense.  And, the valuable resources and insights more than amply “pay” for the subscription.  Of interest to note is that beginning with the September/October 2009 issue and going forward for 10 issues “Clavier Companion” will be comparing and reviewing the most respected and popular piano methods available today.  If you haven’t seen some of the latest methods this will be a great resource for you!

Provide students with a fun and exciting way to practice elementary theory terms.  This crossword puzzle includes 10 early elementary music terms and definitions — tie, whole note, repeat sign, quarter note, half note, bar line, slur, double bar line, measure and staff.