Tag Archives: how hard is piano?

When I was teaching private piano instruction

Hola a todos. I taught private piano instruction for many years. My classes were the same type of individual training that piano majors receive in a Conservatory of Music, if that’s what the student came to me for, in part, because that’s my training. I was a piano major with a double minor in voice and pipe organ at the Conservatory of Music where I trained. But I didn’t shove that in people’s faces. I didn’t strut around saying, “I’m Conservatory-trained Dahling, aren’t you impressed?!” No, I didn’t do any of that. When I first started teaching, I used the language “Conservatory-trained” in my advertising because I thought that would be/might be important to people, particularly the more serious students I was interested in attracting. But I later stopped using that language because I found that people felt intimidated by it, so I stopped mentioning where I trained altogether, and no one ever asked me. They went on other things I said in my advertising along with how I taught them, our rapport together and how I played. With all of my students, we had an excellent rapport. Well make that all except one: an arrogant techie. I didn’t get along very well with him because of his big head and he didn’t stay with me that long fortunately. I was glad he left.

After interviewing a prospective student and understanding the goals of each student, we proceeded on with classes. Most students who came to me — regardless of their skill level — were not interested in the intense, very-disciplined Conservatory-style setting of piano training, although some thought they were until they experienced it.

After I began the first class with beginner students and the student learning the notes on the music scale and where the corresponding notes were on the piano, that’s often when a student would bail/quit with the usual reason/excuse being, “I had no idea it was going to be this hard.” This hard? We had just begun! We hadn’t even covered the basics.

Students quickly began to realise how difficult music training is and that they would not be able to play instantly or immediately as they had erroneously thought would be the case. Most students did not want to work. They expected music training to be “fun and easy,” (sounds like retail/sales language doesn’t it?) and I got the sense that most students thought they would be able to learn to play the piano in a matter of a couple of weeks. One student told me, “In a couple of weeks when I’m playing everything in this book…” WTF? Well, music training does not work that way. Music training is hard work, it works the brain, and most piano teachers will not tell a student what I’m writing here and what I’m writing here I did not tell students until they’d been with me for some time and they already knew how difficult it was. So I was just reaffirming what they had come to already know. And what I’m writing here is “in house” stuff based on my teaching experience. The reality is that the “fun” part in piano study comes from hearing one’s progress and ultimately being able to play a piece to completion with hopefully some level of refinement. Although usually with beginner students there’s no polish or refinement. Just playing the notes correctly, having the timing correct, having the note and rest values correct, and having the piece sound somewhat musical (one hopes) and getting through it is quite an accomplishment at that stage. Unless one is working with a child prodigy, but I didn’t teach any child prodigies. I didn’t teach children. I only taught adults.

When a student first came to me and when they began sight-reading or playing a piece, they would ask if they could start over every time they made a mistake and they would absolutely hate it when I said, “No, keep going.” Students stopped asking “Can I start over?” after about 2-3 classes because they realised it was futile to ask. I generally would not allow a student to start over because that gets into a very bad habit. One can’t “start over” in a performance if there are a couple of wrong notes at the beginning. Just keep going and forget about the mistakes as best one can. One should strive for accuracy but “the fingers have a mind of their own” especially in a performance setting — one can make mistakes in a live performance that one has never made before! — and there may be one or more wrong notes no matter how well drilled/studied a piece is. With the more advanced students, I was not so much concerned about the occasional wrong notes as long as I knew that the student knew what the correct notes were. Often a more advanced student would take the initiative and say, “Got it” after playing a wrong note just to let me know s/he knew what the correct note was. That was helpful. Also, nearly every new(er) student would open up the score to the beginning of the piece. So I’d then pick up the score off of the piano’s music rack and open it up to the back or ending of the piece and that’s because we usually started at the end and worked backwards. This initially annoyed students until they understood the reason for it and came to appreciate this approach. Starting at the end and working backwards — which requires discipline to do — assures that the piece is learned more evenly (as well as in sections) so the ending of the piece is not neglected, which can be the case if one always starts at the beginning. After a few classes with me, a student would leave their score on the music rack unopened and wait for me to open it or give instructions on where to start. I’ve attended performances by some local pianists where I could tell that s/he had spent more time working on the beginning of the piece than the latter half. The piece started to deteriorate in quality about half-way through the closer the pianist got to the end. Did s/he always start at the beginning?

Students commented on how patient I was, but to me an near-endless amount of patience is required in teaching because each student is different and has different learning abilities and talent, or lack of. And when teaching, I explained things in various ways to help the student understand what we were working on. There was not one way that worked for all students because, again, everyone is different. The only time my patience ran out and I sometimes blew a fuse — although may not have shown it — was when I felt a student was taking advance of me and trying to disrespect the training. Such as constantly being late for their class. With these students, I would look out my door and I could see them sitting in their vehicle glued to their electronic leash/their phone. Their phone was more important to them than their piano class and their phone had priority over piano. Week after week, I would look out my door and see them sitting in their vehicle embedded in their phone. In the student’s mind “my teacher will wait for me” and they expected me to do so. When they arrived for their class (usually 15-20 minutes late), each week I would hear, “I’m sorry I’m late” and/or “I’m sorry I’m late, the traffic was terrible.” After weeks of hearing that lie, I stopped responding to the “I’m sorry” excuse and gave the student a cold silence. I felt like saying the following (but never did):

“Well no, you’re not sorry at all that you’re late because you do this every week, and if you were sincerely sorry, you would change your behaviour. Also, I look out my door each week at class time and you’re sitting in your vehicle playing with your phone because that electronic data-mining/surveillance-state leash you’re addicted to is much more important to you than piano. This has nothing to do with being late and terrible traffic because you were here on time. It’s just that you spent the first 15-20 minutes of your class time sitting in your vehicle fucking with that phone. And you see absolutely nothing wrong with being 15-20 minutes and disrespecting me and my time. You enjoy practising your phone more than you enjoy practising the piano, which you rarely do. I can teach ‘phone’ if you’d like and “baby sit” you with ‘phone’ for an hour, but I can assure you I won’t run overtime with ‘phone’ as I sometimes do with teaching piano.” This scenario happened on a regular basis with some students, but I never told them that.

Another piano instructor reading this might be thinking: “You needed a Studio Policy. That works well for me in dealing with disrespectful/bad student behaviour.” I had a Studio Policy. And it’s wonderful that yours works for you. Good to hear it. But mine didn’t work for me. Probably because you and I live in two very different places, I suspect, where things are different. I once had a know-it-all teacher who lives in the redneck suburbs of the Bay Area try to instruct me on what I needed to do to attract more quality students. She was an abrasive and lecturing piece of work who came with this omnipotent superiority complex. She was very patronising; she talked down to me as if she thought she were superior to me. (I can’t stand basura like that!) I think her advanced degree — she had a PhD and not a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) — had gone to her big head. I tried her suggestions but they didn’t work and I knew they wouldn’t work before I tried them because we live in two very different communities. She taught children where the parents were responsible for the child’s behaviour and punctuality. I taught adults who were only casually interested in learning the piano. She was teaching out in the sticks and I was teaching in a major US city. As I said, I had a Studio Policy but most students disrespected that too. And if a Studio Policy works for you then clearly different people are coming to you than came to me. As I said, I taught only adults and most of them were scattered adults with no serious interest in piano. So one can shove a Studio Policy at them and they will say they agree to it and sign it, but I found that most did not take it seriously — except for the first week or two after signing the policy — and they didn’t expect me to adhere to it either. I think they considered a Studio Policy a joke. After a couple of weeks, the student’s behaviour returned to the usual, “I’m late, and my teacher can wait for me” way of thinking. To them, my Studio Policy was nothing but a formality. With one of my flaky student, after she signed the Studio Policy she couldn’t believe it when her “nice teacher” (as she described me) charged her for a class that she skipped and failed to cancel or make any contact with me about. I called her, “Ms. Considerate” [sarcasm intended]. She saw nothing at all wrong with me sitting around waiting for her for an hour and did not expect any consequences. This happened several times with this particular student. I was very lenient with students, in part, because I had talked with a couple of other very nice local piano teachers at the local music store at that time on one occasion and their experiences were similar to mine. They both told me, “The stories I could tell you!…hell, you have it easy.” So it wasn’t just me. Many of us local teachers advertised on the same site, and I could tell by the way teachers were writing their ads, and rewriting their ads, and adjusting the wording in their ads (reading between the lines), that their experience was similar to mine.

One student came to me after being rejected by the Keyboard Department of a School of Music at one of the local universities. That student thought that things would be different with me. They weren’t. She didn’t want to believe what they had told her at the university which was “you have no career in music.” The unspoken part was: Because you don’t possess the talent required nor do you possess a good ear for music. In the end, after teaching her for a few months I agreed with the decision of the Keyboard Department at the local university since she just did not posses the talent or the intelligence to do what she said she wanted to do at the piano. She wanted to be a concert artist, and there was no way in this life that was going to happen for her. Period. Nada.

I had one unusual situation during my teaching experience. It was a time where the competition between local teachers was rather intense. Another local teacher came to me pretending to be a beginner student as her way of “checking me out” to see what I was doing (differently than her?) in my piano studio. During my interview with her, I caught on to what she was doing after awhile since she wasn’t the best actor, but I never let on that I knew she was another local teacher, or I suspected she was. She stayed very quiet during our initial interview presumably so I wouldn’t suspect anything. But she gave himself away when I asked her to pretend to play a little bit to get a feel for the keyboard. She put her right hand on the keyboard and miraculously already had what’s known as the natural hand position. I said to her, “Oh, you already have the natural hand position, so we won’t have to work on that.” LOL. I thought but didn’t say, “Wonder how that happened?” No other new student had ever done that before because the natural hand position has to be taught/learned. At that point, I realised I was under surveillance by my competition. She left saying she would think about it and schedule a class time, but of course that was all a lie and she wasn’t fooling anyone here. I was on to her!

Most of the students who came to me, again for some mysterious reason, were under the impression that just by sitting down with me they would be able to play just like me. Loco. I have no idea where one acquires such thinking. They expected to play Rachmaninov and Scriabin just by sitting down with me without any training. Insane. After awhile, I concluded that this thinking on their part was because we live in a very instant gratification society. They want it now!!! They wanted to play now and expected to play now even though they’d never studied piano before and did not know how to read music. But of course, one can play the Rachmaninov Études-Tableaux instantly just like one’s new teacher even though the student has never seen a score from Rachmaninov’s piano repertoire ever. Yes that’s realistic! [sarcasm intended]. I think some of these students may have seen some infomercials on television where “you can play instantly” — with the index finger and following numbers rather than reading music — and they therefore concluded that this is how serious piano instruction works. Apparently they had not ever watched any performances of piano artists to observe that’s not how well-trained pianists play.

With each student, I tried to get the student to play as quickly as possible, if one knows what I mean by that. Some teachers will hold a student back for the teacher’s financial interest. I didn’t do that. I wanted students to progress as quickly as possible — and the piano repertoire is enormous so there’s no shortage of pieces to work on/play — and I offered them very thorough training, if they were receptive to that.

For the more advanced flaky students, we worked on sight-reading a lot which was extremely beneficial (if one is a good sight-reader one can play/read pretty much anything), some music theory, and selected repertoire and sometimes scales and arpeggios. I wasn’t big on technique (such as Brahms’s Exercises, for example) because I’m of the opinion that one can pretty much get one’s technique from one’s pieces. So for example, we would work on a scale/arpeggio that was part of one’s piece, rather than something completely unrelated. Another example, if you’re working on the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2, you don’t need to be “drilling” Brahms’s Exercises because they’re too much alike. Does the reader know what I mean by that? Instead, drill/work on what you’ll actually be playing in the Rachmaninov as your “technique.” There’s plenty of “technique” in Rachmaninov piano works (especially in his concerti or the Études-Tableaux, or the more difficult piano repertoire of Chopin, for example).

Occasionally, a student wanted to work on music from the “pop music” genre, so I would research the piece and try to find the best transcription/arrangement closest to the original, or to what the student had heard and what inspired him or her to want to work on the piece. That sometimes turned out to be a disappointment for students because they expected what they played in a very simple form in their piano arrangement to sound nearly-identical to the recording they had heard, which is just not the case because often the original is recorded with an orchestra or at least a few other instruments as well as a singer. Or if I knew the piece they wanted to play, I’d play my own transcription of the piece “by ear” — to show the student how an arrangement/transcription can be done — and the student would often say, “Wow, I want to play that. That was great.” I’d say: Well gracias, but what I just played was “by ear” so my transcription/arrangement/improvisation is not on paper anywhere, and I don’t feel like going through the effort of writing it down, even if I remembered what I just played! Also, my transcription was far more advanced than what the student was able to play. Also, none of my students played “by ear” and they found it amazing that someone could do that. As I told them when talking about improvisation, Roman Catholic — such as at my favourite La cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris — and Anglican church organists are required to improvise all the time, especially in the High Church). It’s part of their job to be able to improvise.

Then there were the students who wanted to work on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in a minor, more commonly known as Für Elise (which most people mispronounce). I would think: Oh yes why not! Let’s drag that out! Well it’s a very nice piece if it weren’t so over-performed. Whenever a student asked for that piece I would think (but not say), “Oh, not that. I know where that’s going to go.” With a piece such as Für Elise, the student only wanted to learn the familiar part — which I think is only 2 pages (and it repeats), if I’m remembering correctly — and the student had absolutely no interest in playing the rest of the piece. I would encourage the student to work on the rest of the piece by saying: Well, if you decide you would like to programme this piece at some point you can’t just play part of it. You have to play all of it. It’s tacky to play just part of it or a movement from something, in fact, it’s usually frowned upon. I compared it to going to hear a performance of Georg F. Händel’s over-performed and ubiquitous Messiah every holiday season and all that they performed was the Hallelujah Chorus. The student usually agreed and “we” worked on the rest of it until I realised that it was futile for me to keep pushing the student to learn the rest of the piece because s/he only wanted to play the well-known part.

A song has to be sung. A piano piece is not a song.

Piano music is not a “song.” Flute music is not a “song.” Violin music is not a “song.” And so forth. With most new students, they called every new piece, “a song” which is just ignorance and many non-musicians refer to all music as “songs.” I quickly corrected that mistake (usually at the first class) — and my students rarely made that mistake again and if they did I corrected them again — because a song has to be sung and there’s no vocal parts for piano works. A piano concerto is not a “song.” It’s a piano concerto. Yet many ignorant people on YouTube will say about a piano concerto, “I love this song.” Ugh. It’s not a “song,” idiot. Who do you hear singing in that piano concerto? No one. No one is singing. So that piano concerto you love is called a work or a piece or a concerto for piano and orchestra. I’ve noticed that even some trained musicians make this mistake of referring to all music as “songs.” WTF? Where did they train? Some podunk school?

I’ve previously written a lot about the lobotomised, elitist and wealthy Millennial tech zombies in their black-gray uniforms who have ruined San Francisco. Los pendejos live under the illusion they are the “gift to the world” with their tech coding skills and tech engineering background. I’ve also written about how well-trained classical musicians spend decades on their art yet most of them don’t strut around with their nose in the air and with an ugly superiority complex like the tech basura do. Arrogance and/or a superiority complex are a sign of an insecure person. Over the years, I taught a few techies. Two of them turned out to be los pendejos. One techie was a really nice guy and therefore he got out of tech. I also taught a dentist. The dentist told me that music training is far more difficult than his training in dentistry and that there’s really no art to dentistry other than some colour matching for tooth shading. Dental procedures are pretty straight forward; there’s a standard way for doing root canals, for example. After they had been with me for some time, I asked the techies to compare music training with the training they received for their tech job. Nearly everyone said that music training is far more difficult than the training they received for tech. They said it’s very different also because artistry and talent are involved in music. Many things are not black and white in music, such as one’s interpretation of a piece. One’s performance of a piece should not sound like that of another pianist even though both pianists are playing the same notes (hopefully) and observing all the composer’s markings in the score.

Also, when I was teaching, whenever possible I used the best editions available (Urtext, authentic performance editions). I did that in part because I always use the best editions available and I wanted to instill that in my students. Should the student be so inspired and decide to pursue their music at a more serious level, s/he would already have the finest scores and not have to replace previously-purchased inferior editions. Not all scores (Editions) are the same — it depends upon what editors do to them including changing the key of a piece in some instances (bad!) — and one should not choose an Edition because it has a “pretty cover” (roll eyes) as I observed amateurish people doing in the local music store on occasion. That’s also why I acquired all the scores for my students rather than leaving it up to them to get their scores to avoid them walking in with the wrong edition. Some people think that all scores are the same but that is not true. I remember one occasion where I was ordering the Boosey & Hawkes edition of a Rachmaninov piece, the salesperson at the local store said to me, “Ah, you know the difference between scores.” He went on to say that they had previously made the mistake of carrying an edition of Bach pieces where some editor (of that edition) had changed the key from the original to make this Bach piece supposedly easier to play, which made it no longer authentic to Bach’s wishes.

Also, another advantage with using Urtext, authentic/performance edition scores is that they come with minimal fingering already indicated (such as with Editions G. Henle Verlag, for example). Good fingering is critically important in good piano playing and it’s to the pianist’s advantage to take the time to work out the best fingering — because it helps one play the piece smoothly and fluently — and everyone’s hands are different and a different size, and the fingering that works best for one person does not necessarily work the best for someone else. The superb Henle editors usually only put in obvious fingering, so their scores are very minimal with fingering which allows the pianist/student to write in what works best for him or her. During the years that I taught, I think there was only one instance where a student wanted to change the fingering in one place in a Henle edition to fingering that worked best for him.

I did a lot of “baby-sitting” when I taught. Most of my students didn’t really have the interest in piano. Only a part of the person had an interest in music training. It was clear to me that a part of their person wanted to study piano but another part of them did not, so I think they had this struggle going on within them. One student even shared their psychological issues with me and confided in them that they were studying piano with me because their mother opposed music training when the student was a child and even though the person’s mother was dead, studying piano with me was this student’s way of “dissing” the mother with resentment for the years that the mother would not allow the student to study piano. The student also said that they chose me because I allowed them to progress at their chosen rate of speed. There are all kinds of psychological issues going on with students.

Most students lacked the discipline to practise and I always knew when they hadn’t practised so we practised during their class time with me. That way they got quality, disciplined practise time. Many students preferred it that way and they slowly accomplished playing the pieces they wanted to play. I didn’t select all the repertoire. If a student said they wanted to work on a piece they had heard somewhere I would order the score for them and we’d begin focusing on that piece, even if I knew the piece was way beyond the student’s skill level at that time. I usually didn’t tell the student that a piece was way beyond them. I would allow them to realise that for themselves after s/he began working on it. I would say on occasion when the student told me they wanted to work on something, “Oh that’s quite difficult. We can call that your challenge piece.” Some students had one or more challenge pieces. Many of my students stayed with me for years, often cancelling or going through a period of weeks where they would show up for class but would say, “I haven’t had much time to practise.” Nothing new there.

With most students, I and the student saw their progress despite it being slow-going. If they had practised on a regular basis most students could have accomplished a lot more and I occasionally gently said that/gave them that nudge in a subtle way. Some of my students went from playing very remedial music to playing rather advanced pieces such as a Rachmaninov Prelude or a Chopin Ballade. It took much longer than it would for a serious student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, for example, but again, a part of the student was interested.

I don’t miss teaching today. Although, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching — the few students who were serious students — and I do miss teaching students like that, but usually students like that study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music or a School of Music at one of the local universities or colleges. It was more work for me and a bit boring and frustrating teaching students who were not serious. With them, I was more “babysitting” than teaching. It was not work teaching students who were serious about it. That was a pleasure and I often went overtime getting so involved in watching and hearing the student’s progress.

But these days, how many people listen to piano music or have a serious interest in piano music? Not many. Other than shallow pop culture type stuff. Unfortunately, music education is not at all valued or respected by our shallow and stupid-is-in US culture. And as of this writing, El Hombre Naranja plans to eliminate funding for The National Endowment For The Arts. There’s always plenty of dinero/money to throw at, waste on the bottomless pit called the Military Industrial Complex Killing MachineTM but because of fucked-up priorities and septic politicians, we supposedly don’t have dinero for music and art programmes. That’s an indicator of a very a sick society.

When I started studying piano — I started playing “by ear” at age 5 and started studying the piano at age 8 — we had excellent music education programmes in the public schools, which had a major musical influence on me. In elementary school, I always looked forward to our music class. On the days that our music teacher had the day off, the teachers asked me to play for the students. I played “by ear” the same music she was teaching us to sing. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Another major musical influence on me included my excellent high school choral director whom I credit as directly responsible — along with my superb piano instructor who prepared me pianistically for my Conservatory audition — for inspiring me to pursue a degree in music. During that era, some people had a piano in their home. That’s not at all the case today. In fact, I have a sad but true story to tell about that. Mi amigo/My friend used to work in construction and whenever he went to the dump he came back telling me about all the pianos he saw at the dump, including grand pianos. He said some of them looked perfectly fine. Some looked like new pianos. (shaking my head in disgust). Only a very sick and septic society with no respect for music and music education throws pianos to the dump. It’s really disgusting what the US has become, which is why some of us accurately refer to Los Estados Unidos/the US as “The Cesspool” and it’s quickly being made even worse so by the insane, bloviating, bullying lunatic I refer to as El Hombre Naranja/The Orange Man and the basura around him. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Related:

Pianists: Use your scores. Screw these outdated traditions.